Joyce Chen (1917 – 1994)

September 6, 2017

By Helen and Stephen Chen

Celebrated restaurateur, cookbook author, culinary television personality, and entrepreneur Joyce Chen was born in Beijing, China on September 14, 1917 and grew up in a highly-regarded family in Jiangsu Jiading, a suburb of Shanghai. She was the youngest in a family of nine children and acquired her English name from her school teacher, who gave her the name Joyce because she was always joyful.

As recounted in her cookbook, the Joyce Chen Cook Book, Chen was always interested in cooking and was encouraged by her mother to learn from the family chef so she “wouldn’t eat raw rice…”

Chen fled the communist regime in 1949 with her husband, Thomas, and their two small children. On the recommendation from Chen’s relative, a Harvard-educated Chinese journalist, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, living first on Kirkland Street and a few years later on Alpine Street near Fresh Pond. Soon Chinese graduate students from Harvard, MIT, and Boston University flocked to Chen’s family home to socialize and enjoy the cuisine of Shanghai and Beijing that they missed in America.

Chen’s first foray into introducing her cuisine to Westerners was at her children’s Cambridge school fundraising event, called the Buckingham Circus. Chen made egg rolls for the food table, and when she didn’t see them out later, she surmised that they were not popular and therefore were put away out of sight. To her surprise, she was enthusiastically greeted with requests for ” more egg rolls” as the first batch sold out immediately. Chen went home to make more, and the legendary “Joyce Chen egg rolls” entered into the school’s history.

Chen taught the cuisine of her homeland first in her own home and then at adult education centers in Cambridge and Boston. Her friends encouraged her to open a restaurant, and in 1958, she and her husband opened New England’s first Mandarin Chinese restaurant on Concord Avenue. She introduced classic Northern Chinese dishes such as Peking Duck, Moo Shi Pork, and Hot and Sour Soup, and she coined the name Peking Ravioli for the first potstickers to be served in New England. To this day, New Englanders still commonly call potstickers Peking Ravioli.

The restaurant experienced tremendous success and awakened Americans, accustomed to Chinese-American fare such as chow mein and chop suey, to new and authentic flavors and tastes of China.

The beloved restaurant was the most famous Chinese restaurant in America in the 1960s and served customers from all walks of life. Notable fans of Chen’s restaurant included Nathan Pusey, president of Harvard; John Kenneth Galbraith; Julius Stratton, president of MIT; Danny Kaye; Beverly Sills; James Beard; Julia Child; and Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, who proclaimed Chen’s Peking Duck better than those in Beijing! She opened a second restaurant called Joyce Chen’s Small Eating Place in Central Square in 1967, after MIT professors complained that her first restaurant favored the Harvard community. The last Joyce Chen restaurant closed in 1988.

In 1962 Chen published the first edition of the Joyce Chen Cook Book, compiling home style recipes of Mandarin, Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing origin. In 1968 she hosted the nationally broadcast PBS show “Joyce Chen Cooks,” introducing thousands to Northern Chinese cuisine. Seeing a dearth of proper utensils for Chinese cooking, Chen designed her own cookware and utensils, introducing the very first flat bottom wok which she dubbed the Peking Pan. After her death, the cookware company was sold in 2003.

At the Joyce Chen Restaurant, a number of signature dishes such Kung Pao Chicken and Yu Hsiang Eggplant were so popular that Chen decided to make the cooking sauces for the restaurant herself so that the dishes would be uniform in quality and taste, no matter which chef cooked it. The sauces were embraced by the restaurant chefs, inspiring Chen to bottle them and make them available to the general public. This was a bold and unique move at the time, as bottled stir-fry sauces did not yet exist in the American market. The company, Joyce Chen Foods, is now run by her son, Stephen, and continues to offer Chen’s iconic frozen Peking Raviolis (potstickers) and healthier Chinese sauces and ingredients, all available in supermarkets.

After president Richard Nixon opened diplomatic relations with China in February 1972, Chen and her son, Stephen, and daughter, Helen, were some of the first Americans to return to her homeland. The result of this trip was a PBS special called “Joyce Chen’s China.”

In September 2014 Chen was honored with her own U.S. postage stamp as part of a set of commemoratives of American culinary legends.

Chen died in 1994. Her granite flush marker reads “Beloved Mother” at the top. Her Chinese name, Liao Jia Ai (traditionally, Chinese women maintain their maiden names) is written in Chinese characters, and an inscription below reads: “To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die.”

Article by Helen and Stephen Chen


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