The Last Chinese Chef

book cover The last Chinese Chef
ISBN: 978-0-547-05373-8
This alluring novel of friendship, love, and cuisine brings the best-selling author of Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light to one of the great Chinese subjects: food. As in her previous novels, Mones's captivating story also brings into focus a changing China -- this time the hidden world of high culinary culture. When Maggie McElroy, a widowed American food writer, learns of a Chinese paternity claim against her late husband's estate, she has…

This book really hits the spot when it comes to food fiction stories.  It is beautifully balanced with culinary description, human nature, and cultural awareness.  I found myself devouring each word used to depict how a dish was created, how it looked, smelled, felt, tasted, and ultimately moved the diner with intention.  Nicole Mones absolutely nails it in her book, The Last Chinese Chef, by using her life experience, having lived and worked in China for 18 years, along with her in depth research coupled with a deep appreciation for the Chinese culture.  Although, this is a fictional novel, it reads almost as non-fiction.  Her research that she discusses in her Author Notes, paint a picture of her dedication to share real historical facts and develop relatable personas, some of which are based on real people.  Through her works, Mones, has inspired me to seek out authentic Chinese cuisine and to test out the recipes she provides in the back of the novel.

What I would really like to embrace in my cooking is how food is purposeful beyond nutritional nourishment.  The way Sam, one of the main chefs in the story describes how food is prepared with meaning moves me to want to slow down and process the practice of preparing food.

“Artifice.  Illusion.  Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind….add[ing] a layer of intellectual play to the meal.”  He goes on to share, “We use food to promote health…The right foods can ease the mind and heart.”

I especially relished the dialogue between Sam and his chef uncles as they went back and forth with creative ideas for which foods to prepare and present.  It was like watching an artist sketch and seeing the boundless possibilities of what the end product could be.  In this process, Mones takes us through great food conversations capturing historical cultural foods and the creative process of developing a dish.  Beautiful!  When Sam cooks a dish for Maggie, our heroine, he show us this intuitive way of cooking when he states,

“Here, this is how we’re trained-to know the diner, perceive the diner, and cook accordingly.  Feed the body, but that’s only the beginning.  Also feed the mind and the soul.”

We learn many things about the Chinese culture, beyond their meal practices.  Mones shows us how discussions are best managed through telling stories.  Or how traditionally, families lived in multi-generational households where grandparents end up raising grandchildren.  Other customs related to how one greets another or shares every morsal are also interspersed throughout the novel.

We always come back to cuisine and are schooled through Sam’s experiences on

“Really great cooking goes beyond [flavor and texture and aroma] to engage the mind and the spirit-to reflect on art, on nature, on philosophy…Never cook food just to be eaten…”

Along with elaborate Chinese cuisine and cultural history, Mones’ novel also pulls our heartstrings through tragedy, love, grief and renewing oneself.  I would recommend this book for all of my food fiction friends who enjoy learning about other cultures and traditions.

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