Live Remembered

Joan Shih Carducci (1933-2010): With the right elements, anything was possible

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010

Joan Shih Carducci put the ingredients of her life together with the confidence and precision that came from being a talented chemist and a cook. At 18, she traveled more than 7,000 miles to Kansas from Taiwan to study. At 26, she married the man she loved despite her parents' disapproval. At 41, she started her own cooking school. And at 67, she published her own cookbook.

Carducci never thought in terms of "I can do this" or "I can't do that," her daughter Elizabeth Carducci said. "She never had that in her head. ... She always just doggedly pursued something."

Carducci journeyed to Kansas to attend Saint Mary College (now the University of Saint Mary) in the mid-1950s. With chemistry and medical technology degrees in hand, she moved to Rochester, N.Y., where a hospital co-worker set her up on a blind date with Army veteran and Kodak employee Kenneth Carducci.

The Rochester native quickly fell in love with the vivacious beauty, and she with the romantic who would take her to picnics in his convertible. Perhaps even more significant was their shared passion for food -- cooking, eating out, trying any dish. But Joan's parents, still in Taiwan, where her father was a prominent and wealthy doctor, weren't nearly as enthusiastic.

"He was not Asian," daughter Suzanne Carducci said. "He wasn't a doctor."

That didn't stop Joan, who married Kenneth in Rochester, wearing the same wedding gown his sister had worn. Carducci's parents cut ties with her. But, again, she wouldn't let that be the final word: After she had children, she reached out once more, and they came around.

When Carducci's parents visited the family of four, then living in Maryland, her father brought a cherry tree seedling from Taiwan. The Carduccis planted the tree in front of their Silver Spring home, where it grew to serve as the backdrop for family photos and was named a Montgomery County Champion Tree.

The reconciliation also led the Carduccis to travel to Taiwan. During a long visit there, Carducci, who had grown up watching the best chef in town prepare Chinese New Year feasts for her family -- all the while wishing she could cook and carve like him -- studied at the Wei-Chuan Cooking School. Returning home with a certificate, she started teaching adult education courses for Montgomery County in 1973.

In 1975, Carducci, who had put her science career on hold to stay at home with her daughters, opened a cooking school eventually located in her basement. She ran the Chinese Cookery as a one-woman show: teaching, managing the finances and working late to clean up, because students often hung around to talk into the night. Her example gave her daughters the confidence to open their own businesses in optometry and software, Elizabeth said.

When Carducci's husband, who died in 1988, encouraged Elizabeth to accept a full scholarship to the University of Maryland instead of going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carducci said she would pay the MIT tuition out of her cooking school earnings. And she did.

"That's again the 'don't tell me it can't be done,'" Suzanne said.

With her children at college, Joan returned to full-time work at the National Institutes of Health before retiring in 2000 to devote herself to teaching. She offered eight levels of instruction, limiting class size to about half-dozen students. Stephen Kerpelman, now a student at the Culinary Institute of America, said Carducci's classes were "very intricate, compared to other courses."

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