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The Last Chinese Chef Paperback – 6 Jun 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (6 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547053738
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547053738
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.1 x 21 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 562,065 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

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.

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.

Finalist for the Kiriyama Prize for FictionWorld Gourmand Award Winner "Stunning... will really make your mouth water."
-"Entertainment Weekly" "Entertaining and learned... the perfect leisure read...effortless... profound... delicious."
-"Wall Street Journal" "The most thorough explanation of Chinese food I've ever read in the English language."
-Ruth Reichl, "NPR" "A dazzling journey... a feast... a page turner both exciting and wise."
-David Henry Hwang "Food and travel writing at its best... engaging, inventive, and incredibly informative."
-"Booksense" "It doesn't seem quite fair for an author to be as skilled...as Nicole Mones. Entrances."
-"Seattle Times" "Will transport you... you won't want to put the book down..."
-"NW Asian Weekly" "A masterpiece for Chinese food."
-Edouard Cointreau, judges' panel, World Gourmand Award "Subtle...meticulously researched... will entice. Avoid reading while hungry."
-"Kirkus Reviews" "Sumptuous... tantalizing. Early in her visit, Maggie scoffs at the idea that food can heal the human heart. Mones smartly proves her wrong."
-"Publisher's Weekly" "Crackling with energy and ambition.. will delight... erudite details and butter-smooth prose."
-Diana Abu-Jaber "Maybe you never considered the imperial heights of Chinese cuisine. Nicole Mones can change that with the flip of a page."
-"Charlotte Observer" "Outstanding and beautifully written."
-"Willamette Week" Erudite and entertaining...mouthwatering details on one of the world's greatest cuisines."
-"Northwest Asian Times" "Captivating...evocative... admirably adept...invaluably quirky knowledge about Chinese culture and food. "
-"New York Times Book Review ""Delicious... deftly portrays complexity and passion of a cross-cultural love affair... and the rarefied and competitive world of Chinese haute cuisine, a subtle complex art that reached its apogee in the court of the Emperor and was nearly obliterated in Mao's Cultural Revolution."
Judges' Citation," Kiriyama Prize ""Delicious...reveals the sophistication of an ancient culture but also its corruption, cronyism, and poverty. "
-"Waterstone Review"

Finalist for the Kiriyama Prize for Fiction World Gourmand Award Winner "Stunning... will really make your mouth water."
-"Entertainment Weekly" "Entertaining and learned the perfect leisure read effortless profound delicious."
-"Wall Street Journal" "The most thorough explanation of Chinese food I ve ever read in the English language."
-Ruth Reichl, "NPR" "A dazzling journey a feast a page turner both exciting and wise."
-David Henry Hwang "Food and travel writing at its best engaging, inventive, and incredibly informative."
-"Booksense" "It doesn t seem quite fair for an author to be as skilled as Nicole Mones. Entrances."
-"Seattle Times" "Will transport you you won t want to put the book down "
-"NW Asian Weekly" "A masterpiece for Chinese food."
-Edouard Cointreau, judges panel, World Gourmand Award "Subtle meticulously researched will entice. Avoid reading while hungry."
-"Kirkus Reviews" "Sumptuous... tantalizing. Early in her visit, Maggie scoffs at the idea that food can heal the human heart. Mones smartly proves her wrong."
-"Publisher s Weekly" "Crackling with energy and ambition.. will delight erudite details and butter-smooth prose."
-Diana Abu-Jaber "Maybe you never considered the imperial heights of Chinese cuisine. Nicole Mones can change that with the flip of a page."
-"Charlotte Observer" "Outstanding and beautifully written."
-"Willamette Week" Erudite and entertaining mouthwatering details on one of the world s greatest cuisines."
-"Northwest Asian Times" "Captivating evocative admirably adept invaluably quirky knowledge about Chinese culture and food. "
-"New York Times Book Review ""Delicious deftly portrays complexity and passion of a cross-cultural love affair and the rarefied and competitive world of Chinese haute cuisine, a subtle complex art that reached its apogee in the court of the Emperor and was nearly obliterated in Mao s Cultural Revolution."
Judges Citation," Kiriyama Prize ""Delicious reveals the sophistication of an ancient culture but also its corruption, cronyism, and poverty. "
-"Waterstone Review""

About the Author

Nicole Monesis the prizewinning author of three previous novels, "The Last Chinese Chef", "Lost in Translation", and "A Cup of Light", which are published in more than twenty-five countries.

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When an American food writer has to go to China to settle a paternity claim against her late husband, she gets more on her plate than she expects... I really loved this book! The intertwining stories of Sam's ambition to cook for the Beijing Olympics, Maggie's grief at losing her husband and the double life she fears he led, the "book within a book" of Sam's grandfather's cookbook - makes for a heartwarming and satisfying novel. And the food descriptions are mouthwatering.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Maggie McElroy is a food writer, who mostly writes about American food. Whilst still coming to terms with her husband's death, she is contacted by his lawyers in China who tell her that there is a claim against the estate which needs to be settled. It seems that her husband may have been leading a double life. Maggie manages to combine this trip with an assignment to write about the traditionalist chef, Sam Liang, who is competing in China's Olympic culinary competition.

In some ways this is a peculiar book; the basic plot is pleasant enough, but is quite predictable. When this book comes alive is when Mones starts to talk about food. This is the most incredible explanation of Chinese food, customs and manners that I have ever come across. It considers how Chefs come up with concepts for their meals and how culture has influenced food and vice versa; the importance of family and poetry. There were a couple of parts that were slightly unbelievable. I don't believe that any food writer doesn't know what five spice is, they even sell five spice flavour crisps these days!

On the whole this is a really good book, especially for foodies, but you might have to overlook some of the failings of the plot!
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Format: Paperback
though the plot wasn't exactly original or particularly highly developed i loved this book for the wonderful prose, the descriptions of food and chinese culture were spot on. looking forward to the next book by this author
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x8b3713d8) out of 5 stars 286 reviews
169 of 178 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8af6369c) out of 5 stars Exquisite 1 Jun. 2007
By P. Wung - Published on Amazon.com
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. Her descriptions of the dishes, her attention to the details of the preparation, her insistence on relaying the philosophical nature of food, on presentation, on the small details and gestures so very important in China, on the little puns and literary allusions of Chinese food had opened my eyes and sent me headlong into a frenzy to rediscover my heritage through my ample stomach. Thankfully, she was good enough to have included an afterward full of resources for research so that I can research these ideas on my own.

To top it all off, she was able to wrap all of the scholarly work in a very touching and suspenseful story. After all, guanxi is all about people. The characters in this book are not necessarily completely developed, except maybe for Sam and Maggie but the other characters are developed enough to elicit emotional responses, I cared about what happened to these characters. The relationships drawn in the story are very Chinese and yet also very western, the ending had a nice and tangy sweetness to it which made me smile.

I really liked this book, it combined a lot of my own personal loves: my ancestry, food, methods of writing, and China itself to pull me in and stay there until the end. It was informative with out being didactic, sentimental without being maudlin, philosophical without being humorless, and dramatic without dropping into melodrama.

I guess you can say that I endorse this book highly.
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8af636f0) out of 5 stars Chinese cuisine and a gentle love story reign supreme! 18 May 2007
By K. M. - Published on Amazon.com
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.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8af63b28) out of 5 stars Can't stop talking about this book... 15 May 2007
By Chef Panda - Published on Amazon.com
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...
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8af63ef4) out of 5 stars No amount of spice can make this mess palatable 17 Oct. 2014
By Emilie - Published on Amazon.com
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. You know visitors like to help."

If she's smiling when she says this, using self-deprecating humor to buck him up, this scene might work. But there's no indication of humor here or anywhere else in the book, for that matter, and instead she sounds like a translation from an ancient language.
Later in the same scene we get this exchange:

"You're precise," he observed, of her stacking.
"So are you," she said, of his cutting. "You were taught well." She watched him. "Why'd you start so late?" she said. "I've been wondering."
"Underneath, I think I wanted it too much."
She upended a clean, dripping enamel basin on the outer flank of her pyramid. "Meaning?"
"Did you ever want something so deeply you were scared to let yourself have it?"
"Like love," she said suddenly, and then wished she hadn't. She swallowed. "Like being in love."

Bear in mind, both these people are in their early 40s but talk as if they're wide-eyed woodland creatures in an old Disney movie. Who talks like that? "Underneath, I think I wanted it too much." It rings flat and cliched to the ear. I kept thinking his stilted speech pattern was because he was part Chinese. But no -- he was born, raised and educated in America and didn't leave for China until he was 37 and has only lived in China for four years. So why the odd formality, the clunky dialog? Not only is humor missing but there's no use of irony, something to give the scenes and characters depth. It's a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get style of writing.
The diction throughout the narrative is odd. In a scene with the previously mentioned uncle, Sam carries the man upstairs. Here's how the author describes it:

"Come, Uncle," Sam said, and he lifted the thin old figure in his arms like a child and bore him gently toward the stairs. Wang Ling bent to take the empty rattan chair.
"Oh, no," Maggie said quickly, "let me." And she scooped up the chair, which was light, and followed Sam into a central hallway and then up a straight single flight of stairs between whitewashed walls. At the top they turned into the second bedroom.

There are a couple of things here. First the word bore, used again later when he bore him back downstairs. It's an odd choice of words that makes the whole scene sound staid and self-consciously tender, like a nativity scene.
Also, that odd distraction to tell us that Maggie scooped up the chair "which was light" -- so what? Why mention it? We're distracted again and again in the book by details small and large which are presented once and never referred to again. When we first meet Maggie, she's sold her house and is living on a boat. Why a boat? No idea. Perhaps it sounded romantic to the author but it makes no sense in the context of the story -- Maggie is not a sailor, and as far as I can tell has never been on a boat or near one or raised by people who loved boats. Living on a boat takes some doing. It's not for everyone. Why'd she do it? In the end, it hardly matters because we only see her on it for a brief moment. It tells us nothing about Maggie. It's simply distracting and sits on the mind as potential plot material until one realizes no, this is just another pointless detail.
Going back to the odd syntax, here's another example. Early in their relationship, Sam waits in a taxi while Maggie runs an errand:

Maggie closed the door and trotted away from him to the entrance. She was aware that he was watching her from behind. When she was younger she would have worried about whether her shape was pleasing or not, but not now. She was old, forty, and besides, he was not interested. Still, she was glad she was going along. She felt a pull to him. Maybe they'd be friends after all.

I hear that last line and I hear the whiney voice of a pre-pubescent girl. By the way, did I mention they're both in their 40s? At one point we're told, "He was older than she, which was saying something." What it says we have no idea. When did 40 become "old." I thought 60 was the new 30. And who refers to their butt looking "pleasing"? It may seem nit-picky but the devil, as they say, is in the details. And in the case of writing it's where readers connect with the characters and setting so that we can then care about the conflict.
Speaking of setting, I like books set in China but nothing about the language here gave me the feeling of being in a new place. The descriptions of food left me wondering if it's possible that this author makes a living describing food. While I realize writing sex scenes for books is difficult, the scene with Maggie and Sam, when it finally happens, is so prudishly avoided as to leave the reader wondering if anything actually happened. Here, see if you can tell:

She let the question play, loving the strong, wiry feeling of his body from behind. Her hand played with his stomach and he tilted himself up to her. She put her lips on the back of his neck. That was it. She had answered. His hands loosened, his body turned, and in a long second she saw the prismatic potential of their lives unfolding.

I'm not sure what a "prismatic potential" is but playing with someone's stomach sounds painful.
The mystery -- and be forewarned, this might amount to a spoiler -- is so non-eventful that as soon as the answer arrives, we see the issue shoved aside without thought. I could have sworn Maggie would adopt the girl or at least take an interest in her despite the outcome of the test -- but no, Maggie gets the news and it's done. Same for the mystery woman in the picture Maggie carries with her. (I ask you, what widow carries with her a newspaper clipping showing her husband lying dead on a street corner? But I digress.) She shows it, for some reason, to a colleague of her husband who IDs the woman but when Maggie discovers that he's wrong, that's it, she never bothers to wonder more about it. Why bring it up in the first place? In fact, why didn't Maggie figure out on her own that her husband's mistress was in no position to have traveled from China to San Francisco and then back again to China, this time alone? In fact, the whole endeavor, Maggie's traveling to China to sort out the fraudulent claim, is illogical and easily avoided. Except, we had to get Maggie near Sam for the romance.
I could go on. Every page had a sentence or description or action that made my head hurt. This was a struggle to get through and I've already spent more time talking about how awful it is than I wanted. Certainly I spent more time reading it than I should have.
So, ever hopeful, on to another book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8af63fd8) out of 5 stars China brought to your heart and belly 9 May 2007
By Donna M. Dubose - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This story provides a wonderful peek into "guanxi" -- the Chinese concept of relationships. And food is at the heart of Chinese relationships. For example, unlike in America where food is individually plated, all meals are shared in China. Food there is a presentation of symbols, suggestions and references, connecting people not only to one another but to their culture, art, and history (p. 164).

The love story that develops along this culinary back drop is tender and believable. The book made me look at basic every day interactions with friends and family as an opportunity for gentler, more sensitive exchanges.
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