Soul of a Banquet

Cecilia Chiang has a fickle relationship with fate. In director Wayne Wang’s documentary Soul of a Banquet, the near-centenarian founder of the legendary Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco speaks of “destiny” when recounting her rise to culinary greatness. Her biography, as well as the somewhat accidental circumstances surrounding her entry into the restaurant business, argue otherwise. Born the seventh daughter in a wealthy family, Chiang details a Chinese girlhood suspended between tradition and modernity, as well as her experiences during the Japanese occupation of China and the effect of the Cultural Revolution on her family. Fellow chefs Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl provide more context for Chiang’s place in the food world, describing her as a kind of taste memoirist—a chef known for not only introducing California to authentic dishes of Northern China, but also her aura of hospitality and commitment to a gastronomical “education.” The film finishes with an intimate behind-the-scenes look at Chiang’s preparations for a dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Waters’ restaurant, Chez Panisse. Stainless steel slices through tender meat like butter; pinches of spices fly into mixing bowls; someone ushers a gleaming pork belly to a plate. It’s a montage of the senses, and Chiang is at its head. Soul of a Banquet is available to stream through May 31 at asia.si.edu. Free. —Amy Guay