Local Treasure: Constance Chang

The Julia Child of Japan lives in Evanston. Constance Chang taught Japan about Chinese food, just like Julia Child taught America about French food.

 

Chang is now 93-years old and lives in The Mather, where she retired to be near her three children and grandchildren, but when she was a restaurant owner, television chef and cookbook author, she was as famous in Japan as Julia was here.

Chang was born in Shanghai, but when the communists came to power in 1950, she and her husband left. First they were in Hong Kong, but eventually they migrated to Japan. Not content to sit at home, she opened her first restaurant in Tokyo in 1954. I asked her if her husband, who was a surgeon, helped with the restaurant, but she just laughed.

“He did his business, I did mine,” she says. We were talking at The Mather where she was meeting with head chef Chip Fegert and helping him make some of her recipes.

Her father loved eating and the family had a cook, but her father preferred her mother’s cooking. As a girl, Chang learned by watching her mother cook her father’s favorite dishes.

When she opened her Chinese restaurant in Japan, she kept the recipes authentically Chinese, but was frustrated when her customers ordered the same safe dishes over and over. She decided to try a buffet, which was a totally new concept in Japan.

“You could try a little bite and see if it was good,” she says, explaining why she thought it might work. And she was right. Her restaurant, Peacock Hall, the first Chinese buffet became famous and widely imitated. “But we had 30 dishes, they just repeated the same few,” says Chang talking about her competition.

Chang went on to host a popular cooking show and published numerous cookbooks first for Japanese cooks and then in English for an American audience. Though out of print, you can still find her cookbooks on Amazon and eBay.

We cooked recipes from “Quick & Easy Chinese Cooking ,” and while she thought the broth in the Egg Drop Soup was a little salty, everything else met with her approval. Her Shrimp Fried Rice is the “What’s Cooking” this week.

When asked what’s next for this cooking celebrity, Chang laughs. “Now I come here to sit and eat and gain weight.” But watching her taste and stir, it’s obvious that her love of cooking runs deep and while she might sit a little more, she’s still eager to share her love and knowledge of Chinese cooking.