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‘Soul of a Banquet’ Is an Unforgettable Film About Chef/Restaurateur Cecilia Chiang

Streaming recommendations for the weekend, plus a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news

Alice Waters and Cecilia Chiang
Amazon Prime/Soul of a Banquet

This post originally appeared on February 1, 2019, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.


Welcome back to Friday afternoon. It’s clearly a great weekend for sports fans, but even if you don’t care one lick about football, you can still have an awesome time watching TV with an array of snacks lined up in front of you. Here are three recommendations for what to watch: a documentary about a culinary legend, and two extra-meaty food TV shows.

Celebrating the culinary legacy of Cecilia Chiang

By serving family recipes in a refined setting at her San Francisco restaurant the Mandarin, chef/restaurateur Cecilia Chiang completely changed the way that Americans understood Chinese cuisine. The 2014 documentary Soul of a Banquet from Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang explores the unusual circumstances that led to the opening of that legendary restaurant, while also making the case that Chiang is the keeper of the flame for a style of Chinese cuisine that is nearly lost to time.

Born in 1920, Chiang grew up with 11 siblings in a large house near Shanghai where their parents kept the tradition of banquet-style Chinese cooking alive. Chiang eventually married a businessman and they fled to Japan during the Chinese Communist Revolution. A decade later, while visiting San Francisco, she ran into some friends who were planning to open a restaurant. Chiang volunteered to help them out, and, as fate would have it, ended up the sole proprietor of this new business when they dropped out. Although the style of the Mandarin was out of step with the popular Cantonese-leaning establishments in nearby Chinatown, the restaurant proved to be a big success, largely owing to Cecilia’s skills as a host and her knack for explaining the origins of the dishes to her guests.

Much of the restaurateur’s life story in Soul of a Banquet is told by Chiang herself, with additional context provided by two of her famous friends: Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl. And while it’s certainly fascinating to hear about how Chiang launched her San Francisco restaurant, the real emotional heart of the film is her account of returning to China during the Mao era to find that everything she knew as a child was gone. “My whole family was forced out of our house, then my father told me they were beggars on the street for two years,” she says. Chiang’s brother was in a labor camp, her sister had committed suicide, and her father was living in near-poverty. Chiang switches from English to Mandarin to describe this traumatic experience.

Watching Chiang walk guests through the sumptuous banquet that ends the film — a special dinner timed with the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse — it’s clear that serving these dishes is one way for her to keep childhood memories alive. Although she sold the Mandarin nearly three decades ago, Chiang, now 99, is still active and involved in the San Francisco food scene. And after watching Soul of a Banquet, it’s easy to understand why she continues to be an inspiration to people throughout the culinary world.

Soul of a Banquet is now available to stream on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Hulu, YouTube, and Google Play. If you’re planning any Lunar New Year celebrations at home, this might be a good documentary to keep in mind.


Streaming recommendations du jour

No Reservations/Amazon Prime

No Reservations, “Kansas City”

Watch it on: iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play

The gist: If you love food but hate sports, this episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel show might help you figure out how to navigate Super Bowl Sunday.

Near the end of this particularly salty episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, the late author/TV star attends a Kansas City Chiefs tailgate party with his pseudo-protege, an affable Russian fellow named Zamir. “I may not know or care about football,” Bourdain says, “but I like food and liquor and the company of fellow enthusiasts in this sector. And I’ve very quickly come to realize that it’s not really about football at all. It’s about a temporary city full of food and lots and lots of alcohol — the camaraderie of a large and spiritually-connected tribe.”

This episode also includes an epic barbecue crawl through Kansas City with a bonus cameo from blues rockers the Black Keys, who commiserate with Bourdain about the shitty restaurant jobs they had before hitting the big time.

Good Eats: Reloaded, “Pressure: The Reload”

Watch it on: Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes

The gist: Although electric pressure cookers are particularly popular these days, Alton Brown decides to eschew the Instant Pot and its brethren in this redux version of the Good Eats stock episode in favor of an old, relatively straightforward stovetop device. His stock recipe here, though, looks amazing: a combination of oxtails, chicken wings, apples, onions, and ginger, plus palm sugar and fish sauce to finish. Alton also shows how this recipe easily lends itself to pho, with the addition of noodles, sliced beef, garnishes, and some of the meat from the oxtail bones. (Full disclosure: I am totally going to try this recipe in my electric pressure cooker to see if it works, and will report back to y’all in a future newsletter.)

This is actually the series finale of Good Eats: Reloaded, the quirky revamp project that Brown embarked upon last year. Now, the TV host is working on a full reboot of his Food Network hit, slated to land sometime in the next year, hopefully.


In other entertainment news…

Have a great weekend, and if you’re looking for something to cook for game day (or just for dinner), I recommend checking out the “nice lasagna” from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories. It’s not a soupy or heavy as other varieties of this dish, but still so satisfying.

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