August 23, 1899 (1999) – Grace Chu, cookbook author and teacher, emigrated from Shanghai in 1920 with a scholarship from Wellesley College, taught Chinese cooking, wrote Madame Chu’s Cooking School Cookbook in 1975
In China, Grace Zia Chu had been a gym teacher; in 1950’s America, she became Madame Chu, a well-known Chinese-cooking expert whose Manhattan cooking classes and cookbooks initiated a whole generation of Americans in the mysteries of the stir-fry. Today, we are struck by the enormous gulf that Madame Chu sought to span and by the tone with which she spanned it: she opens her groundbreaking 1962 cookbook, ”The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking,” with the tremendous poise of an ambassador. ”We Chinese,” she begins, ”like to think of cooking as a distinctive art form.”
Grace Zia Chu was born into a prominent Chinese family as the oldest of nine children in 1899. Her father was notable Christian writer and teacher, Zia Hong-lai. In 1918, she graduated from the elite Shanghai girls school McTyeire School for Girls and won herself a scholarship to Boston’s Wellesley College.
While in Boston she would go into the city’s Chinatown looking for familiar foods that she could cook on her hotplate in her dorm to give her a taste of home “in a world full of tall strangers and inedible food”. In 1924, Grace Chu graduated with a degree in Physical Education. She returned to China and Shanghai to teach at an all girls school. Soon after, she met and married her husband, Chu Shih-ming who was an army officer and a diplomat in the Nationalist Government.
Grace felt strongly about the importance of teaching Chinese cooking. She thought food was an important gateway into the culture itself. In a 1973 article she explains further, “I have a missionary spirit about Chinese cooking. I want my students to become thoroughly absorbed with Chinese culture, history and philosophy as it relates to food.”
Grace Chu was one of the fundamental teachers in America’s quest to learning to cook Chinese. Craig Claiborne, famed New York Times food editor and cookbook author, in the foreward for The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking called Chinese cuisine among the most sophisticated on earth and that it is more varied than French or Italian. He also credited Grace Zia Chu for playing a crucial part in introducing the American people, especially New Yorkers, to the cuisine.
In a tribute to Chu after her death in 1999, People Magazine editor Jacqueline Newman wrote, “Thanks to you Madame Grace Zia Chu for your interest and inspiration, and for your dedication to details. You led us on a journey to learn and love the sophisticated and the most varied cookery on earth. We bless you for that and offer tribute to you.”