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The Last Chinese Chef

4.3 out of 5 stars 288 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0618619665
ISBN-10: 0618619666
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Nicole Mones has mined the endless riches of China once again in The Last Chinese Chef. This time she hits the trifecta: the personal stories of Sam and Maggie, the history and lore of Chinese cuisine, and an inside look at cultural dislocation. Maggie McElroy is a widowed American food writer who is suddenly confronted with a paternity claim against her late husband's estate--by a Chinese family. Her editor offers her another reason to go to Beijing: write an article about a rising young Chinese-American-Jewish chef, Sam Liang. Having sold the home she had with her late husband Matt and reduced her possessions to only the barest necessities, with her life feeling as though it is contracting around her, Maggie embraces the oppportunity to sort out her feelings about Matt's supposed infidelity and do some work at the same time.

She and Sam hit it off right away, even though he is involved in a very important competition for a place on the Chinese national cooking team for the 2008 Olympics. They travel together to the south of China where she meets her husband's possible daughter--with Sam standing by to act as translator--and where Maggie meets much of Sam's family. He has been welcomed back with open arms, even though he occasionally feels that he has one foot in China and one in Ohio. The Beijing uncles and the Hangzhou uncle are a raucous, loving, argumentative bunch of foodies who advise Sam about menus, encourage a romance with Maggie, make him start over again when the dish isn't perfect, and alternately praise and criticize his cooking.

Maggie loves being in the middle of it all and finds herself more and more drawn to Sam. She begins, with Sam's help, to see food as "healing" and understands the guanxi or "connectedness" that takes place around food. At the beginning of each chapter is a paragraph taken from a book entitled The Last Chinese Chef, written by Sam's grandfather and translated by Sam and his father. Mones has written that book, too, which is an explanation of the place of food in Chinese history and family life. The novel is rich with meaning and lore and an examination of loving relationships. Don't even touch this book when you're hungry. The descriptions make the aromas and textures float right off the page. --Valerie Ryan

From Publishers Weekly

A recently widowed American food writer finds solace and love—and the most inspiring food she's ever encountered—during a visit to China in Mones's sumptuous latest. Still reeling from husband Matt's accidental death a year ago, food writer Maggie McElroy is flummoxed when a paternity claim is filed against Matt's estate from Beijing, where he sometimes traveled for business. Before Maggie embarks on the obligatory trip to investigate, her editor assigns her a profile on Sam Liang, a half-Chinese American chef living in Beijing who is about to enter a prestigious cooking competition. Sam's old-school recipes and history lessons of high Chinese cuisine kick-start Maggie's dulled passion for food and help her let go of her grief, even as she learns of Matt's Beijing bed hopping. Though the narrative can get bogged down in the minutiae of Chinese culinary history (filtered through the experiences of Sam's family), Mones's descriptions of fine cuisine are tantalizing, and her protagonist's quest is bracing and unburdened by melodrama. Early in her visit, Maggie scoffs at the idea that "food can heal the human heart." Mones smartly proves her wrong. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618619666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618619665
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (288 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #893,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By P. Wung VINE VOICE on May 31, 2007
Format: Hardcover
There are certain times where I feel a certain condescension when I read foreigners trying to read meanings and poetry into what I feel is my domain as a person of Chinese ancestry. This isn't one of those times. In fact I feel humbled and delighted by the lessons that Nicole Mones was able to impart upon me.

It is rare that I get up from a book about China so totally enthralled and educated from a tome written by a yang ren, a foreigner. This book is the second book that has made me feel this way in the last few years. The first was Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler, it was a non-fictional observation about China and the impact that globalization has had on Chinese society. This book is a work of fiction, by virtue of that fact, it was able to draw me further into all that it had to convey: on being Chinese, on the complicated intertwining of Chinese food culture and general culture, on the meaning of guanxi, on the wonders of Chinese cuisine.

I had always felt that due to the unsavory nature of Chinese-American food as it is, that the true nature of Chinese cuisine has never been fully unleashed on the American palate. I have stewed on the fact that the French and Italian cuisines rank so much higher on the sophistication scale of the American gastronome versus the lowly Chinese cuisine. I felt it but I was unable to express it adequately. Nicole Mones has done this and more with this story.
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Format: Hardcover
Nicole Mones delivers a languid, sumptuous story about an American widow, Maggie McElroy, who journeys to China to find out whether a child born there to another woman was fathered by her late husband. She also has an assignment to write an article on a Chinese/Jewish-American chef, Sam Liang, who is descended from a line of venerable masters of cuisine and to whom Maggie gradually,sweetly grows close.

The reader is immersed in the lives of those Maggie meets, in the essences of Chinese culture and familial bonds, and in the meaning of food and the culinary arts there. Often whilst reading, one can almost breathe in tempting aromas of dishes being prepared in bustling Chinese kitchens. But although succulent meals can be vicariously savored regularly in THE LAST CHINESE CHEF, and food is arguably at the heart of the novel, Mones doesn't scrimp on plot or on presenting believable and very different human characters, all of whom share one bounty: every person is basically decent and kind (not a ready characteristic of much current literature). No character leaves a dastardly or incorrigible impression when all is said and done. Indeed, the reader is left with a halcyon -- though perhaps an overly optimistic -- feeling that everything works for good, even if fate isn't immediately favorable.

Four and a half stars for a luscious feast of a book that radiates a love for China, its people, and its delectable cooking traditions.
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Format: Hardcover
This book combines everything worthy in this world, good food, tender love and the warmth of family and place that touch your heart. Anyone who's "in love" with China would know the crazy feeling that enfolds you and everything becomes surreal and every sense is heightened.

This book captures that feeling and more...the characters are so real and believable that the moment the characters finally come together, it's something you've been rooting for all along. You want him to win, you want her to heal her heart...you want them together. When she thinks of staying in China forever, you tell her, yes, go on!!!

You read the culinary history excepts of Liang Wei with just as much intensity and you feel yourself drawn into a world that you wish you knew or as Sam feels, needs to be connected to...to be whole. The conversations he has with his uncles are some of the liveliest parts of the book....family ties you wish you had following you around the kitchen.

You don't need to love Chinese food or be a culinary history buff, this book is that good. But I guarantee you'll become one afterwards. You'll want another book to continue because the stories are so rich and there's still so much more we want to experience and *taste*!!! Did I mention all the luscious food, you'll never look at wonton soup the same way again...
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Format: Kindle Edition
I am stupefied, astonished and bumfuzzled by this book. What does it want to be? It's a history of China's food, Communist Revolution and massage parlors. It's a memoir of an old woman's childhood, a young woman's degrading relationships with men, an old man's career in restaurants and an ex-pat preparing for his mother's death --- and NONE of these people are central to the story. Their first person narratives are somewhat compelling but brief and in the end pointless.
Instead, the main story centers on Sam and Maggie, two of the most wooden, tepidly written characters you'll ever come across. Sam is a Chinese/American chef and Maggie is an American food writer sent to China to interview him. The problem is they're flat as cardboard.
Open to any page and try to imagine real people speaking the dialog of these two. For instance, after Sam has failed to impress his uncle with his cooking, he prepares to try again. In the kitchen, Sam says to Maggie:

"He's right. A meal like this has to be subtle." He cut with irritated clacks of his cleaver. "I ought to have known that."
"Well," she said. She sat listening to the rhythm of his cutting. This was a sound she liked. In time she noticed that the kitchen was a litter of sauces, chopped piles, covered dishes, and used bowls, and she walked to where he was standing. "I think you should move over, Sam. If you could. Make room at the sink. I can't cook in the slightest. I would never think of trying to help you. But I can wash. I happen to be very good at washing, and there's a lot of it here. Let me clean up behind you."
"You can't do that. You should sit down. You're a guest."
"You want me to be relaxed, right? Comfortable?" She waited for his confirming glance. "Then let me help. You're American.
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