||A major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject. (September 2014)|
September 14, 1917|
|Died||August 23, 1994
|Cooking style||Northern-style Chinese cuisine|
Joyce Chen was credited with popularizing northern-style Chinese cuisine in the United States, coining the name "Peking Raviolis" for potstickers, inventing and holding the patent to the flat bottom wok with handle (also known as a stir fry pan), and developing the first line of bottled Chinese stir fry sauces for the US market. Starting in 1958, she operated several popular Chinese restaurants in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Joyce Chen died of Alzheimer's disease in 1994; since then, her accomplishments and influence on American cuisine have been honored by the US Postal Service and the city of Cambridge.
Born in Beijing to a high ranking family in the Qing dynasty, Chen and husband Thomas with their children Henry and Helen left Shanghai in 1949 as the Communists were taking over the country. Chen and her family ultimately settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her son Stephen was born.
In her book, Joyce Chen Cook Book, she said that she grew up with a family chef who left to cook for her father's friend, "Uncle Li," who became the Chinese ambassador to Russia. At that point her mother and her governess cooked the family meals, and Joyce Chen watched, and she learned.
In 1958, Joyce Chen opened her first restaurant, "Joyce Chen Restaurant", at 617 Concord Avenue in Cambridge. According to her son Stephen, here she pioneered the all-you-can-eat Chinese dinner buffet to boost sales on otherwise slow Tuesday and Wednesday nights. She also used the buffet format to allow customers to sample unfamiliar but authentic dishes at a pace of their own choosing. She promoted healthy Chinese cooking, and refused to use Red Dye No. 2 and other food coloring in her restaurants.
Chen introduced Bostonians to Northern Chinese (Mandarin) and Shanghainese dishes, including Peking duck, moo shu pork, hot and sour soup, and potstickers, which she call "Peking Ravioli" or "Ravs". The first restaurant remained open until 1971. Members of Bolt, Beranek and Newman's IMP team, when they were working on the first IMPs to create the ARPANET in 1969, would eat Chen's food at her restaurant, which was located next door to BBN.
Joyce Chen's second restaurant, "The Joyce Chen Small Eating Place", was opened in 1967 on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, located between Harvard University and MIT. Joyce Chen's son, Stephen Chen, also noted that the opening of this restaurant changed the landscape of the Central Square area in Cambridge MA. Up until then, it was a retail and industrial area, dominated by the NECCO (New England Confectionary Company)factory. People lined up to get Chen's Chinese food at this small restaurant, which seated 60 people. According to Stephen Chen, at this restaurant his mother introduced the Northern style of Dim Sum, and the now popular "Soup Dumplings" (Shao Long Bao). This restaurant was very popular with computer hackers. It closed in 1988.
In 1970, Joyce Chen opened her third restaurant, a much larger space seating 500 people, in an existing building located on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. This restaurant benefited from its proximity to MIT and Harvard. However, this restaurant was required to close in 1973, and the building was demolished so that the MIT dorm Next House could be built on the site.
In 1973, Joyce Chen opened her fourth restaurant in a modernist custom-designed building at 390 Rindge Avenue, near Fresh Pond. This restaurant, also called "Joyce Chen Restaurant", seated 263. It operated for 25 years, closing in 1998.
Joyce Chen was a warm hostess who formed relationships with many guests, including John Kenneth Galbraith, James Beard, Julia Child, Henry Kissinger, Beverly Sills, and Danny Kaye. A former Harvard president called her eating establishment "not merely a restaurant, but a cultural exchange center".
Following the 1958 opening of her first restaurant, in 1960 Joyce Chen began teaching Chinese cooking at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and the Boston Center for Adult Education. There were waiting lists for her classes. At this time, she introduced many Americans to home style and gourmet Chinese cooking techniques.
In 1962, Joyce Chen published her influential cookbook, The Joyce Chen Cook Book. Publishers had balked at her insistence on color pictures of food, so she had the book published privately at her own expense. She pre-sold over 6,000 copies of her book at her restaurants before the book was printed. MSG was popular at the time, and was included in most of the recipes.
In 1967, Joyce Chen starred in her own cooking show called Joyce Chen Cooks, on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Twenty-six episodes were filmed on the same set as The French Chef (featuring Julia Child) in the studios of WGBH in Boston. The show aired in the US, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai later said of Joyce Chen, "She is the Chinese Julia Child [...] Joyce Chen helped elevate what Chinese food was about. She didn't dumb it down. She opened people's eyes to what good Chinese could taste like."
With a spirit of adventure, according to her son Stephen Chen, in 1968 Joyce Chen took her then 16-year-old son Stephen, and 20-year-old daughter Helen on a trip around the world on Pan Am Flight 001. Joyce Chen, Stephen, and Helen also traveled to China in 1972, the same year that President Nixon first visited China. A PBS documentary on this trip was produced. Soon after Joyce Chen's China aired, she and her family were the victims of a home invasion by five intruders who had seen the film, according to her son Stephen Chen.
In 1971, Joyce Chen launched a line of Chinese cooking utensils. At that time she helped popularize and held the patent to the flat bottom wok with a handle, also known as a stir fry pan, and sold polyethylene cutting boards (Sumitomo Bakelite). In 1982, "Joyce Chen Specialty Foods" was formed to sell bottled sauces.
According to Stephen Chen, in 1976 Joyce Chen suffered a serious injury to her right hand when she dropped a large glass jar that contained her stir fry sauce. She underwent four to five hours of microsurgery, but never fully recovered the use of her right hand.
Posthumously in 1998, Joyce Chen's contributions to cuisine were described in Beard House, The Magazine of the James Beard Foundation. In September 2012, the city of Cambridge held their first "Festival of Dumplings" in Central Square to honor Joyce Chen's birthday. There have since been dumpling festivals in 2013 and 2014. The New York Historical Society exhibit, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion (September 26, 2014 - April 19, 2015) reviews the history of the Chinese in America, and features Joyce Chen's contributions.
On September 26, 2014, the US Postal Service issued 20 million copies of the "Celebrity Chefs Forever" stamp series, which featured portraits by Jason Seiler of five American chefs: Joyce Chen, Julia Child, James Beard, Edna Lewis, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. According to the Postal Service, "Joyce Chen is one of the great popularizers of Chinese food. From her landmark restaurant in the Boston area to her cookbooks and trailblazing PBS television show, Chen invited newcomers to sample unfamiliar dishes in ways that firmly establlished Chinese cuisine in the United States."
Joyce Chen's son Stephen Chen is president of Joyce Chen Foods, Inc., which sells products inspired by Joyce Chen's recipes, including Asian sauces, oils, condiments, spices and frozen potstickers. Daughter Helen Chen markets "Helen's Asian Kitchen" products for Harold Import Company. She also has written three cookbooks of her own. Son Henry Chen (d. 2007) owned "Joyce Chen Unlimited", a retail store in Acton, Massachusetts, which closed in March 2008.
Many Joyce Chen disciples still own and run Boston area Chinese restaurants. Among them is Pui Chan at "The Wok" in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Chan worked for Chen starting in 1976 at the Alewife location. Chan opened his own restaurant with Chen's encouragement in 1978.
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