In Nicole Mones’s delicious novel, The Last Chinese Chef, we learn that during the dark years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, sumptuous feasts were restricted. The rules differed by regions. In some areas, guests were to be served no animal meats besides chicken, fish and pork. Bamboo shoots, kelp and lentil noodles were also forbidden. New Year feasts were banned in the West Third District, while in Hengshan County no more than eight dishes could be served at a banquet.
While human rights violations in 1960s China have been widely documented, the fate of the great chefs has been less well known. They too, were considered enemies of the regime.
One of these "enemies" is a brilliant young chef named Liang Yeh, son of a Beijing chef who had apprenticed in the last emperor’s kitchens. He is sent away from the capital after authorities close his father’s restaurant. For years he works feeding legions of workers in a huge dumpling house and keeps his head down, hiding his family origins and his extraordinary cooking skills. When, one day, a waiter brings an order down to the kitchen from a diner for a complicated imperial dish that only Liang Yeh would know how to make, he realizes that someone knows who and where he is. Sensing danger, he flees on foot and eventually makes his way to Hong Kong and from there to the US. In America, he begins an English translation of an antique volume called The Last Chinese Chef, a food-laden memoir by his own father Liang Wei. That book, parts of which are sprinkled through the text, is entirely Mones’s happy invention.
The story of Liang Yeh emerges half-way through Mones’s novel, by which time we are firmly in the present-day, captivated by Maggie McElroy, a food writer for a magazine not unlike Gourmet, and Sam Liang, the American-born son of Liang Yeh, a chef himself. Maggie was recently widowed when her husband, an international lawyer, was killed in a car accident. She receives another shock when a Chinese woman with a small daughter files a paternity suit against her dead husband. Her husband’s firm maintains an office in Beijing and Maggie goes there to investigate the paternity claim. At the same time, she accepts an assignment to write a story about Sam Liang, who has returned to the land of his ancestors to reclaim his family’s preeminent place in Chinese cookery.
Sam is preparing for a grueling competition among leading chefs to create a banquet for the forthcoming Olympic games and is being coached in traditional techniques by his three "uncles," two of whom are retired chefs and one a food historian.
Sam teaches Maggie the intricacies of Chinese haute cuisine. We learn that the meishijia, the true gastronome, eats for texture as much as flavor. There are three textures to be experienced in a great meal: cui, a dry crispiness; nun, a smooth, yielding texture like properly cooked shark fin; and ruan, a perfect softness like a soft-boiled egg. Successful dishes must balance flavors for which we have no precise English words. Xian is the pure natural flavor; nong, the concentrated meat flavor. There is even a word for the rich flavor of fat.
But that is not all. Sam also teaches Maggie to love again.
Before she became a novelist and a writer for Gourmet magazine, Nicole Mones spent 18 years traveling to China while running a textile business. She knows and loves China but avoids being sentimental about it. In The Last Chinese Chef, she reveals the sophistication of its ancient culture but also its corruption, cronyism and poverty. In the end, she manages to resolve her multiple storylines in a highly satisfactory and believable way.
Reviewed by Judy Stoffman