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
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.