Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Review - The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel by Nicole Mones


Title: The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel
Author: Nicole Mones
Year: 2007
Page: 288
Genre: Fiction

New to me author? Yes
Read this author again? Maybe
Tearjerker? No
Where did it take place? China
FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Summary (from
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.

First Sentence:
Maggie McElroy felt her soul spiral away from her in the year following her husband's death; she felt strange wherever she was.

Why did I pick this book?
Saw the review from Cessie's Book Journal. It's a fictional story about food! :) Since I just got back from Hong Kong, I miss the food there, so thought I'd read this now (from the growing piles of library books I had been getting since I got back! I went to the library 3 times already this week, with a full bag each time I left... I just can't help myself!)

My thoughts:

  • I almost didn't read this book - I read that the author also wrote Lost in Translation. I know many loved the Lost in Translation movie, but I was bored and couldn't finish. So I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this after I found out, but I was missing my Chinese food :) Of course, now that I bothered to read the description of the Lost in Translation book that the author wrote, it is NOT the same as the movie. Stupid me. Should have read more than just the title.
  • I have mixed feelings about the book - the storyline is rather simple and predictable, but reading it also made me hungry because the dishes described in it sounded so delicious (and not dishes I'd tried before, since Chinese food in Hong Kong is a different style to the ones described in the book.) I also learned something new about Chinese food. Had it not been for the food in the book, I'd have rated it much lower...
  • I kept hoping there were photos in the book! The author's website, she included some recipes of the food mentioned in the book, I just wish it has pictures of all the dishes mentioned!
  • I don't know how I feel about the characters. I think they lack depth and thus I felt indifferent about all the characters. The "reasons" (for something the characters did or felt or reacted to or acted out) were briefly explained but they just seemed a bit too "convenient" and to some degree not very believable to me. Also, some characters (or their back stories) don't really add much to the story.
  • I also wonder about the use of some Chinese words in the book (this doesn't apply to just this book... seems like all books set in foreign settings does this too) - I can understand inserting some local words to add some flavors or authentication to the story, but at the same time it gets a bit annoying when it was used in partial conversion rather than using it to explain something. E.g. Two characters spoke to each other in Chinese, but the conversation was written in English (understandable, since it is an English book after all or most readers wouldn't have a clue what is going on), but then a sentence here and there, or a vocabulary here and there, will be in Chinese. There are also some mistakes when a character spoke Chinese to someone who didn't understand Chinese, or someone who didn't know English responded to something said in English. Now, I can speak Cantonese (a Chinese dialect) but barely know Mandarin (what the book used), so for a lot of the vocabularies I couldn't quite figure out what it is, so that probably added onto my frustrations. If the Chinese words were written in Chinese characters, I would've know what they are, but all Chinese words in the book were "spelled" out instead.  
  • A good use, I think, to include the foreign words, is perhaps illustrated in this passage:
"Every great banquet ends with a fish," he told Maggie in English. "This is going to be carp in lamb broth" "I don't think I've ever heard of that combination," said Maggie. "It's a literary finish. This last dish creates a word, perhaps the single most important word in the Chinese culinary language -- xian, the fresh, clean taste. The character for xian is made up of two characters -- the character for fish combined with the character for lamb. In this dish the two are joined. They mesh. They symbolize xian. They are xian." (p240)

  • I borrowed the hard cover version of the book (the first picture shown above) which is quite elegant looking. The soft cover version probably conveyed the story a little better. I can't decide which one I like better though. I don't love them (they don't scream "PICK ME!") but they are nice enough.
  • Now if I could just eat the food mentioned in the book!!!


"Artifice. Illusion. Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind. We have a lot of dishes that come to the table looking like one thing and turn out to be something else. The most obvious example would be a duck or fish that is actually vegetarian, created entirely from soy and gluten, but there are many other types of illusion dishes. We strive to fool the diner for a moment. It adds a layer of intellectual play to the meal. When it works, the gourmet is delighted." (p36)

He looked down at them sadly. These hands had been as precise as any surgeon's. He'd been able to flash-cut vegetables almost thin enough to float up and away like butterflies on a breeze. (p99)


Have you read this book? 
If you have, I would love to hear what you think!
I'll link your review here if you wish!

100+ Reading



  1. I love Chinese food and the quotes you've mentioned here are very good :) I'd like to read this book! Thanks for the great review :)

  2. Beautiful review. I love your reviews. They paint a very simple clear thorough picture :)

  3. This books sounds very nice, I love books that feature food because I love to cook...and Chinese is a great favourite. Thanks for the great review!

  4. Nice to know a cantonese in the USA. I am a Hokkien in the UK, but I do speak Cantonese and other languages. :)

  5. @Kals - The book mentioned the difference between Chinese food and Chinese-American food, which I find quite interesting also! I live in a smallish mid-west town, and definitely miss authentic Chinese food.

    @Juju - thank you!

    @Vaishnavi - I love food but am not a good cook at all, but I definitely love reading about food and cooking, and hope that I can cook better!

    @Jovenus - I wish I can speak more than English and Cantonese! I have always been interested in languages, just am not very good at learning new ones :(

  6. Hi Christa, lovely blog and great review, you enjoyed it for similar reasons to me - that is, the food, which is described so superbly.

    The description of xian had me running for my chinese dictionary to check....still takes me half an hour to find a single character in there....I also wondered why she didn't include the chinese characters in the text.

    Thanks for stoping by my blog too!

    Cheers, Fiona