Written by Nicole Mones
Publisher: Mariner Books
Paperback: 288 Pages
I don't browse a lot of forums, but last year, a discussion about books caught my attention. It was on Food Network's community and people were recommending their favourite food-related titles. It's been awhile now, so I can't remember who brought up the Last Chinese Chef, but whoever it was, thank you! This book introduced me to a whole new genre that I'm quite pleased in discovering.
Nicole Mones introduces us to Maggie McElroy, an American food writer who recently lost her husband, Matt. However, the bad news doesn't stop there, she soon finds out from an old colleague of Matt's that someone has placed a paternity claim on him. A woman in China - Matt met her on a business trip a few years ago.
That premise alone triggers so many questions. Did Matt cheat on her? Is the child really his? Did he lead a double life? What does the child's family want from her? Was she with him when he died? Were there others?
Sarah, Maggie's editor then proposes an idea, go to China and find out the truth. Meanwhile, take on an assignment featuring a half-American and half-Chinese chef about to open a restaurant and compete in a culinary competition. Sam Liang.
I think this is one of those books that work best if you don't know what's going to happen next, because then you learn about the surprises when Maggie does. I loved that the story gently sweeps you along and before you know it, you're completely wrapped up.
The author uses pinyin for Mandarin phrases and dish names - which I enjoyed because food and words are so important in Chinese dishes. If you are ever invited for dinner during Chinese New Year or for a Chinese wedding, you will learn that each dish represents certain words and meanings. For instance, when Sam is describing it to Maggie:
"It's a literary finish. This last dish creates a word, perhaps the single most important word in the Chinese culinary language - xian, the fresh, clean taste. The character for xian is made up of two characters - the character for fish combined with the character for lamb. In this dish the two are joined. They mesh. They symbolize xian. They are xian."
There are no recipes in the story itself, but this edition included three on the very last pages: steamed clams and eggs, beggar's chicken, and pork spare ribs in lotus leaf. Each recipe is printed with permission from three different chefs, which can be found on the author's website.
Mones writes food very well, try reading this without feeling the comfort of a good chicken meal:
"Maggie couldn't wait. She picked up a mouthful of chicken that fell away from the carcass and into her chopsticks at a touch. It was moist and dense with profound flavor, the good nourishment of chicken, first marinated, then spiked with the bits of aromatic vegetable and salt-cured ham which had been stuffed in the cavity and were now all over the bird. Shot through everything was the pungent musk of the lotus leaf."
As you may already suspect, Maggie learns a great deal about real Chinese food and her relationship with Sam also grows, but very gently. It's not a quick, strong passion - the slow growth between them was believable and realistic.
The Last Chinese Chef is a fascinating look at the art of Chinese cooking. I enjoyed every moment of it and learned a lot of background information about preparing a banquet (not that I would ever be able to cook one).
I still remember telling Howard about how good the book was - when I was only half way into it. I whole-heartily recommend that you pick this up at your local library or neighbourhood bookstore. It's that good!
Disclaimer: This book was not provided by the publisher, author, or anyone affiliated with the book. There was no agreement or expectations that a review would be written and posted on this site.