Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee

Craig Claiborne
Craig Claiborne was one of the three best-known food writers in America during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s during his tenure at the New York Times, the others being Julia Child and James Beard. He legitimized the field of restaurant criticism by maintaining a discreet, anonymous profile in visiting a restaurant and paying his own check. He would evaluate the restaurant’s food, ambience, and service, giving a rating between zero and four stars. Previously, it was common for reviewers to be paid by the very restaurants they were critiquing. Claiborne's ample knowledge of gastronomy commanded respect by restaurateurs who used his reviews to improve themselves.

He popularized the cuisines of China, Vietnamese, Indian, Brazilian, and a dozen more by having experts raised in the particular traditions to come to his house and cook where he would take meticulous notes, than write about them in the New York Times.

His first and most popular book, The New York Times Cookbook of 1961, sold over three million copies and was eventually translated into seventeen languages. He co-wrote (with Virginia Lee) the first American cookbook of genuine Chinese cuisine, The Chinese Cookbook, published in 1972, as well as twenty other cookbooks, including Craig Claiborne’s Memorable Meals and Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking.

Born September 4, 1920 in Sunflower, Mississippi, he grew up in Indianola, Mississippi. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi. After working in public relations, he enrolled in the L'Ecole Hôtelière Professional School of the Swiss Hotel Keepers Association in Lausanne, Switzerland.

He lived most of his adult life in Manhattan and East Hampton, Long Island. He was known for his elaborate New Year’s Eve and birthday parties, as well as his Fourth of July picnics. He died of a heart attack on January 22, 2000.
  • Why Craig Claiborne Matters,” by Georgeanna Milam Chapman, Master’s Thesis, 2007, University of Mississippi at Oxford (reformatted July 2011)

Virginia Lee
Virginia Lee came to the United States in 1967. She started teaching Chinese cooking after being interviewed by Craig Claiborne for an article in The New York Times. Teaching only 10 students at a time, one of her early students was Craig Claiborne. She subsequently co-authored The Chinese Cookbook with him in 1972.

A native of Shanghai, she attended Keene's School in Tianjin and studied at Peking University. Her husband, K. C. Lee, was a businessman and manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. She had three sons in Hong Kong and two daughters in the United States.

“After I was married,” she said, “we entertained a lot because of my husband's position and his interest in fine food. And in our day, we had some of the finest chefs of China in our kitchen. They taught me how to cook. Wherever we were, I would send my cooks to the kitchens of restaurants to learn how to make certain dishes, and as often as not, I'd ask to go myself.”

In her teaching, she emphasized methods by which dishes were prepared exactly as they would be in China.

Virginia Lee died of cancer in Manhattan at age 76 on October 16, 1981.