The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel

The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel

3.9 43
by Nicole Mones

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This alluring novel of friendship, love, and cuisine brings the best-selling author of Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light to one of the great Chinese subjects: food. As in her previous novels, Mones’s captivating story also brings into focus a changing China -- this time the hidden world of high culinary culture.

When Maggie McElroy, a widowed


This alluring novel of friendship, love, and cuisine brings the best-selling author of Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light to one of the great Chinese subjects: food. As in her previous novels, Mones’s captivating story also brings into focus a changing China -- this time the hidden world of high culinary culture.

When Maggie McElroy, a widowed American food writer, learns of a Chinese paternity claim against her late husband’s estate, she has to go immediately to Beijing. She asks her magazine for time off, but her editor counters with an assignment: to profile the rising culinary star Sam Liang.

In China Maggie unties the knots of her husband’s past, finding out more than she expected about him and about herself. With Sam as her guide, she is also drawn deep into a world of food rooted in centuries of history and philosophy. To her surprise she begins to be transformed by the cuisine, by Sam’s family -- a querulous but loving pack of cooks and diners -- and most of all by Sam himself. The Last Chinese Chef is the exhilarating story of a woman regaining her soul in the most unexpected of places.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
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."

"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

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 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
From the author of Lost in Translation; the story of a woman coping with her husband's death and a paternity claim against him in Beijing, where his firm had an office. Chinese chef Sam makes all the difference by cooking up some wonderful food. The first fiction ever excerpted in Gourmet. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
American food writer has a dual assignment in Beijing: cover a chef competition and deal with a paternity claim against her late husband. Maggie, 40, lives on a boat in L.A., adjusting to widowhood after her world-traveling lawyer husband Matt is hit by an errant motorist in San Francisco. She writes a peripatetic column about culinary Americana, but now Matt's former colleague Carey has summoned her to Beijing: Grandparents are claiming Matt fathered their five-year-old granddaughter Shuying, and litigation looms under the (fictitious, alas) Children's Rights Treaty. (Matt did have a brief fling with Shuying's mother, Gao Lan, whom he met in a Beijing club.) Maggie's editor assigns her to profile a Beijing-based Eurasian chef named Sam, scion of the illustrious Laing clan. Sam's grandsire Liang Wei wrote The Last Chinese Chef, the definitive treatise on cuisine based on centuries-old dining traditions at the Forbidden City, where the Liangs wielded woks. Sam's father Liang Yeh fled China for Ohio during the Cultural Revolution. Now Sam has returned to carry on the family tradition under the tutelage of elderly mentors Jiang, Tan and Xie. Sam's Imperial-style ancestral restaurant lost financing, but he is a contender in an upcoming culinary Olympic trial. If he wins a coveted spot on the Chinese team, celebrity chefdom is guaranteed. When Maggie journeys to the south to take a DNA swab from Shuying, Sam tags along to visit dying Xie, who alone can impart sufficient refinement to Sam's wok chops. Maggie learns that another man is most likely the father, but after meeting Gao Lan, now a kept woman whose parents think the money she sends home derives from a career in "Logistics," sheresolves to help her anyway. As Sam's audition banquet approaches, Maggie is increasingly drawn to him. Mones (A Cup of Light, 2002, etc.) has a subtle touch when portraying growing affection between genuinely nice people. Meticulously researched gastronomy will entice foodies, even those whose familiarity with Chinese food is limited to takeout. Warning: Avoid reading while hungry. Agent: Bonnie Nadell/Frederick Hill Bonnie Nadell, Inc.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation? — Liang Wei , The Last Chinese Chef, pub. Peking, 1925

Maggie McElroy felt her soul spiral away from her in the year following her husband's death; she felt strange wherever she was. She needed walls to hold her. She could not seem to find an apartment small enough. In the end, she moved to a boat.

First she sold their house. It was understandable. Her friends agreed it was the right thing to do. She scaled down to an apartment, and quickly found it too big; she needed a cell. She found an even smaller place and reduced her possessions further to move into it. Each cycle of obliteration vented a bit of her grief, but underneath she was propelled by the additional belief, springing not from knowledge but from stubborn instinct, that some part of her soul could be called back if she could only clear the way.

At last she found the little boat in its slip in the Marina. As soon as she stepped aboard she knew she wanted to stay there, below, watching the light change, finding peace in the clinking of the lines, ignoring the messages on her cell phone.

There was a purity to the vessel. When she wasn't working she lay on the bunk. She watched the gangs ofsneakered feet flutter by on the dock. She listened to the thrum of wind on canvas, the suck of water against the hulls. She slept on the boat, really slept for the first time since Matt died. She recognized that nothing was left. Looking back later, she saw that if she had not come to this point she would never have been ready for the change that was even then on its way. At the time, though, it seemed foregone, a thing she would have to accept: she would never be connected again.

She stayed by herself. Let's have dinner. Join us at the movie. Come to this party. Even when she didn't answer, people forgave her. Strange things were expected from the grieving. Allowances were made. When she did have to give an excuse, she said she was out of town, which was fine, for she often was. She was a food writer. She traveled each month to a different American community for her column. She loved her job, needed it, and had no intention of losing it. Everybody knew this, so she could say sorry, she was gone, goodbye, and then lie back down on her little bunk and continue remembering. People cared for her and she for them — that hadn't changed. She just didn't want to see them right now. Her life was different. She had gone away to a far-off country, one they didn't know about, where all the work was the work of grieving. It was too hard to talk to them. So she stayed alone, her life shrunk to a pinpoint, and slowly, day by day, she found she felt better.

On the September evening that marked the beginning of these events, she was leaving the boat to go out and find a place to eat dinner. It was a few days after her fortieth birthday, which she'd slid past with careful avoidance. She found the parking lot empty, punctuated only by the cries of gulls. As she reached her car she heard her phone ringing.

The sound was muffled. It was deep in her bag. Living on the boat kept her bag overloaded — a small price to pay. She dug, following the green light that shimmered with each ring. She didn't answer her phone that often, but she always checked it. There were some calls, from work, from her best friend, Sunny, from her mother, which she never failed to pick up.

When she looked at the screen she felt her brows draw together. This was not a caller she recognized. It was a long string of numbers. She clicked it. "Hello?"

"Maggie? This is Carey James, from Beijing. Do you remember me?"

"Yes." She went slack with surprise. Matt's law firm kept an office in Beijing, and Carey was one of its full-time attorneys. Matt had flown over there more than a few times, on business. Maggie'd even gone with him once, three years before. She'd met Carey — tall, elegant, faintly dissipated. Matt had said he was a gifted negotiator. "I remember."

"Some year," he said, his manner disintegrating slightly.

"You're telling me." She unlocked the car and climbed in.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm surviving." What was this about? Everything had been over months ago with the firm, even the kindness calls, even the checkins from Matt's closest friends here in the L.A. office. She hadn't heard from any of them lately.

"I'm calling, actually, because I've come across something. I really should have seen it before. Unfortunately I didn't. It's a legal filing, here in China. It concerns Matt."


"Yes," Carey said. "It's a claim."

"What do you mean? What kind?"

Carey drew a breath. She could feel him teetering. "I was hoping there was a chance you might know," he said.

"Know what? Carey. What kind of claim?"

"Paternity," he said.

She sat for a long moment. A bell seemed to drop around her, cutting out all sound. She stared through her sea-scummed windshield at the line of palms, the bike path, the mottled sand. "So this person is saying —"

"She has his child. So I guess you didn't know anything about this."

She swallowed. "No. I did not. Did you? Did you know about a child?"

"No," he said firmly. "Nothing."

"So what do you think this is?"

"I don't know, honestly. But I do know one thing: you can't ignore it. It's serious. A claim has been filed. Under the new Children's Rights Treaty, it can be decided right here in China, in a way that's binding on you. And it is going to be decided, soon." She heard him turning pages. "In — a little less than three weeks."

"Then what?"

"Then if the person who filed the claim wins, they get a share of his estate. Excluding the house, of course — the principal residence."

To this she said nothing. She had sold the house. "Just tell me, Carey. What should I do?"

"There's only one option. Get a test and prove whether it's true or false. If it's false, we can take care of it. If it turns out the other way, that will be different."

"If it's true, you mean? How can it be true?"

"You can't expect me to answer that," he said.

She was silent.

"The important thing is to get a lab test, now. If I have that in hand before the ruling, I can head it off. Without that, nothing."

"So go ahead. Get one. I'll pay the firm to do it."

"That won't work," said Carey. "This matter is already on the calendar with the Ministry of Families, and we're a law firm. We'd have to do it by bureaucracy — file papers to request permission from the girl's family, for instance. It would never happen by the deadline. It won't work for us to do it. But somebody else could get the family's permission and get the test and let us act on the results. That would be all right."

"You mean me," she said.

"I don't know who else. It's important, Maggie. We'll help you. Give you a translator. You can use the company apartment. You still have Matt's key?"

"I think so."

"Then get a flight. Come in to the office when you arrive." He paused. "I'm sorry, Maggie," he said. "About everything, about Matt. It's terrible."

"I know."

"None of this was supposed to happen."

She took a long breath. He means Matt, hit by a car on the sidewalk. Killed along with two other people. Random. "I've wrestled with that one," she said. "So this child —"

"A little girl."

She closed her eyes. "This girl is how old?"


That meant something would have to have happened six years ago. Maggie scrolled back frantically. It didn't make sense. They were happy then. "If you'll give me the months involved I'll go back through my diaries and see if he was even in China then. I mean, maybe it isn't even possible. If he wasn't there —"

This time Carey cut her off. "Winter of 2002," he said softly. "I already checked. He was."

The next morning she was waiting in the hallway when Sarah, her editor, stepped from the elevator.

"What are you doing here?" Sarah said. "You look terrible."

"I was up all night."


"Bad news about Matt."

"Matt?" Sarah's eyes widened. Matt was dead. There could be no more bad news.

"Someone filed a claim."

Sarah's mouth fell open, and then she closed it.

"A paternity claim."

Sarah went pale. "Paternity! Let's go inside." She unlocked the door and steered Maggie to the comfortable chair across from her desk. "Now what is this?"

"A woman filed a claim against him in China, saying she has his child."

"Are you serious? In China?"

"Yes, and because of the agreements between our two countries, this claim can be ruled on in China and collected from there."

"Collected," repeated Sarah.

"Generously," said Maggie.

"What are you going to do?"

"Go there, right away. I have no choice. I've never asked you, in twelve years, not even when Matt died, but now I'm going to need a month off."

"Please! Doll! We run old columns all the time when someone has an emergency. You're the only one who's never asked for that.

Don't even worry about it. And a year ago" — Sarah looked at her, eyes soft with unspent empathy — "I told you to take off. Remember?

I practically begged you."

"I know." Maggie reached over and clasped her friend's hand. "The truth is, work kept me going. I needed it. I've always been like that. I'm stronger when I'm working. I don't know how I'd ever have made it through without it." She looked up. "I'm better lately. Just so you know."

"Good. By the way, your last check came back." Sarah showed her the envelope. "Do you have a new address?"

"I got a new P.O. box, one closer to where I'm living."

"Where are you living?"

"In the Marina," she said, and left it at that.

Sarah wrote down the new mailing address. "Thanks. Anyway, of course you can go, take a month off, we'll use an old piece. Don't even think about it. Maybe it'll be good for you, actually. You should make the best of it. Recharge."

Maggie spoke carefully. "Do you feel I need to recharge?"

"No. No, it's not that, it's just . . ." Sarah paused, caught between friendship and responsibility. "Lately you don't seem that excited about food. You must have noticed it too. I don't get the old sense of wonder."

I don't either, Maggie thought sadly. "In which stories did that bother you?"

"Well. The one on the Pennsylvania Dutch. Couldn't you have found anything charming about them?"

"You're talking about people whose principal contribution to cuisine is the pretzel. Who make perfect strangers sit at a table and share fried chicken. Whose idea of a vegetable is a sliced tomato. And don't get me started on their pie!"

Sarah smiled. "See, you're as wonderful as ever. Just go off like that. Let yourself go."

Maggie laughed.

"And don't forget that part, too. You always found the happiness in food."

"I'll try."

But now Sarah's small smile melted, and concern took its place. "Do you think — there's no possibility this is true, is there?"

"You mean Matt? I have no idea. Did he tell me anything or lead me in any way to think anything? No. He went to China on business sometimes, but so did all the lawyers in his office."

"You went there with him."

"I did, once, for a week. Three years ago. Nothing. And you know me. I am watchful. Being attentive is the way I write, and it spills over. I sensed nothing. But this, if it happened, would have been a few years before that. I can't think like this, Sarah, is the truth; I'll go crazy. I have to go and get a lab test, and that's that. Then on from there."

"It's going to be a difficult trip," Sarah said, now as her friend.

Maggie nodded. "And just when I was getting the guy kind of settled in my mind, you know? And in my heart. Plus, to be honest, Sarah, even though it's necessary and all, it's not really a good thing for me not to be working, even for one month. I perform better at everything when I'm working."

"Are you saying you'd rather work?" said Sarah.

"Of course I'd rather work, but I can't. I have to go there and see to this."

Now a new smile, different, the impish smile of an idea, was playing on Sarah's face. "Would you like to work while you're in China?"

Maggie stared. She wrote only about American food. "How?"

"File a column from there. We can run an old one — I already told you, it's no problem, you have some classics I'd love to see again — but we also have an assignment in China. It just came in. I can give it to anyone, in which case I'd have to send someone. Or I can give it to you, since you are going, and it can be one of your columns."

"You don't think I'm an odd fit?" said Maggie. She did do ethnic food, of course. From the Basque country-style platters of the San Joaquin Valley to the German sausages of central Texas, it was impossible not to. American cuisine had so many incoming tributary tastes. She knew them all. What she never did was foreign food.

"It's a chef profile. American guy, born and raised here, but half Chinese."

"Hmm. That's a little closer."

"He's not cooking American," Sarah said. "The opposite — back to the old traditions. He's descended from a chef who cooked for the Emperor and in 1925 wrote a book that became a big food classic, The Last Chinese Chef. Liang Wei was his name. The grandson's name is Liang too, Sam Liang; he's translating the book into English. He's a cook. Everything he does is orthodox, it's all according to his grandfather, even though Beijing seems to be spinning the opposite way, new, global."

"I like it," Maggie said.

"He's about to open a restaurant. It's going to be a big launch. That's the assignment, the restaurant."

"Look, I won't lie, for me it would be ideal. I would love to write it," said Maggie. "Not to mention that it would keep me sane. It's just — I don't know how you can give it to me. I'm the American queen."

"Sometimes it's good to mix things up. Anyway, you're going. When are you leaving?"


"Tonight! You must have a ticket."

"I do. And I'll have a rush visa by midday. Tell you what, Sarah, if you just reimburse me for the ticket, I'll take care of all the other expenses. I do have to go there anyway." And she did have the company apartment.

"I can sell that," said Sarah. She shone with satisfaction. She loved to solve a problem. "Are we there yet?" she said. "Is that a yes?"

They knew each other well. Maggie had only to allow the small lift of a smile into her gaze for her friend to read her agreement.

"Good," said Sarah. "So." She handed Maggie the file. "Sam Liang."

In Beijing it was late evening. Yet people were still out, for the autumn night was fine and cool, faintly sharp with the scent of the chrysanthemums along the sidewalk. It was the local life in his adopted city that Sam Liang loved the best, like here, the people shopping and strolling on Gulou, the street that went right up to the dark, silent drum tower for which it was named. Sam barely glanced at the fifteenth-century tower, which rose in the center of the street up ahead. He didn't look into the brightly arranged shop windows, or the faces of the migrant vendors who had set up here and there on the curb. He searched ahead. There was a cooking supply store on this block. His Third Uncle Xie had told him about it. Xie lived in Hangzhou; when he came north to Beijing he always stopped there.

Sam was hoping to find a chopping block, heavy, round, a straight- through slice of tree trunk, the kind that Chinese chefs had always used. He had two for his restaurant and he needed a third; a busy restaurant really needed three. Every place he'd tried had cutting boards, but they were the plastic ones — the new, modern alternative that had taken hold all over the capital. Plastic was cleaner, people said, safer; it was the future.

Sam didn't agree. He hadn't come all the way to China to switch from the traditional tree slab to plastic. Plastic ruined a fine blade. Besides, it was true what his grandfather had said, that wood was a living thing beneath a man's knife. It had its own spring.

Ah, he spotted the store ahead — its lights were on, it was open. If any place still had the old-style chopping blocks, it would be this one.

More than once Xie had explained how to choose one. "Never buy from a young tree, only an old one. Make sure its rings are tight with age. See that the block's been conditioned properly with oil, that it has a sheen. Don't bring home the wrong one."

"And what kind of wood?"

"When I was young all chefs used soapwood. Now most chefs use ironwood, though some like the wood of the tamarind tree from Vietnam. Listen to Third Uncle. Choose the wood that feels best under your hands. Forget the rest."

Sam opened the door to the shop. In one hopeful sweep he took in the long shelves with their stacked woks and racks and sieves and steamers. He saw the cutting boards, white plastic, in their own section. He saw only plastic; no wood, no tree trunks.

"Ni zhao shenmo?" said a woman's voice, What are you looking for?

It was the proprietress, a white-haired woman Sam recognized from Xie's description. "Elder Sister," Sam said politely, "I seek a chopping block, but the old kind, wood."

"We no longer have them."

"But why?"

"They are not as hygienic as the plastic. Especially now, you know how it is, everything is supposed to be clean."

He knew what she meant — the Games. "But if I may ask, when you stopped selling them, did you have any left?"

"No," she said.

His hope was sliding. "Zhen kelian." Pitiable. "My Uncle Xie told me he thought I could find one here. Do you know him? Your old customer? Xie Er?"

Her old eyes widened. "You know Xie Er?"

"He is my uncle."

She looked hard at him. He could feel her weighing the Eurasian mix in his face. Everyone did it. He was used to it. It was the light above his head, the air in which he walked. She wouldn't find anything in his face anyway, for Xie Er was his uncle not by blood but by other ties. "His father and my grandfather were brothers in the palace."

"You're a Liang," she said.

"Yes," he said, surprised.

She slid off her stool, stiff, and opened a back door behind her.

Sam moved closer. She touched a switch, lighting a storeroom of crowded shelves and boxes. "In here," she said, and he followed her. "This one." She moved some papers to the side.

As soon as he saw it, he knew. It was about two feet across, seven or eight inches thick, still ringed with bark, everything finished to a dull gleam. A heavy metal ring was embedded in one side, for hanging, as such a block should be stored vertically when not in use. He could imagine it ten years from now, twenty, its cutting surface worn to a gentle suggestion of concavity, changing with him, with his cooking, under his hands. He wanted it.

"I could pay you cash for it," he said. "I'd be so happy to do that."

"Do you cook?" She was eyeing him. "Yes?" she said at his emphatic nod. "Then just give me a moment. I'll think of a price."

"Please take your time," he said softly, but inside he was over- flowing. He reached out a practiced hand to feel the chopping surface. "And sister, if you happen to know, this is what sort of wood?"

"That?" she said. "That is the old kind. Soapwood."

Maggie stood in the airport in front of the candy counter. Matt had always given her candy corn. It was their signature candy, something she used to say every relationship should have. For them it was more of a sacrament than a food. The first time he brought it home he'd had in mind a joke on her American food specialty, but that was soon forgotten and it became his parting token. He would present her with a little bag before leaving on a trip. She could still picture how he'd looked one morning in their bedroom, in the slow-seeping dawn light, packed, dressed, ready to go. When? A year and a half ago? They both traveled so often that they rarely rose for each other's early departures. That particular morning she was half-awake, drifting; she could hear the rustle of his pants and the crinkle of plastic as he dug in his pocket for the little bag of corn. She heard him settle it by her bedside lamp and lean down to kiss the frizz of her hair. Just that. Too nice to wake her. Then the click of the door. Remorse bubbled in Maggie now. So many times she had let him go like that.

She walked over to the plexiglass tube filled with orange-and-white kernels and opened a plastic bag underneath. On the day he left for San Francisco, the last day she saw him, he did not give her any candy corn, because he was coming back that night.

In the year since, she had not eaten a kernel. She pulled the lever now and they gushed into her bag, a hundred, a thousand. She got on the plane and ate steadily, sneaking the sugar-soft kernels into her mouth one by one and letting them dissolve until her teeth ached and her head felt as if it would balloon up and float away. Queasy, full, she refused the meals when they came. She started a movie and turned it off. She sat washed by waves of guilt, guilt she'd felt many times this past year as she remembered that she and her husband, in truth, had always loved each other best when they were apart. And now it was for always. She closed her eyes.

She felt her computer bag between her feet. She hadn't even thought yet about the job. What with getting her visa, collecting a sample for Matt from the hospital where he had banked blood, delivering it to the DNA lab, getting the collection kit, packing, speeding to the airport — with all this she had not given the first thought to her interview with the chef. Actually it had been a relief to have to move so fast. Grief, which had become half- comforting to her, almost a companion, had seemed finally to take a step back. She felt like a person again, even if she barely made it to the gate on time with her carry-on.

Then she was strapped in, with her candy corn. She attempted to face the situation. Was it possible? Could the claim be true? She let her mind roll back once again. She lingered over every bump, every moment of discord; she knew where each one was located. They were all inside her, arranged since his death alongside love, rue, and affection. She threaded through them now. Another woman? A child? It just wasn't possible to believe he could have kept it from her. He was such a confessor. It was a joke among people who knew him. This was the kind of thing he could never, ever have kept to himself.

Especially since the question of children was one that came up between the two of them. Originally they were both in agreement. They did not want children. Halfway through their decade together, though, Matt changed his mind.

At first, when it started, she reminded him of the ways in which parenthood did not suit them. She traveled every month, and so did he. If they had a child, someone would have to stop. That would have be her, clearly; he earned most of the money. The thing was, she didn't want to stop, not for a while. She loved her column. Let me work another year, she would say. Matt was patient. He was the one, after all, who had changed his mind. But always the subject came back.

He could never have hidden a child. This thought seemed clear to her in the humming silence of the plane. The other passengers were sleeping. After a long time of shifting uncomfortably in her seat she got up and went to the back of the plane, to the hollow where there is always a tiny window. She looked out through the trapped streaks of moisture to the deep darkness, thinking. Finally she crept back to her seat and fell asleep.

When they landed in Beijing she felt a little sick from the sugar, and she dragged her feet past entry agents who stamped her passport and waved her ahead. She stopped at a currency booth to change a few hundred dollars and, thus fortified, stepped out of security into the crowded public area.

Touts swarmed. "Hello?" said one. "You want taxi?"

"No, thank you."

"Taxi. This way."

"No." She rolled her bag toward the glass doors, outside of which she could see people in line for taxis. On her right she passed a European man. "How much into Beijing?" she heard him say to one of the men.

"Three hundred," the man replied, and the European agreed. She kept walking.

Meanwhile the first man was still following her. "Taxi," he said, and then to her shock actually wrapped his fingers around her arm.

"Get away from me," she said, and shook him off with such force that even she was surprised. He stepped back, the loser, his smile derisive. She strolled to her place in the taxi line and felt herself stand a little taller.

Her turn came and she showed the driver the firm's Beijing business card, which bore the apartment address, then let herself melt in the back seat. She had done it; she was here. A freeway sailed along outside, dotted by lit-up billboards in Chinese and English for software, metals, chemicals, aircraft, coffee, logistics. What was logistics? Not knowing made her feel old.

She still had a few loved ones, at least. She flipped open her phone. It chirped to life. The first number was her mother's. Maggie didn't call her often, but every time she got a new phone she put her number first, at the top of the list, anyway. Her mother had raised her alone and done it well, even if she hadn't been able to make much of a home for Maggie. She deserved to hold the top slot.

Next came Sunny, her best friend and most frequently called number. Then Sarah; her other friends. And Matt's parents. Her heart tightened, as always, at the thought of them. Their suffering had been like hers.

She closed her phone as the car swooped down off the ring road and into the city. Right away she saw this was not the Beijing she remembered from three years ago. The boulevards were widened, the office buildings filled in, the street lighting redone. Maybe it was the coming of the Games. Or maybe it was just the way Beijing was growing. She remembered Matt saying it had been under construction all the time, going back more than a decade. Always building, investing, expanding, earning.

The driver turned down a side street and stopped in front of the building she remembered. She paid the fare — ninety-five kuai. She smiled at the thought of the man in the airport agreeing to pay three hundred. It was like being her old self for a minute; she'd always loved to be the better tourist.

Inside and up the elevator, she let herself into apartment 426 and clicked on the overhead lights. It was the same. The couch, the television, the windows that faced the city.

She rolled her suitcase to the wall. Her steps were loud in the silence. There was an envelope on the coffee table. To Mrs. Mason, it said. From the law firm. She opened it. Welcome you to China. Please come to the office in the morning.

Only someone who didn't know her would call her Mrs. Mason. She had never changed her name. No doubt they didn't know her; Carey was likely to be the only one still in the office who had been there three years before, when she came. She rememberedMatt telling her that, aside from Carey, the Beijing office was never able to hold on to foreigners for long. That was one reason the lawyers in the L.A. office, likeMatt, had to go there. Then in the last few years they'd hired two Chinese attorneys who had gone to university and law school in the States and then returned, and the pressure eased. Matt didn't go at all the last year and a half before he died. In any case — she checked her phone again — it was too late to call the office now. Calder Hayes would be closed.

It was early enough to call the chef still, but first she had to do some reading. She slid out the file with Sarah's writing on the tab, Sam Liang, and made herself into a curl with it on the couch.

The first thing she saw was that he was a chef of national rank, which had to be near the top in the Chinese system, and there was a list of prizes and awards. That was fast, she thought. He'd been here only four years. Then she came to an excerpt from his grandfather's book, The Last Chinese Chef.

Chinese food has characteristics that set it apart from all other foods of the world. First, its conceptual balance. Dominance is held by fan, grain food, either rice or wheat made into noodles and breads and dumplings. Song or cai is the flavored food that accompanies it, seasoned vegetables, sometimes meat. Of the latter, pork is first, and then aquatic life in all its variety. The soybean is used in many products, fresh and fermented. Dian xin are snacks, which include all that is known under the Cantonese dim sum, but also nuts and fruits. Boiling, steaming, or stir-frying are preferred, in that order, stacking food when possible to conserve fuel. Chopsticks are used. Of the world's cuisines, only Japanese and Korean share these characteristics, and everyone knows they have drawn their influence from the Chinese.

She looked up and out the window at Beijing. The urban shapes of progress gleamed back at her, the cranes with their twinkling lights, the tall, half-built skeletons. Clearly a city on the move. And yet this chef seemed to be reaching back into the past.

Fine, she decided. Contradictions were promising. They gave depth. She reached for her cell phone and punched in his number.

It rang twice, then clicked. "Wei," she heard.

"Hello, I'm looking for Sam Liang."

At once he turned American. "That's me."

"I'm Maggie McElroy. Table magazine?"

"Oh yes," he said, "the restaurant article. Wait. You're not here already? In Beijing?"

"Yes —"

"I didn't send the e-mail yet, or call. I should have."

"What do you mean?"

He fumbled the phone and then came back. "I hope you didn't fly here just to talk to me."

"What?" Wasn't that the idea? Wasn't she supposed to do that? Sarah had told her he was ready to go. "Only partly," she said to him now on the phone. "I did have some other business."

"I'm glad to hear that," he said. "Because right now, as of this morning, my restaurant's not going to open."


"I'm afraid I have lost my investor."

"But you can get another, surely — can't you?"

"I hope I can. I'm going to try. But until that happens and while it's all up in the air, I'm sorry, I can't do the story."

Maggie didn't think well on her feet. She always came up with the right response later, when it was too late. Writing worked better, allowing her time to sort things out; hence her choice of profession.

But she had to try to come up with something now. "The piece doesn't have to be about the restaurant. A profile of you would be fine."

"A profile of me? Whose restaurant is not opening?"

"Not like that —"

"With what just happened I can't say it seems like a good idea. I hope you understand."

"That could be a mistake." Her mind was whirling, looking for strategies, finding none. "Really."

"Please — Miss McElroy, is it?"


"Accept my apology. And please tell your editor too, I'm very sorry. I had no idea this was going to happen."

"I know," Maggie said. "Do you want to at least think it over? Because I'm going to be here for a few days."

"I'll think if you like. But I don't see how I can give you an interview about a restaurant that is not going to open. Or how I can do a profile when something like this has just happened."

"I understand," she said. She was disappointed, but she also felt for him. A lot of attention had been trained on this opening.

"Enjoy your trip."

It was an American thing to say, polite, faintly strained, distancing. He wants to get rid of me. "Take my number in case."

"Okay," he said. He took it down dutifully, and thanked her when she wished him good luck. Then they said goodbye, smiled into the phone, and hung up.

Copyright © 2007 by Nicole Mones. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

Nicole Mones is 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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The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 2 ratings. 43 reviews.
MsGourmet40 More than 1 year ago
I throughly enjoyed reading this book - but beware it will make you want want real Chinese food! After having the experience of staying In China and having real Chinese food , this book brought back many memories and wished I had some of those recipes of the foods I had over there. I love the story especially the brief parts in Shanghai and the family realtionships portrayed here. It is a great read for a book club or just on your own. Enjoy and I hope you don't get as hungry as I did!
AKinFL More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This book would especially interest anyone who has curiosity about Chinese culture and/or cuisine. The character development was excellent and layered, and the ending wasn't entirely predictable. As a cook, I found the nuances of the cooking -- especially the description of the meaning of each ingredient -- fascinating. I'd read another book by this author, and would recommend it for a book club. There's a wealth of discussion material not just on cuisine but on grief, loss, and joy, and especially on the meaning of family in the Chinese culture.
Ireland49 More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful read. The love of cooking and preparing the meal not just for nourshiment but for the culture of China was unbelievable. Nicole made the descriptions of food sound so good that I would gladly try every one. These are not your everyday take out Chinese meals. Enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I planned just to read a few chapters, but was so engrossed in the story that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning so I could finish the book. A wonderful read -with intrigue, romance, mystery, interesting details about Chinese cuisine (real and fiction). I recommend to any foodie or person who enjoys reading about family, relationships, and the world of food.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Newfound appreciation of the Chinese cuisine and its historical roots in this fictional story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Delightful read
JPFerris More than 1 year ago
This is a book I come back to over and over again--in part because of my fascination with China, but also because the main characters are so complex. They seem very real as they struggle to make new lives for themselves. Mones's "Lost in Translation" is also excellent.
TheMagicAttic More than 1 year ago
My favorite books are those page turners I just cannot put down. The Last Chinese Chef certainly surpasses this benchmark in my estimation. This captivating story transports the reader from the U.S. to China as the novel's main character, Maggie McElroy, discovers the unexpected in both her personal and professional life. Following her husband's untimely death, Maggie finds her journalism career and the details involved in finalizing her husband's estate, taking her into unknown territory. This delightful novel is a little mystery, a little romance and a lot of opportunity to reminisce about your own food memories. See China through author Nicole Mones vivid descriptions, explore the Chinese culture and customs, and savor the preparation of food as a Chinese art form, enriched when served in community. You too may come away from this novel enthralled by the unexpected in Chinese society and ready to sit at table with a whole new personal approach to the food on your plate.
SusanMN More than 1 year ago
Last Chinese Chef is a marvelous book filled with so much incredibly interesting information about the Chinese culture, food preparation, history, relationships/community that you won't be able to put it down. The story is written with such vivid detail and clarity that the reader can easily visualize the characters, the kitchens, the dishes being prepared and those being served. The author is obviously in love with China and that love is transmitted throughout the book. She also writes very well. I read the book over the week-end and haven't stopped telling friends and family about it! The story part is okay, however, the sections about history, tradition and the place of food in the culture are outstanding. I was fascinated by the pairing of good meals with art and literature to nourish all the senses. While I don't think I will attempt to recreate any of the dishes discussed in the book, I know I will be writing a poem as an invitation to my next dinner party! If you ever watch the food channel or search out a specific ingredient to create that special dish, this book is definitely for you.
Anonymous 9 days ago
This book is well written with a lot of details about Chinese cooking. I love the interplay among Maggie and Sam. The characters seemed like people you would like to meet. This book is a good read.
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Salgal More than 1 year ago
The food descriptions got boring after awhile. I liked the human part if the story but just too much foodie talk for me. Also being a widow I don't think you get over grief that fast.
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Definitely a new twist on a cooking centric novel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it.. After going to Beijing last fall and visiting the Hu Tong District including lunch with a local family behind the "Red" door, i'm enjoying and appreciating the book, people and food discussions so much more. I visualize "The Last Chinese Chef" going to the Forbidden City to work and taking food home in beautifully lacquered boxes. I'm mesmerized with the description of the food and culture.
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