Sylvia Cheng, aka Madame Wu, 1915-2022
How you doin’? 你好嗎 (Nǐ hǎo ma). Last week Madame Wu, a legend of American-style Chinese food passed away at the age of 106. She reinvented the original Chinese Chicken Salad. The late Merv Griffin once said of her, aside from being a successful restaurateur, "Everybody in this town knows and loves Madame Wu. One of the dearest, sweetest, most elegant women I've ever known."
Sylvia Cheng, aka Madame Wu, was born into a wealthy, cultured family in Jiujiang, China in 1915. She was raised by her grandfather, who owned a bank and a department store—showering her with gifts and special treats, but he was also wise enough to teach her discipline. She was brought up in the traditional fashion, learning respect and good manners. She did not have a deprived childhood. When not away at boarding school, mooning over photos of Cary Grant, she would spend many hours covertly watching her grandfather's servants preparing delicious delicacies in the off-limits kitchen. As she wrote in her book Cooking with Madame Wu, she learned that "eating well-balanced meals containing selected herbs and spices would improve health, beauty, sexual vitality and longevity."
After her beloved grandfather's death and the outbreak of World War II, Sylvia’s life changed. Her extended family moved to Shanghai and then to Hong Kong. A free flight to Calcutta resulted in an offer that would change Sylvia's life. A friend in India was about to join his wife in the U.S. He said she could come along if she agreed to go to college there. While pursuing an education degree at Columbia University, she became acquainted with King Yan Wu, a successful engineer from a distinguished Chinese family (both his father and grandfather served as China's ambassador to the U.S.). They were soon married and had three children.
Sylvia settled into the role of sophisticated stay-at-home spouse and hostess. A personal chef, provided by her mother-in-law, assisted her. Eventually, Sylvia began to cook more herself and claimed she could prepare a full Chinese dinner for her family in under an hour. This was preferable to the Chinese restaurants in New York, which often left her disappointed. She was appalled by the manners of the waiters and the heavy faux-Cantonese dishes.
By 1959, the Wu’s were living in Los Angeles. When her children were in their teens and didn't need her much, she began to think about getting a job. One day she told King she wanted to open a Chinese restaurant. Thinking she wasn't serious he made no objections, so she drove around and found a location in West Los Angeles. When King realized she wasn’t kidding and it wasn’t a whim, he tried to talk her out of it. In those days, most people who opened a Chinese restaurant were former waiters or cooks with no business sense. Sylvia had good sense.
In 1959, Madame Wu's Garden opened on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The intimate space seated fewer than 50 people. They had just two cooks, two waiters and a dishwasher. Coming from a wealthy family Madame Wu had friends in high places. One such friend was the president of NBC who helped her write a letter promoting the opening of the restaurant, which she sent to the membership of her church and her daughter's exclusive school. That letter really brought the customers. Later Sylvia recalled, "We sold out the first night and people were lined up outside for six months." My parents were in the opening crowd which became an instant hit with the Hollywood in-crowd who were, charmed by Sylvia's impeccable manners and discreet, reverential treatment of them.
Sylvia knew what her customers wanted and reinvented a brand of Cantonese signature dishes suited to the less sophisticated and informed American palate. Her Chinese friends would criticize the food, saying it wasn't authentic. But she was laughing all the way to the bank and telling them, “Look around, honey. Do you see any Chinese [people] dining here?'"
Her spareribs, Peking duck, crab puffs, and shrimp toast were legendary. Her teen-age crush, Cary Grant (who would become a close friend), told her about a shredded chicken salad he had enjoyed at another restaurant, so she developed her own Shredded Chinese Chicken Salad, which is now imitated at restaurants around the globe.
Here is my version (from China Rose) of Madame Wu’s famous Chinese Chicken Salad.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
Put together time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Peanut oil for deep frying
8 won ton wrappers, refrigerated cut in 1/8-inch strips (store bought)
1/3 (6-ounce) package white fine rice noodles
2 chicken thighs or breasts, skin on—bone in
1 teaspoon prepared yellow mustard
1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons toasted almonds, slivered
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, white parts only
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, shredded (or greens)
ChefSecret: Are you feeling really lazy or just don’t want to fry today? Here is an easy option—substitute leftover turkey or store-bought rotisserie or barbecued chicken for the cooked chicken. Substitute 2 cups of canned shoestring potatoes and one cup of canned fried onions instead of the fried won ton strips and rice noodles. It’s not the same, but it is passable.
Quip of the Day: “It is a little thing to starve to death; it is a serious matter to lose one's virtue.” ~ Chinese Proverb
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