A Woman to Know: Joyce Chen

Joyce Chen helped elevate what Chinese food was about. She didn't dumb it down. — Ming Tsai

Joyce Chen helped elevate what Chinese food was about. She didn't dumb it down. — Ming Tsai

(image via Smithsonian)

In 1957, a tray of egg rolls forever changed Joyce’s life, transforming her from a gourmet-loving housewife into a domestic goddess beloved by home chefs everywhere.

After her family fled China in the midst the Chinese Communist Revolution, Joyce struggled to adjust to her new life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As she had as a child in Beijing, she turned to cooking for comfort. Joyce’s children delighted in her elaborate meals and delicious after-school snacks, and when her son’s school hosted a bake sale fundraiser, he begged his mother to prepare some donated treats.

Joyce cooked some easy staples of her kitchen: a batch of pumpkin cookies and a giant tray of her neighborhood-famous egg rolls. The rolls sold out within the hour, and Joyce realized her Chinese snacks had an audience beyond her tiny kitchen.

Later that year, she and her husband opened the Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge, one of the first all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. She served American dishes alongside Chinese ones and often tailored foods for Massachusetts tastes, to great success. The menus at Joyce’s always included both Chinese translations and Americanized descriptions, and she encouraged her customers to expand their palates with new foods and flavors. Within a decade, Joyce expanded her food empire with another two restaurants, culinary classes and a best-selling cookbook.

In 1967, she starred in a PBS cooking show, “Joyce Chen Cooks.” The popular show widened Joyce’s reach and brought Chinese cooking to an entirely new audience. From there, she expanded her business, bottling sauces and oils and creating her own line of kitchen equipment (even patenting her own wok and handle in 1970). Celebrity chef Ming Tsai called her “the Chinese Julia Child,” and Julia Child herself was a huge supporter of Joyce’s cooking and champion of her success.

When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s, Joyce began preparing her three children to take over the Joyce Chen empire. Before she died in 1994, she passed the business — and her beloved recipes — on to them.

Add to your library list: 

Read more:

Watch more:

Hear more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.