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Grace Chu: An Editor's Tribute

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 5

Teacher, cookbook author, personal mentor, and one of the first to introduce millions of westerners to the pleasures of Chinese cuisine, Grace Zia Chu died this past April 15th. Those who knew her, and there were thousands, will miss this warm, generous woman. Flavor and Fortune’s editor, for one, will remember her with affection.

When beginning to research and write the Chinese Cookbook Bibliography (Garland, 1987) and sharing tea in her apartment, I discussed the how's and why's with her. She confided that she always dreamed of doing one, had not because she did not think there was enough interest in Chinese cookbooks. She was thrilled that I was considering it. Before leaving, she showed off her collection, some three hundred twenty-five Chinese cookbooks in English, said, "Here are some shopping bags. Use them to borrow any and all that you do not have or do not know about."

That day, I trudged to the Long Island Railroad and from there home with two bags filled to the brim with some forty cookbooks. Three months later, returning them, she said, "So soon? You must have worked day and night so allow me to refresh your qi with a tonic soup I have been mastering." Foolish me, never recorded the recipe nor its ingredients.

Grace Chu's legacy, and one she was proud of, was the legion of students who learned to love preparing and eating classic Chinese dishes. They convinced her that others would also benefit from knowing more than simple stir-fries, and chop suey and chow mein dishes made to mimic local take-out Chinese restaurants.

With her expertise and student encouragement, she wrote her first cookbook, The Pleasures of Chinese Cuisine (1962). It entranced many readers, enticed them to try their hand at preparation, and had them begging for more. She obliged, and in 1975 published Madam Chu’s Chinese Cooking School Cookbook.

Madame Chu was a native of Shanghai and she adored the foods of her birth region. This issue focuses on Shanghai as a tribute to this lovely lady. Oldest of nine children, Mrs. Chu won a scholarship to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, studied to be a gym teacher, and then went back to China to teach physical education. However, after marrying a government official, she came back to the United States some time later with her husband; then he was sent to work in Washington D.C.

When I met her, some thirty years after that embassy assignment, long after she had gone back to China, and re-crossed the ocean and returned state-side, she had come to stay and become an American citizen. She boasted that she was the only one still alive who had dined with Roosevelt, Churchill, and even with Adolf Hitler. She also boasted about her students who had spread the word about the wonders of fresh ingredients and the myriad of Chinese culinary techniques here-to-fore unknown in the United States. She introduced more and more dishes of a plethora of China's regions to her ever increasing numbers of students and to the English speaking world.

At various times she taught in her home, in a friend's restaurant in Chinatown, and later at The China Institute. Then, few non-Asians knew how to prepare more than a handful of Chinese dishes. After her fifty pages of detailed explanations about the cuisine, how to use cleaver, chopsticks, and wok, and other preliminaries that included how to order in a Chinese restaurant, a myriad of recipes, and even how to grow your own bean sprouts, thousands upon thousands eased into what was to them, a very new cuisine.

Her first book details classic Chinese recipes along with, as her first chapter says: Popular Dishes in Western Chinese Restaurants. She was a master of enticement! The second chapter in the book was way ahead of its time, it was called: Menus using Ingredients Obtained Locally. After its four menus and their recipes, the next chapter titled: Menus Using Ingredients From Chinese Food Stores upscaled readers to fine Chinese cuisine. The last three chapters: Gourmet Dishes for Chinese Banquets, Chinese Hors d’oeuvres, and Four Regional Ways of Preparing Duck really made it possible to cook sophisitcated Chinese cuisine as a fine Chinese chef or wonderful homemaker, as she was, does.

Madame Chu, as her students called her, brought the ability to prepare authentic Chinese foods to the level of possibility. As was her father, she was trained as a teacher, and so could break things down into simple steps. In her books and in her classes, she explained everything so clearly that others could follow her instructions and succeed.

A view of her generosity is seen in the first book's dedication. It begins: "My grateful thanks to all my friends and students for their interest, inspiration, and suggestions." Let us in return say: Thanks to you Madame Grace Zia Chu for your interest and inspiration, and for your dedication to detail. You led us on a journey to learn and love the most sophisticated and the most varied cookery on earth. We bless you for that and offer tribute to you.

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