The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

China in 2007 is the setting for The Last Chinese Chef, told in several viewpoints with the main focus on Maggie McElroy, a widow for one year.   She receives word that there is a paternity suit against her late husband, stemming from an alleged liaison in Beijing.  Going to China to clear this up is a complete hurdle for Maggie; her routine as a writer for a food magazine has kept her grounded after her husband’s death.  Luckily, she has an understanding editor who talks her into writing a story while there about an up-and-coming chef in Beijing; Sam Liang is a half-Chinese American who has plans for a restaurant and intends to enter a prestigious competition to cook for a pre-Olympic Games cultural presentation.

Maggie comes to China expecting hassles and stress and instead finds a sense of calm and purpose amidst a rapidly changing country coming to terms with its vast cultural legacy.  As a food writer with no experience of Asian cuisine other than Chinese-American fare, she finds a completely different set of tastes and variations in China.  She also discovers her good fortune to cover Sam for her story, as he sticks fairly ardently to the traditional, i.e. imperial cuisine that he has learned from his three uncles and his father, who fled from the coming threat of China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  As Maggie follows Sam’s passions for his craft, she experiences a kindred soul and a heightened sense of connectedness with family and culture that has been missing for her.  She also finds a surprising compassion for the mother of whom could possibly be her deceased husband’s child.

The Last Chinese Chef has the overtones of being a pat romance, but it has far more substance than that.  The book is a quick read and a great jaunt through Chinese culinary history.  The “book within a book” device works well here; each chapter begins with an excerpt from a book on culinary practices, itself called The Last Chinese Chef, supposedly written by Sam’s grandfather, a renowned imperial chef.  The change in voices (some chapters are in 1st person) can be confusing at times, but fit them in context and it all works. 

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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