Back in 2011, when it seemed like the entire Bay Area was seized with Chez Panisse 40th anniversary fever, Hong Kong-born, San Francisco-based filmmaker Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Joy Luck Club, Smoke) asked Chez Panisse's founder, Alice Waters, if there was a role he could play. Waters suggested Wang train his camera on then-92-year-old restaurateur Cecilia Chiang as she prepared and hosted a banquet in her home apartment. Chiang is credited with bringing authentic Chinese cuisine to the United States, an achievement Waters has famously compared to Julia Child's introducing of French cuisine to everyday American palates.
Once Wang began filming Chiang, however, he couldn't stop. Before he knew it, his film-clip assignment had blossomed into a full-length documentary in which food writer Ruth Reichl provides context and Alice Waters beams so lovingly at Chiang that it's clear that the food world regards Chiang as a national treasure.
Called Soul of a Banquet, Wang's quiet documentary is all things: a history lesson in Chinese food in America; a heartbreaking tale about a woman separated from her family; and in the second half, when Wang studies Chiang and other chefs as they cook, a mind-bendingly hunger-inducing piece of you-are-there filmmaking.
Now's the time to block out a couple of days to schedule a quickie road trip to San Francisco: Soul of a Banquet will be shown for the first time on Wednesday, April 10, at the San Francisco Film Society, followed by a multi-course meal by chef Andy Tsai and Yank Sing Restaurant. Fittingly enough, the proceeds will benefit Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project.
Recently, we caught up with Wang, who explains how he fell in love with the project, where to get sweet and sour pork and, thrillingly enough, he weighs in on the age old question: Where does one get better Chinese food — San Francisco or here?
Squid Ink: When you look at Soul of a Banquet now what do you like the most about it?
Wayne Wang: The thing I liked the most about it is that unless you are from an older generation, people don't know about Cecilia Chiang. To be able to tell her story and also, at the same time, be able to tell the story of Chinese cooking in America, which is changing quite a bit, was something I felt really good about.
In the documentary, Ruth talks about the tradition and history that was lost because of the Cultural Revolution in China and also because the immigrants who came from China weren't always trained cooks.
SI: They didn't know how to cook at all?
WW: They were often home cooks who because of circumstances decided to open restaurants. The restaurants also cater to American/Western tastes so we lost a certain sense of what authentic Chinese food is and can be. That's the really interesting thing about Chinese restaurants in America. Not that I don't like that kind of cooking. I am personally kind of a fan of bastardized Chinese-American food. At the same time I miss the real taste of the more classic Chinese food.
SI: Details please!
WW: There's a lot of diners that serve Chinese-American food, and those don't even exist anymore. I kind of miss those places with the sweet and sour pork done in an America style. If you go to the middle of the country — I spent some time in Louisiana — and there's a lot of Americanized Chinese food that's really tasty. I've spent a lot of time in the South: I made a film there called Because of Winn-Dixie, and another called Last Holiday with Queen Latifah. Most of the Chinese food there is actually deep fried like everything in the South is. And everything is red. Red and fried. Even the won tons are never in soups; they're deep-fried and served with a sweet and sour sauce.
SI: Did you know Cecilia Chiang before you started working on Soul of a Banquet?
WW: I knew Cecilia socially on and off over the years. I remember meeting her when she was in her 70's and she was still taking mountain hikes to the Himalayas. She's now 94, and could out run and out walk me. And out think me, too. She's really bright and very physically fit. I got to know her better through this process. Her own story is so fascinating, and I started digging into that.
SI: What part made you think, “This is an amazing story!”
WW: Her family. How she grew up. The Cultural Revolution. How she lost most of her family members. Things like that became so interesting and kind of relates to the Chinese in America and the food. I found out how close she is to Alice Waters and how they went to China together. This isn't in the film. We could have gone on and on. But they were really good friends and we filmed them together, and Ruth is also a good friend of hers. And it all kind of snowballed into this film.
SI: Was there a turning point where you realized you were in the middle of a project?
WW: There wasn't a conscious thing. It just kept going with Cecilia for the last two years. Then I was in New York and I was trying to track down Ruth who I know from the 70's and 80's when she was living in Berkeley. We wrote an article together about Chinese food in America at that time for New West, which became California Magazine. That was one of the very early articles about Chinese food in San Francisco. Then she went to the LA Times and wrote another more elaborate article that was all about California Chinese restaurants. Then later she wrote one for the New York Times. And she knows Cecilia quite well and she became the frame for the whole film.
SI: At one point, you use sub-titles at one point when Cecilia Chiang starts speaking in Chinese. The transition is incredibly powerful. What prompted that decision?
WW: The first time I heard the story, she told it to me personally and it was quite moving. It's also quite relevant because in the context of China today people are not aware of how the revolution broke a lot of history and tradition. The good and the bad of the Cultural Revolution is that it took a stance about the bourgeoisie and decadent culture, but, at the same time, a lot of things got destroyed.
The first time I shot her telling that story, though, I shot [her telling it] in English and it wasn't as strong as when she told it to me personally and in Chinese. So I went back and said, “Tell it to me again in Chinese,” and I found it much more powerful, emotional. But her story isn't unique. There are a lot of people with that story from China. Whether it's about their family or themselves. It's a story that needs to be told and people should know about it, know that it's part of our history.
SI: The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum recently wrote about food preparation as crazy high drama in cooking competition shows. What was your approach to making chopping and slicing come to life?
WW: With a lot of cooking shows when food is being shot it's always cut up into pieces and there's music and people are always talking over the cooking. I remember being in Germany when I was on the jury at the [59th] Berlin Film Festival and I watched a late-night German cooking show. It was in black and white; it was an old one and on it nobody talked. I think that was the inspiration — that was my only trick, really.
I mean, I wanted to be authentic, to document longer than you would on a cooking show. But I knew I didn't want talking over it. [In Soul of a Banquet] all you hear is the real sounds of cutting, frying, whatever type of cooking was going on. There's no dialogue going over any of it. I didn't want things explained to me. I wanted it to just be the food being prepared and what the food looked like. It's all visual.
SI: The delicate knife skills alone!
WW: There's a lot of cutting with Chinese food. The proportion of every ingredient has to be right. You don't cut food on your own plate. It's done for you and you eat it with chopsticks. Everything is cooked in a process, a procedure. For example the bacon with sticky rice and sesame. It's a really specific dish — every step of the way you have to do the right thing. Those are all quite interesting to watch.
SI: Do you cook? Did you pick up any culinary secrets?
WW: I don't cook. I don't know how to cook any of these things so it was fascinating for me to see the step-by-step precision of these things.
SI: You moved from Hong Kong to the United States in the mid-60's. Did you use to go to Cecilia Chiang's legendary restaurant — The Mandarin — back in the day.
WW: The Mandarin was one of my favorite Chinese restaurants and I went there a lot. I also went to the one in Los Angeles and the café — Mandarette. I think there's a different owner now. [Cecilia's son] Phillip sold it.
SI: So he could go off and make a bazillion dollars as the co-owner of P.F. Chang's.
WW: [laughs] That's sort of the good and the bad. Phillip is very smart.
SI: When will we get to see Soul of a Banquet in Los Angeles?
WW: Right now the world premiere is here in San Francisco. The next thing we'd like to do is work with someone in L.A. and arrange a similar screening and banquet.
SI: You've always jumped from small personal projects to big budget movies and back to indies again. Is this the first real documentary you've ever directed?
WW: I've never done a true documentary like this. And I had no funding. We just did it. These days, that's the beauty of having a smaller, digital camera. [Richard Wong], my DP who shot Snow Flower and the Secret Fan with me? He just kind of hung out and shot all this for us.
SI: You've spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, correct?
SI: Where do you feel you could get a more authentic Chinese meal — in Los Angeles or in San Francisco?
WW: In San Francisco, it's very difficult. I have a hard time finding good Chinese food unless you go to Daly City or San Mateo or Milbrae. But in L.A., there's quite a bit of it in San Gabriel Valley. The Taiwanese have opened a lot of really interesting restaurants; really, really good Chinese restaurants. I think you can get the best Chinese food there — even more so than New York.
SI: So Los Angeles wins?
WW: As I said before, the Cultural Revolution stopped the flow of culture and tradition — especially food. But it continued in Taiwan, and that spilled over into the San Gabriel Valley. Actually because of better ingredients and the preservation of the cultural traditions you probably have some of the best Chinese food in the world.
For tickets to Soul of a Banquet benefit go to the San Francisco Film Society website.
Follow Margy Rochlin on Twitter @MargyRochlin.
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