Fifi Chao the longtime Orange County restaurant columnist died Monday. She was 81.
“She was one of a kind,” said husband Patrick. In June, Fifi and Patrick celebrated their 55th anniversary.
Born Shirley Jean Bernard, Shirley became ‘Fifi’ when her boss at Bank of America gave her the moniker because it just seemed to fit.
“I think it was a poodle reference,” Patrick recalled.
Chao met Patrick at a Chinese restaurant in the same mall as her bank branch, and a few years later Fifi veered her career toward writing and food: author, chef, lecturer, radio host, and arranger of private dinners with Orange County’s top chefs.
A lawyer suggested she call her growing empire ‘Chao’s Dinesty.’
Fifi would also arrange smaller dinners, known as Fifi’s Dining Clubs. “Fifi’s way of bringing people together,” said club member and Newport Beach attorney Donald Segretti. “I was very lucky to know her.”
In 1991 restaurant owner Rex Chandler suggested to Richard Reisman that Fifi write a column for the Business Journal.
In October, 26 ½ years later, Fifi penned her final Executive Dining column, titled “Fifi Polishes Off Best Menu Of All: A Delightful Career.”
“The Business Journal has a core group of people, they’ve been here over 20 years; they're family," said Reisman, publisher of the Journal since 1990. "We are all blessed to have had Fifi be the guiding spirit of our family all these years.”
Antonio Cagnolo opened Antonello’s Ristorante at South Coast Plaza Village in 1978. Three years earlier he’d met Chao.
“42 years. We have a lot of stories. We would discuss new recipes, truffles, Bagna Cauda, she knew food. What a loss,” Cagnola said.
“She was a big part of Orange County history.”
Chao was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She died at her Irvine home, Patrick at her side.
Fifi Chao is survived by her husband Patrick, their son Kevin, their six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
The Business Journal will publish a more extensive article about Chao’s life, featuring anecdotes from the restaurateurs and chefs she wrote about over her long career, in Monday’s print edition.