The Reason Chef Fu Pei-Mei Is Often Compared To Julia Child

Fu Pei-mei is one of the most famous chefs to come from Taiwan — if you type "Taiwanese famous chef" into a search engine, her name will most likely pop up amongst the Taiwanese chefs whose restaurants have received Michelin stars, even though she died in 2004. Fu, who fled mainland China at age 15 and ended up in Taiwan (per Taipei Times) left an influence and legacy is so great that Google featured a doodle on her on October 1, 2015, which would have been her 84th birthday. She expertly cooked over 4,000 dishes on television, taught cooking classes, and wrote several cookbooks, and, in the Western media, is often, if not always, compared to famed American chef and TV personality Julia Child, according to Taste.

Critic Raymond Sokolov wrote for the New York Times that she was "the Julia Child of Chinese cooking," via Taste, but while Child and Fu were both widely influential chefs that captured the attention, hearts, and stomachs of many, their career trajectories and cooking styles couldn't be more different.

Fu Pei-mei began cooking in response to her husband's criticism

Whereas Julia Child's husband introduced her to his love of French cooking (per Bustle), Fu's husband led her to her career in a much harsher manner. In one interview with Fu archived by TTV, she describes how her husband and his friends would play mahjong until late through the night and would want to snack as they played. Fu's cooking left something to be desired, and her husband critiqued her dishes, which motivated her to learn how to cook.

Taipei Times reports that the intrepid and resourceful Fu carefully picked through the telephone book in search of the contact information of the best chefs in Taiwan and wrote them for lessons, offering high pay. A few responded, and Fu was on her way to cooking history, spending the majority of her dowry on the cooking lesson fees (via Taiwan Today).

How Fu Pei-mei learned from chefs

Julia Child famously graduated from professional cooking school Cordon Bleu (per Smithsonian Mag), but Fu had to create her own curriculum.  According to Taiwan Panorama, Fu was from a wealthy family of the Shantung province, and was able to pay the high price of personal cooking lessons from Chinese chefs from different regions of China: Fu learned from chefs that hailed from Chekiang, Szechuan, Kiangsu, Hunan, and Kwangtung. After one year, she learned to make three hundred dishes, and by the end of two years she had 400 in her cooking repertoire (via Taiwan Today).

To the benefit of her future students, Fu was also precise and methodical, and she measured the "exact times and quantities required for the preparation of each dish," shares Taiwan Panorama. And soon after she learned from the chefs, the student became the master and she gave out lessons in the courtyard of her home, using a small tent and a coal burner as a set up before opening a Chinese cooking institute in the capital of Taiwan, Taipei.

Fu Pei-mei's television career and rise to fame

One of Fu's students landed her an opportunity to cook on Taiwan Television network, per Taipei Times, and she continued to appear on television for about 40 years, as reported by Taste. Fu taught in Mandarin, and her instructions were given in a no-frills, clear, and easy-to-follow manner. As she was a polyglot that also spoke English and Japanese (as well as Hokkien, per Taste), Fu's reach extended to Japan, where she had a Chinese cooking show, and to America, where she gave speeches on the subject, notably at the Chefs de Cuisine Association of America (via Taiwan Panorama). Fu would go on to become a household name in Taiwan and her first cookbook, 1969's "Pei-mei's Chinese Cook Book, Volume 1" was groundbreaking because it was bilingual and the design format, unusual at the time, made the recipes easy to follow, per Taste. Child was also a cookbook author, having served as a mentor for many, particularly on the topic of French cuisine.

Though Fu's show has long been off the air, Fu remains relevant today: A 2017 miniseries based on a novel Fu wrote, called "What She Put On The Table," is available for streaming on Netflix today.

Fu Pei-mei's death in 2004 and legacy

SF Eater has said that "Pei-mei's Chinese Cook Book, Volume 1" is "easily one of the most influential Chinese cookbooks of all time," and Sonoma County farmer Leslie Wiser owns 1,000 copies of the out-of-print and iconic cookbook (the book has since sold out). Wiser, the founder of Radical Family Farms, who is of Chinese-Taiwanese descent, stated that the book was a way to connect to her heritage. Building a bridge to one's past via food is a theme of Fu's work, since many of her viewers in Taiwan were mainland Chinese that fled their home regions for the island in 1949 (via Taste).

Sadly, Fu died of pancreatic cancer in 2004 (via Taipei Times), coincidentally the same year that Julia Child died due to complications from kidney failure (per The New York Times). However, while Child's legacy is making French cooking more accessible to an American audience, Fu's legacy is one of nostalgia and reconnecting Chinese people to their roots.