Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Joyce Chen

Episode Summary

Joyce Chen (1917-1994) was an Chinese-American chef, television personality, and entrepreneur who popularized Chinese cuisine in the U.S.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

I’m so excited about our new theme, Tastemakers. All month we’re featuring women who changed the culinary game. For much of history, women have been relegated to domestic tasks. Yet female innovators in food and beverage are often undercelebrated. Let’s change that. 

Today we’re talking about a chef, restaurateur , cookbook author and TV show host who popularized Chinese cuisine in the U.S. Meet Joyce Chen.

Joyce Chen was born on September 12, 1917 in Beijing, China. Her father was a railroad administrator and city executive. He hired a chef to cook all the family’s meals.

 From a young age, Joyce loved to cook. She learned about Chinese cuisine from the family chef and other family members in her home kitchen. 

 By the age of 18, Joyce had already cooked her first professional dinner. 

In 1949, during the Chinese Communist Revolution, Joyce, her husband and their two children were living in Shanghai. They decided to leave and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

In her new town, Joyce often met students from China attending Harvard and MIT who said they missed the food from home. Joyce cooked for them and also cooked for events at her kids’ school. Her culinary skills were lauded by both audiences and the praise inspired Joyce to open up a restaurant in Cambridge in 1958 called Joyce Chen Restaurant. 

At Joyce Chen Restaurant, Joyce served both authentic Chinese and American style dishes. She wanted to make it easy for diners to try new foods. She often served buffet style meals so customers could test out everything. Her menus were multilingual and she numbered menu items in order to ease communications between workers who spoke different languages. Joyce’s innovations are still commonly used in Chinese restaurants today. 

Joyce then started teaching cooking classes. Two years later, in 1962, Joyce self-published a groundbreaking cookbook. Established  publishers initially didn’t want to work with her because she insisted on including color photos of the food. The book was a combination of recipes, cooking tips, and instructions for a variety of Chinese cooking traditions. The forward to the cookbook was written by President Eisenhower’s heart surgeon, Dr. Paul Dudley White, who praised Joyce for promoting healthier dishes. Joyce’s cookbook  was eventually published and released nationally by J.B. Lippincott Company. It sold more than 70,000 copies and was reprinted for many decades. 

In 1967, Joyce opened a second restaurant in Cambridge and starred in her own cooking show on PBS called Joyce Chen Cooks. The TV show was a major hit and gave Joyce the opportunity to introduce Chinese cuisine into thousands of home kitchens across America. She filmed on the same set as Julia Child and the two became good friends. As Joyce’s popularity grew, she introduced dishes including favorites like Peking Duck, Moo Shi Pork, Scallion pancakes, soup dumplings and hot and sour soup to U.S. audiences. 

Joyce continued expanding her restaurant presence in the Cambridge area and opened two larger Joyce Chen Restaurants in 1969 and 1973. 

She also expanded her brand into cookware and grocery. In 1970, she created and patented the Peking Wok, a flat bottom stir-fry pan and its handle. The following year, she designed and sold a line of Chinese utensils. She also introduced a line of Chinese sauces and oils for supermarkets. Her three children, Henry, Helen, and Stephen, worked with her and eventually took over operations. 

Joyce Chen had become a household name.

In the early 1980s, Joyce was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. She passed away on August 23, 1994. In 2014, Joyce was featured on a U.S. stamp in honor of her accomplishments. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another incredible tastemaker. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!