The Last Chinese Chef is a book I would recommend to both fans of Chinese food and to the people who fear it. While there is a plot–and a pretty good one–the book is really about traditional, Imperial Chinese cuisine, the food they used to make before the last emperors. This book shines when Mones talks about food.
The first chapter introduces us to Maggie McEllroy, a widowed food writer who is not dealing with it very well. When she gets a call that her husband may have had a child in China, Maggie takes a job to keep her occupied in her free time. The book starts to pick up once Maggie meets Sam Liang, the grandson of the man who wrote a book called The Last Chinese Chef. I know it’s a little confusing, but stick with me. Liang the elder was trained by a chef for the Dowager Empress Ci Xi, and passed down what he learned through his cookbook, The Last Chinese Chef. Sam is trying to open an Imperial-style restaurant in Beijing and is going to compete to in a banquet contest. Mones switches back and forth between Maggie’s legal troubles and Sam’s preparations for the banquet.
Meals, exquisitely described, punctuate the novel. They were so well done that it was tempting to skip through the book from meal to meal and ignore the parts in the middle. I know that the Chinese food that you get in America is nothing like the food you get in China. The ingredients are different. The preparations are different. The characters in this book make the point that Chinese food had to become familiar to Americans in order to get us to eat it. Mones emphasizes the differences. She talked about so many foods that I’d never heard of that I had to keep looking things up in Wikipedia, like lotus leaves and obscure fish species.
The story is a bit run of the mill. Like I said, the best parts of this book are the food parts. I feel like I understand the cuisine better. I really wish I could have Chinese Chinese food. The story is a slight variation on boy meets girl. It’s a sweet love story, but Sam and Maggie are not star crossed lovers by a long shot. It was an enjoyable read, but not gripping.