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Book Review
The Last Chinese Chef

by Nicole Mones

Well Cooked Tale
Maggie McElroy is a food writer with little real passion for food. A year after the death of her husband, she has little passion for anything. Maggie is shaken from the fog of melancholy by an unexpected phone call from China. It proves to be a rude awakening. A woman has filed a paternity suit against her husband's estate. Maggie must travel from Los Angeles to Beijing to establish the veracity of the claim. While in the Middle Kingdom, her editor reasons, Maggie may as well write a magazine article about Chinese food. So begins this novel by Nicole Mones.

In China Maggie turns private investigator, travelling to Hangzhou to get a blood sample from the child in question, who lives with her grandparents, and tracking down the girl's mother, a modern day concubine. Maggie gradually uncovers, and confronts the hurtful details of her husband's secret.

Food is both the backdrop and the beating heart of The Last Chinese Chef. Mones takes us into the realm of Chinese haute cuisine via her magazine assignment: Sam Liang, a young Chinese-American scheduled to open an imperial-style restaurant in the capital. Sam's grandfather, Liang Wei, had been one of the last generation of chefs in the Forbidden City – where the repertoire of dishes ran to four thousand – and the author of a highly regarded tome on the art of Chinese cuisine. Sam, heir to the family's treasure chest of cooking expertise, is a man of these multicultural times, straddling with relative ease the often conflicting world's of his American birthplace and Chinese traditions.

In the land which centuries ago boasted superstar chefs, and where a talented poet could establish a reputation eulogising a single dish, Maggie discovers an entire nation passionate about food, and a highly sophisticated side of Chinese cuisine she never knew existed. She learns that family and food are the hub of Chinese life, and good food is always to be shared and eaten joyously.

When Sam's restaurant opening is put on hold, he decides to enter a prestigious national cooking competition. This becomes the focus of Maggie's magazine story. As she becomes enmeshed in Sam's elaborate but hurried preparations, she finds herself drawn, haltingly, to the gentle, pony-tailed chef.

Through Maggie's quest and story assignment, Mones throws open a window on contemporary Beijing, drawing a vivid portrait of a city where the old, highly distinctive ways are being bulldozed by the new and nondescript at a pace that is truly frightening. She has a story telling hand that is clear yet tantalisingly subtle. Refreshingly, there are no villains in The Last Chinese Chef, and little action outside the confines of the kitchen, and definitely no violence, unless you count that which takes place on Sam's chopping block.

Mones reveals the key concepts, and some of the minutiae of Chinese haute cuisine, which will be a revelation to many non-Chinese. Gastronomes will love the languid, sumptuous descriptions of food in preparation and on the plate, but you certainly don't need to be a foodie to enjoy this tale of survival, adaptation and renewal.

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