Oct 28, 2011

Book Review: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

"I love that you got it about the food," he said, "that you understood it, that maybe - I hope I'm not projecting - you might even be on your way to loving it." (ch. 14)
Title: The Last Chinese Chef: a Novel by Nicole Mones
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 4, 2007
Genre: culinary history, fiction
Rating: 4.5/5

My comments: Maggie McElroy, a food writer in America, is on personal mission to Beijing, where her deceased husband Matt worked on and off as a lawyer. Someone has filed a suit against his estate and she must find out the truth. She is also sent by her editor to interview chef Sam Liang in Beijing for an article. Liang is translating a culinary book with his father from the old Mandarin - The Last Chinese Chef.

In Beijing, Maggie's personal problems are balanced by her new interest in the history of Chinese cuisine as she learns about food used as a way to develop community as well as a way to ease heart and mind. She learns about the combinations of texture and flavor to provide various meals categorized as extravagant, rustic, or elegant. She also discovers the difference between Chinese American food, meant to be familiar yet exotic, and true Chinese food, with each dish different and unique.

I found the book very informative and learnt to appreciate the time, skill, and thought that goes into classical Chinese cooking. The special dishes that were once created exclusively for the Imperial family are now enjoyed by all. I myself am a great fan of dim sum, the little dishes of amazing variety that once only the Imperial family were privileged to eat.

Book description: Nicole Mones takes readers inside the hidden world of elite cuisine in modern China through the story of an American food writer in Beijing. When recently widowed Maggie McElroy is called to China to settle a claim against her late husband’s estate, she is blindsided by the discovery that he may have led a double life. Since work is all that will keep her sane, her magazine editor assigns her to profile Sam, a half-Chinese American who is the last in a line of gifted chefs tracing back to the imperial palace. As she watches Sam gear up for China’s Olympic culinary competition by planning the banquet of a lifetime, she begins to see past the cuisine’s artistry to glimpse its coherent expression of Chinese civilization. It is here, amid lessons of tradition, obligation, and human connection that she finds the secret ingredient that may yet heal her heart. (Amazon)

About the author: Mones, award-winning author of Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light, and a contributor to Gourmet magazine, ran a textile business in China for 18 years at the end of the Cultural Revolution. She lives in Portland, Oregon. For more about her books, visit her at Nicole Mones.

© Harvee Lau 2011


  1. This sounds very good. There are so many books about China, but not that many to do with modern China, so I think I would find this very interesting!

  2. I am in love with foodie books, so this one sounds great to me. I love that it explores the cuisine of China in such an interesting way, and the story surrounding it sounds wonderful as well. Fantastic review! This one goes on my short list!

  3. I love Chinese food, but I think what we get here is probably more of an "Americanized" version of the real thing.


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