Compiled by Deb Mandel, 2022
617 Concord Ave, 1958-1971
The Joyce Chen Small Eating Place (1967-1988)
302 Massachusetts Avenue
Joyce Chen Restaurant (1969-1974)
500 Memorial Drive
Joyce Chen was Boston’s first real celebrity restaurateur and holds indisputable importance in American culinary history. In the same era Julia Child was changing America’s palates through French cooking, Chen was doing just that with regional Chinese, introducing Peking Duck, Hot & Sour Soup, and Moo Shu Pork to American palates.
Chen left China in1949 and opened her first restaurant in 1958 at 617 Concord Ave with 250 seats. A skilled entrepreneur from the start, she regularly advertised Tuesday and Wednesday “all you can eat” dinner buffets for $3.00; these included turkey and ham to attract newcomers. The lines were out the door, so they played fast tempo music to make the lines move more quickly. During this early period, the restaurant also offered American food to customers unfamiliar with Chinese food or too timid to try it. Popular American Chop Suey and Chow Mein were initially offered, but later dropped from the menu’s second printing as Chen’s more authentic dishes became popular. The restaurant also offered take-out and party facilities.
Like many immigrant families, the Chen children helped out in the restaurant. From the beginning, Henry, the oldest son, Helen, the middle daughter and Stephen, the youngest, were on hand. At age six, Stephen began his career by filling duck sauce and mustard containers.
In 1973, Chen opened her 350-seat Rindge Ave. location on two floors with the kitchen in the basement. The chefs specialized in five primary cooking styles: Kan Shao; Kung Pao; Ma P’o; Yu Hsiang (all Szechuan); and Moo Shi (Mandarin), and Shanghai cuisine.
A perfect example of Chen’s ethos was her clever coining of the term “Peking Ravioli,” to entice Americans, making the pan-fried meat potstickers a household word in Boston and beyond. As a descendant of a war hero in China, she became a pioneer in her field. After Nixon visited China in 1972, a new trade agreement was signed, which enabled Chen to import needed ingredients. She also aspired to make Chinese ingredients and utensils accessible to the American public. Joyce Chen Foods imported and sold lines of kitchenware and self- published The Joyce Chen Cookbook in 1962. In the early 60’s Chen taught cooking classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which were very popular. In 1967, she had her own national PBS show, “Joyce Chen Cooks,” filmed at the WGBH studios, using the same set as Julia Child’s “French Chef.” The show also became popular with international audiences.
In 1971 Chen established Joyce Chen Products, featuring knives, a cutting slab and a wok which Chen redesigned for use in modern Western kitchens. Her first return visit to her native country in 1972 was filmed and shown on PBS as “Joyce Chen’s China.” In June 1974, Chen spoke at the Cambridge Forum, on the topic of: “What’s Happening in China?”
Chen’s restaurants were popular with students, working people, and celebrities alike. Through the years, she developed relationships with Julia and Paul Child, Henry Kissinger, Danny Kaye and Beverly Sills.
The onset of dementia in the early 1980s diminished Chen’s ability to run the day to day operations of her restaurants; thus, her childrens’ responsibilities increased. In 1983 she autographed her cookbook at the Harvard Coop and demonstrated her “Peking Pan.” In 1985, the Cambridge YWCA honored Chen with the “Outstanding Achievement Award for Business and Industry” at “A Tribute to Women” luncheon sponsored by the Cambridge YWCA. Joyce Chen died in 1994. The last Joyce Chen Restaurant (Rindge Ave.) closed in October 1998 after a successful 40-year run.
In the words of a former Harvard President Pusey, Joyce Chen’s will be remembered as “not merely a restaurant, but a cultural exchange center.” In 2001, Friends of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge named Joyce Chen “Person of the Week” and led a tour in her honor, and in 2014 Chen was honored with a Forever stamp as a pioneer in Chinese cuisine.
Joyce Chen’s legacy lives on in a number of Boston area restaurants started by former chefs that worked in her kitchens. Her son Stephen, President of Joyce Chen Foods, has continued to manage the Joyce Chen Foods company and its informative website. Her daughter Helen, a leading Asian culinary expert, continued to manage Joyce Chen Products, which she sold in 2003. She later began a consulting arrangement with Harold Import Co., a kitchenware distributor in New Jersey, to handle her product line called Helen’s Asian Kitchen.
And to interest the next generation in cooking, a picture book called, Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge was written by Carrie Clickard in 2017. It is another wonderful tribute to Chen and a surprise to the family.
Chen, Joyce. The Joyce Chen Cookbook. New York, Lippincott, 1962.
Clickard, Carrie. Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
“Advertisements.” The Cambridge Chronicle, 17 September 1959, p.21.
“Advertisements: Taste Authentic Chinese Food by Joyce Chen.” The Cambridge Chronicle, 8 December 1983, p.21.
“Community Calendar: Person of the Week: Joyce Chen.” The Cambridge Chronicle, 12 September 2001, p.16
Famed Restaurateur Joyce Chen Dies, 76. The Cambridge Chronicle, 1 September 1994, p.9.
Rojas, Arnold Armas. “Dumpling Festival Delivers Again.” The Cambridge Chronicle, 26 September 2019, p.1.
Tate, Nick. “Restaurants Where the Stress is on Care, Abundance.” The Cambridge Chronicle, 20 March 1986, p.16.
“YWCA Honors Joyce Chen.” The Cambridge Chronicle, 12 September 1985, p.12.
Virtual Presentation Video Recording:
“Fall Conversation: How Has Food Mended Cambridge?” Cambridge, MA, History Cambridge, 2021. (Stephen Chen, Joyce Chen’s son, is on the panel).
“Joyce Chen’s China.” Boston, MA, WGBH, 1973.
Mars, Roman. “It’s a Small Aisle Afterall.” 99% Invisible, Episode 489, 20 April 2022.
Chen, Helen and Stephen. “Joyce Chen, 1917-2004.” Cambridge, MA, Mount Auburn Cemetery. Accessed 4 April 2022.
Chen, Stephen. “Joyce Chen Foods.” Accessed 4 April 2022. (Provides a comprehensive history of Joyce Chen with links to Joyce Chen products, tv shows, recipes and more.)
WIkipedia Contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “Joyce Chen.” 27 March 2022. Accessed 4 April 2022. (Includes additional background about Joyce Chen and her restaurants and bibliographic citations.)