Cambridge dumpling festival a tribute to Joyce Chen
Local chef hailed as culinary pioneer
CAMBRIDGE — Back in the ’60s, there was a local rule of thumb about Chinese food.
If you wanted Polynesian-themed cocktails and chicken fingers alongside moo goo gai pan, a slew of tiki-styled restaurants awaited your pleasure. For the real deal, hot and sour soup, Peking duck, and moo shu pork, where there wasn’t one menu for Chinese customers and another for Americans, you headed to Joyce Chen Restaurant.
“Joyce Chen was where you got your parents to take you — if they were adventurous,” recalled Dibba Lerret, who persuaded her parents more than a few times.
In an era before Emeril, Rachael, and Wolfgang, Chen was a household name, heralded as a pioneer who popularized authentic Chinese food and a wildly successful entrepreneur who opened four restaurants, penned a cookbook, and stir-fried vegetables in a wok on her PBS show “Joyce Chen Cooks.”
On Sunday, fans of Chen’s turned out in Central Square for Chen-inspired dumplings, or as Chen called them, “Peking ravioli” — a carbs and cabbage jubilee to honor the birthday of the woman credited with changing the way the country thinks about Chinese food.
The festival coincided with the release of a US postage stamp featuring a portrait of Chen — one of five chefs being honored by the Postal Service for contributions to American cuisine. Another chef being honored with a stamp also forged her reputation in Cambridge — Julia Child, a friend of Chen’s.
Many festival-goers remembered Chen as a familiar face and a warm, cheerful presence who greeted patrons at her restaurants even after she’d gained fame.
“Oh how I remember her emerald green dress with a high mandarin collar with a slit up the side,” said Barbara Chen, whose parents took her to Chen’s restaurants when she was young. She later met Chen’s eldest son through a mutual friend. They married. “I liked her before I liked her son.”
Joyce Chen was born in Beijing and her family later lived in Shanghai. Her father held a high-level government job and parties were often held in the family home, catered by chefs whom she watched with rapt fascination. In 1949, Chen, her husband, and two children, Henry and Helen, fled the Communists, departing on the last boat to leave before the port closed. A third son, Stephen, was born in the United States.
The family took up residence on Kirkland Street in Cambridge, the city that Chen’s cousin had recommended after he attended Harvard. Chen discovered that Americans liked her cooking when she sent a batch of egg rolls to be sold at her children’s school fund-raiser bazaar.
Curious to see if the egg rolls were selling, Chen paid a visit. She noticed the egg rolls were not on the table with other baked goods from parents.
“She thought people were embarrassed by them and had hidden them,” Helen Chen recalled.
In fact, they had sold out.
The Chen home became a haven for Harvard and MIT students eager for food of their homeland.
“They would say: Why don’t you open a restaurant?’ ” Helen Chen recalled.
When Chen opened the Joyce Chen Restaurant on Concord Avenue in 1958, she decided that everyone would have access to the same food — Americans and Chinese would get the same menu, which didn’t always happen at other Chinese restaurants. She solved a communication problem between her Chinese cooks and American waiters by numbering the dishes. And she piqued curiosity in moo shu pork and other Mandarin dishes by offering a buffet, where she placed American food at the front end and Chinese dishes at the back. Soon, she noticed American dishes were being ignored. She replaced them with Chinese ones.
“In the 1960s, Joyce Chen was the most famous Chinese restaurant in America,” Jack Thomas wrote in the Globe in 1994. “Her food captured the fancy of blue-collar workers and academics and even food critics. Nathan Pusey, then president of Harvard, dined at Joyce Chen, as did John Kenneth Galbraith, James Beard, Julia Child, and Henry Kissinger when he was secretary of state.”
Chen went on to open three more restaurants — one on Memorial Drive, another on Massachusetts Avenue, and another on Rindge Avenue. She died in 1994 after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Jamme Chantler grew up watching Chen on her television show with his mother, a French Canadian who found Chen’s cooking exotic. Chantler went on to open Thelonious Monkfish on Massachusetts Avenue, an Asian fusion restaurant.
On Sunday, he was serving up Peking ravioli outside the restaurant as part of the Dumpling Festival. Chantler said his restaurant stands today because of the legacy of Chen.
“Julia Child made it OK to experiment with French food. Joyce Chen made it OK to explore other kinds of food,” he said.