The International Association of Culinary Professionals presented Florence Lin with its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award April 9, at its annual conference in San Francisco. Since 1990 the organization has recognized individuals with this annual award in honor of their lifetime careers in the culinary arts world. Selected by the IACP board of directors, the 22 recipients have made noteworthy and lasting contributions to the culinary world including Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, and now Florence Lin.
Since 1974 Florence has been my teacher, mentor and friend sending my life on a path I never imagined. I met her at the China Institute in America in New York City when I enrolled in one of her legendary cooking classes. She opened the class with the statement “when you finish my classes you will be able to cook Chinese dishes with anything you have in your refrigerator.” I thought of the leftovers in my refrigerator and somehow doubted this bold promise. Now nearly 40 years later, I know she was right.
Born in 1923, Han Ju Shen (later taking Florence as her American name) was the third daughter of eight children of a silk merchant and his wife living in Hankou near Shanghai, China. She was clearly her father’s favorite and he considered her a good luck charm for his business success. At age 10 she often accompanied her father on his trips throughout China where she ate in top restaurants along the way. At home, she often spent time in the kitchen with the family’s chef learning the art of Chinese cooking. A year in the country living with her aunt furthered her cooking lessons where she learned the best way to make delicious food was to practice – advise she would later pass on to her students when she directed them to “Practice! Practice! Practice!”
In 1949, Florence moved to New York City to marry her fiancé K. Y. Lin who was working in finance. They eventually had two children and Florence began her journey to become part of her new country. She started by learning English and giving dinner parties at home for her husband’s clients who found her food extraordinary. Soon she was cooking special dishes for her church’s women’s group bringing her to the attention of officials at the China Institute. They invited her to teach a cooking class at the Institute and soon she was teaching several. Her classes became so popular they were often sold out and in a few years she was named director of the Institute’s Chinese cooking program. Her students included many of the cooking stars of the time such as Julia Child who said she came to Florence’s class “to learn Chinese cooking from the best.”
She first came to national attention in 1963 through articles written by Craig Clairbourne, food editor of the New York Times. In 1965 she determined it was time to publish a cookbook and called it East and West Chinese Cooking. Eighteen publishers turned it down.
In 1968 Time Life Books approached her to be their principal food consultant for their Foods of the World: Cooking of China. This led to contracts with major food and equipment producers who sent her around the country demonstrating and talking about Chinese cooking. She began writing cooking articles for national magazines as well as the New York Times and in 1975 Hawthorne Publishing issued her first cookbook, Florence Lin’s Regional Cooking of China. It was a nationwide success, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and named Best Cookbook of 1975.
She followed with four more cookbooks: Florence Lin’s Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook in 1976, Florence Lin’s Chinese One-Dish Meals in 1978, Florence Lin’s Cooking with Fire Pots in 1979, and Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads in 1984.
At the invitation of Asian Culinary Arts Institutes Florence came to the Twin Cities in 1995 to participate in ACAI’s unique chef’s exchange with China held at the Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie. She appeared on public radio, at various ACAI events, gave cooking classes, interpreted for the Chinese chefs, and was a unique source of Chinese cooking information for the culinary students.
Florence has always been an advocate of eco-friendly cooking pointing to the Chinese tradition of using all parts of any animal, fish, vegetable, fruit or ingredient instructing students not to waste anything. “I encouraged them to use the wok to save on fuel,” she once said, “and to turn leftovers into tasty, satisfying meals, rather than throwing anything away.” Some of her favorite dishes use the freshest ingredients cooked in the simplest way to bring out their full flavors.
Today, Florence has retired from professional cooking, but continues to cook Chinese food for others. She volunteers in the kitchen of a Buddhist temple to help prepare vegetarian meals for the monks using ingredients grown in the temple gardens. And, when former students visit, they are treated to yet another cooking lesson in her kitchen.
Read more about Florence Lin and some of the recipes she inspired in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, now in bookstores and on amazon.com.
Buy online: Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875