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. She died of Alzheimer's disease in 1994. Four years after her death, Joyce Chen was included in the 1998 James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame. In 2012, the city of Cambridge held their first Central Square "Festival of Dumplings" in honor of Joyce Chen's birthday.
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.
Chen introduced Bostonians to Northern Chinese (Mandarin) and Shanghainese dishes, including Peking duck, moo shi 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. It was small restaurant that seated 60 people; people lined up to get Chen's Chinese food. According to Stephen Chen, at this restaurant his mother introduced the Northern style of Dim Sum. 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 closed in 1973, the building was demolished, and the MIT dorm Next House was 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. 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 invented and held the patent to the flat bottom wok with 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.
Chen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1985  and succumbed to it in 1994. Posthumously, Joyce Chen was included in the 1998 James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame. In September 2012, the city of Cambridge held their first "Festival of Dumplings" in Central Square to honor Joyce Chen's birthday.
Joyce Chen's son Stephen Chen is president of Joyce Chen Foods, Inc., which sells Chinese potstickers, Chinese cooking oils, sauces, condiments, and spices, all inspired by Joyce Chen's recipes. Daughter Helen Chen markets "Helen's Asian Kitchen Cuisine" 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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