'Soul of a Banquet': Provincetown Review
Wayne Wang salutes gastronomical pioneer Cecilia Chiang, who introduced America to high-end Chinese cuisine in 1961 with her famed San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin.
Director Wayne Wang had one of his biggest successes with The Joy Luck Club, which traced the stories of a cluster of Chinese immigrant women in San Francisco. So there's a natural through-line to Soul of a Banquet, his charming valentine to celebrated restaurateur and chef Cecilia Chiang. The documentary recounts her privileged background in pre-Cultural Revolution China with poignant personal insight, and then shifts focus to follow in meticulous detail her preparation of a lavish celebratory feast. Foodies who turned out for films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi should eat up this Oscilloscope release, due out in the fall.
While Chinatown eateries had long flourished in the U.S., generally with untrained cooks and often with Americanized menus, Chiang is credited with introducing refined Chinese banquet cuisine to the country when she opened her renowned San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin in 1961. Fellow restaurateur Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who is interviewed here, has said Chiang was as influential in popularizing authentic Chinese food in America as Julia Child was with French cuisine.
Wang's no-frills film is modest and unfussy in approach, structured around an extended interview with Chiang at her home, and enhanced by additional context from Waters and food writer Ruth Reichl.
Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chiang was seventh in a well-heeled family of 12 children; they relocated to Beijing when she was four. While she describes her father as a kindly, nurturing type (he called her "No. 7"), her mother ran a strict household in which the kitchen was off limits to the kids. While the family lived in traditional splendor at a time when wealthy houses employed classically trained chefs, Chiang's mother also cared deeply about food and took an active role in its preparation. She served sumptuous meals to her husband, and while the children were forbidden from entering the dining room, he snuck them in during mealtimes, patiently teaching them how to savor food and identify distinctive flavors.
While Chiang's mother's feet had been bound as a child, she and her sisters were spared that painful tradition and all of them were put through college, making the family also somewhat progressive for the time.
Chiang became an "accidental restaurateur" while visiting her sister in San Francisco. She lent money to acquaintances planning on opening a restaurant, and when they backed out of the lease, decided to pursue the venture herself. But given that she spoke only Mandarin, the Cantonese-speaking Chinatown community was unwelcoming to her. That potential obstacle only fueled her ambition to do something different from the ubiquitous chop suey.
Waters, who became a close friend early on, describes Chiang's dedication to schooling her diners in the full experience of a Chinese banquet — guiding them through the textures, colors and tastes, the health benefits and palate-cleansing aspects of certain dishes, the precise order and portion size of the courses. Chiang brought to her culinary arts a pride and knowledge of a China which by that time no longer existed.
While supplemented by photographic material and archive footage, the film's first half is primarily a fascinating oral history. And though the subject herself is a woman defined to some degree by her poise and reserve, when she switches from heavily accented English to Mandarin to share what became of her family during the Cultural Revolution, the account is emotional and deeply moving. Returning to China in the early 1970s on a limited-visa visit, she discovered the harrowing conditions they had been forced into, some of them living as street beggars or in labor camps, tortured and persecuted over charges of decadence. Chiang's recollections of saying goodbye to her ailing father are heartbreaking.
This section also details how Mao all but eradicated the elevated gastronomical traditions of China by imposing utilitarian canteens with very basic set menus. That impression is confirmed by Waters when she describes a culinary tour of China on which she and California chef Marion Cunningham accompanied Chiang years later. Most of the great chefs had left and were cooking in Taiwan. As Reichl points out, that gap in food history placed many new-generation Chinese chefs at a disadvantage: "You need to know the classics before you can throw them out."
There's a beautiful thread running through the film of women talking with passion and dedication about food and hospitality as a profession, an art form and a sensual pleasure. That combination is much in evidence as Waters commissions Chiang to prepare a traditional Chinese banquet for invited guests as one of several events to mark the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse.
Wang and his editor Richard Wong (who doubles as cameraman) divide this second half of the film into preparation, execution and service. The dishes include abalone sashimi, pork kidneys with green onion, pork belly with black sesame, rabbit with lettuce shoots, Hunan sweet and spicy sea bass, and "beggar’s chicken," a painstakingly prepared, succulent-looking roast in which the whole bird is marinated, stuffed, wrapped in lotus leaves and packed into molding clay before baking — as if in a kiln.
Wang closes with a lovely anecdote from Waters about once being served a spectacular soup at The Mandarin just as an earthquake struck, causing the tureen and bowls to tremble: "I just thought it was part of the performance." Accompanied by Dean Harada's gentle melodic music, this tribute is distinguished by the genuine warmth displayed toward its subject; the film is capped off by elegant photographs of Chiang in hostess mode over the decades.
Production company: Wayne Wang Productions
With: Cecilia Chiang, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl
Director: Wayne Wang
Producers: Wayne Wang, Richard Wong, Jonathan Bing
Executive producers: Alice Waters, Cecilia Chiang
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Editor: Richard Wong
Music: Dean Harada
No rating; 78 minutes.