Why Nancy Chen wouldn’t trade Naperville for anywhere else

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Nancy Chen was born in China, grew up in Taiwan, and moved to Naperville in 1972. It is a city she has been proud to call home ever since. Her career spans decades and reflects a rich history of public and community service from Illinois to Washington, D.C.  In 2010, Chen retired as Regional Administrator of the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor.  She was also Director of U.S. Senator Paul Simon’s Chicago Office for six years and Director of Asian-Pacific American Outreach at President Clinton’s White House Office of Presidential Personnel.  After her retirement, Chen’s commitment to women and minorities is stronger than ever. Most recently, she founded Chinese American Women in Action (CAWA) which empowers Chinese American women to lead and create positive change.

Recently, 630 Naperville’s Liz Spencer had the opportunity to sit down with Chen to discuss her family, her life of service, her chosen city, and her notoriety for a certain salad recipe she created long ago.

What are some of Nancy Chen’s most significant accomplishments?

Chen began by speaking about the impact of her decision to come to America and how it changed the trajectory of her life.  While she came to study and seek better opportunities for herself, she said the choice wasn’t an easy one and that it took a lot of sacrifice and hard work.  “In hindsight, it was a courageous move coming with a single suitcase, going on a campus, to study, learn, still have to master the language, and then also culture differences and study. So I would say that was probably the biggest accomplishment for me, to have decided to come,” said Chen.

After she completed her studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Chen taught elementary school for five years and in 1972 she settled with her husband in Naperville and started a family. They have two grown children who proudly went through the Naperville Public School system. Her daughter has moved back to Naperville and continues to live in the city with her family.  Chen remarked, “We have a granddaughter who is 12 years old now, and she’s following the footsteps of her mother and her uncle going through the Naperville public schools. So I really feel that another big accomplishment is that we are setting the deep roots down in Naperville as a third generation American family.”

Chen’s professional life revolved around public service. She is proud of the work she was able to accomplish saying, “I ended up serving on something that has always been my passion and that is championing for working women. I was the regional director of Women’s Bureau at the US Department of Labor. And what we did was educate women about their working rights and promote better career opportunities. And so from that public service career, that really helped me to define myself and define my life, not only for my career, but after my retirement too.” 

While many use retirement as a time to relax and maybe work on their pickle ball game, Chen is spending hers still very involved in the Naperville community leading the organization she founded Chinese American Women in Action (CAWA). She reflected on why started the non-profit saying, “Basically it is to encourage my community members, especially Chinese-American women, to get actively involved in civic and community activities and to create a real sense of belonging for all of us.”

Nancy Chen’s famous Chinese Chicken Salad recipe

Spencer asked Chen if she had a favorite family recipe and she said, “I taught cooking class at a Naperville cooking school, and that’s where I developed a recipe that was enjoyed by my family. It’s called Chinese Chicken Salad and uses both Chinese and American ingredients. For example, iceberg lettuce, chicken, and peanuts put together. And over the years, my family loved it. I always served it at special times. These days, my granddaughter even learned how to help me make it by shredding chicken, and slicing onions and lettuce.”

Chen’s salad gained notoriety outside of her family, when was featured by the The Museum of Chinese in America in an exhibit and in a companion cookbook of the same name, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy. The exhibit was an exploration on “how Chinese food is defined and interpreted through the personal stories of 34 Chinese and Asian American chefs.”

Nancy Chen Prepares Chicken Salad Nancy Chen Salad

Chinese Chicken Salad recipe by Nancy Chen (printed with permission)

1 medium head of lettuce, shredded
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 T. roasted peanuts, crushed
1 c. oil for frying
2 T. sesame seeds, toasted
1 pkg. bean thread
1 whole chicken breast, bone-in or boneless
2 slices ginger root

Salad Dressing
1 t. salt
2 T. sugar
3 T. rice vinegar
1/2 t. black pepper
1/4 c. chicken broth
1/4 c. salad oil

Mix all salad dressing ingredients in a bottle. Shake until well mixed.

Heat 1 1/2 qt. water to a boil. Add ginger roots. Drop chicken breast in pot, bring it up to boil again. Turn heat down to simmer. Keep the pot covered cook for 10 to 12 minutes. Turn heat off. Remove chicken breast to cool.
Tear chicken meat into thin shreds, going along the grain. Set aside the shredded chicken.
Heat oil to 400°F. Divide bean thread into 3 to 4 loose portions. Bean thread will puff up immediately, turn and fry the other side. Make sure all threads are fried evenly and remove quickly. If the oil gets too hot, turn the heat down a little. Fry the rest of the portions accordingly.
Mix half of the fried bean thread, shredded chicken, crushed peanuts, green onion, sesame, seeds, and shredded lettuce. Toss lightly.  Pour salad dressing over. Mix and toss well right before serving. Garnish the salad with the rest of the bean thread.
* You may prepare all ingredients a day ahead, except the lettuce. Keep fried bean thread in a separate plastic bag. Toss everything together before serving.