At a time when many Americans were getting cooking advice from Betty Crocker, Joyce Chen helped set the template for the modern celebrity chef. Her culinary career wasn’t limited to one box. After moving to the U.S. from China during the Communist Revolution, she opened a restaurant, wrote a cookbook, and starred in her own cooking program. Though she didn’t achieve the same level of fame as her friend and colleague Julia Child, Chen is credited with bringing Chinese cuisine into thousands of American kitchens during the mid-20th century. Here are more facts to know about the influential Chinese American chef.
1. Joyce Chen learned to cook from the family chef.
The daughter of a wealthy railroad administrator and city executive, Joyce Chen had a privileged upbringing in pre-Communist China. She learned to cook by watching her family in the kitchen as well their private chef. By age 18 she had gained enough culinary expertise to host her first professional dinner. When she was forced to flee Shanghai with her husband and two children during the Communist Revolution, she brought her knowledge of the country’s cuisine with her to the U.S.
2. She starred in a Chinese opera as a teen.
Joyce Chen was a woman of many talents. Before leaving China, she sang the lead role in the opera White Snake in her late teen years. The show retold the Tang Dynasty-era legend of a snake who transforms into a woman to find love. The role required some serious vocal chops, but Chen decided to pursue a career in front of the stove rather than on stage (though her experience in show business would later come in handy) .
3. Joyce Chen cooked for Harvard heavyweights.
The Chens settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard and MIT. There they met many students from China who craved the cuisine from their home country. The demand for authentic Chinese food, plus the positive reception to the cooking she’d done for her children’s school events, encouraged Chen to open the Joyce Chen Restaurant in 1958. Her numbered, bilingual menu of American and Chinese dishes attracted Asian expats as well as lifelong Americans. Her loyal diners included the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard president Nathan Pusey, and President Eisenhower’s cardiologist Paul Dudley White.
4. She self-published her first cookbook.
By the early 1960s, Joyce Chen had garnered enough clout to write her first cookbook. Her publisher refused her demands to include full-color images of the recipes, pushing her to publish the book on her own dime. The investment paid off; she sold more than 6000 copies of Joyce Chen Cook Book to her restaurant patrons before it went to the printers. The book (which came with a forward penned by Dudley White) was written as an entry point into China’s culinary culture for beginners. In addition to traditional recipes from around the country, she included tutorials on the basics of eating with chopsticks, cooking rice, and preparing and serving tea. The publication would go on to sell more than 70,000 copies.
5. She shared a cooking show set with Julia Child.
Joyce Chen’s career soared to new heights when she landed her own cooking show in 1966. A few years before, The French Chef had debuted on PBS and created the blueprint for the modern cooking show. Julia Child introduced millions of American viewers to classic French cooking, and PBS hoped Chen would do the same for Chinese cuisine. Joyce Chen Cooks took clear inspiration from The French Chef—the two programs even shared the same set—but the new show made its own mark. Chen took the same approach to cooking in her show as she had with her cookbook. Chinese dishes, tools, and ingredients were even less familiar to American home cooks than French cuisine was at the time, and she managed to present them in a fun and accessible package. She also made history as one of the first non-white television personalities to host a cooking show with national distribution in the U.S.
6. She patented her own cookware.
After finding success as a restaurateur, cookbook author, and cooking show host, Joyce Chen continued to add achievements to her resume. Launched in the early 1970s, Joyce Chen Products brought Chinese utensils and cookware to the American market. In addition to selling traditional tools, she patented a new type of flat-bottomed wok with a handle, which she dubbed the “Peking Wok.” Her entrepreneurship eventually extended to prepared foods and condiments with the release of Joyce Chen Specialty Foods in 1982.
7. The USPS immortalized Joyce Chen on a stamp.
Joyce Chen died in 1994 after being diagnosed with dementia, but her legacy as a pioneering chef has grown. In 2014, her portrait was featured in the USPS’s “Celebrity Chefs Forever” stamp series, which also spotlighted such culinary legends as James Beard and Edna Lewis. A picture book about her life titled Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge was published in 2017—the year she would have turned 100.