Joyce Chen (1917-1994) was born on September 12, 1917 in Beijing, China. Born into a wealthy family, she discovered her passion for cooking at a very early age. Her father, a railroad administrator and city executive, hired a family chef that cooked all of their meals. Chen learned about Chinese cuisine simply by watching their chef and other family members cook in their home kitchen. During the Chinese Communist Revolution, Chen and her family moved to the United States. Along with her husband Thomas Chen and their two children Henry and Helen, the family left Shanghai, China in 1949 and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While living near Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she frequently met Chinese students that missed the food they’d grown up with. Chen’s children attended Buckingham School and she would often cook food to be served at school events. Her meals quickly became popular among college students and the families at the Buckingham School. This inspired Chen to open her first restaurant in 1958, called “Joyce Chen Restaurant.” At this restaurant, she served both Chinese and American dishes to encourage customers to try new foods. She often served “buffet-style” meals, to allow customers to try samples of everything. She created a menu with both Chinese and English translations of her food and numbered the menu items for easier communication in her restaurants. This made it easier for customers who spoke different languages to order at her restaurant.
In 1967, Chen opened her second restaurant called “The Joyce Chen Small Eating Place.” That same year, Chen starred in Joyce Chen Cooks, her own cooking show on PBS that aired worldwide. This twenty-six-episode broadcast was filmed in the same studio as famous chef Julia Child’s show, and the two became good friends. Her business empire expanded, and two larger restaurants were built in the Boston area with an architecturally unique restaurant at 390 Rindge Avenue.
The restaurant, believed to have been designed by Allan Ahaknian, was built in 1974 and employed architecture not typical for Cambridge. Partially hidden behind a tall wooden fence to screen noise from the heavily trafficked Rindge Avenue, the structure featured minimal fenestration on the sides but employed large skylights to flood the interior with natural light. The Contemporary/Shed style restaurant was a common stomping ground for residents of Cambridge and beyond. The restaurant was purchased by Just-A-Start and was converted to a child-care facility in 1999. The remainder of the lot was filled with townhomes for moderate-income, first-time homebuyers. In 2005, the structure was demolished for eight additional units of affordable condominium units. As it was not yet 50+ years old, it did not qualify for protection under the Demolition Delay Ordinance.
While her restaurants are all now closed, the impressions of Joyce Chen’s legacy can be seen in almost every Chinese-American restaurant in the country today and in the enduring popularity of “Peking ravioli.” Also, her cookbooks and branded cooking utensils can be found in kitchens all over the world.
Images and some information on Joyce Chen courtesy of joycechenfoods.com