Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: June 2008
Format: Paperback, 304 pgs
There is a Chinese saying "民以食为先 " (min yi shi wei xian), which means "food is god for the people" or simply put "food is the basic need of man". Indeed, we strive in life not only to enrich our minds but to feed our stomachs as well.
In this novel, author Nicole Mones shares with us not only the history and the art of Chinese cuisine but also a life experience story of a widowed woman and a chef and how food can nourish one's body and soul as well.
Maggie McElroy is a food writer for Table magazine. Her husband Matt passed a year ago and while she is still coping over the loss of Matt, she finds some solace in her work but that peace is shattered when she has received news that a woman in China has filed a paternity claim against Matt and now that he had gone, Maggie has to fly there to settle it. Without a doubt, Maggie is shocked over the news but thinking back she knew Matt's infidelity comes with a reason considering she doesn't want a child in the first place. With their busy work schedules and frequent work trips, she thought it isn't a good time for them all, plus she isn't ready, yet. Despite the difficult times, Maggie accepts an assignment from her editor to profile Sam, a half-Chinese American chef when she's in China. She knew work will keep her sane plus her editor told her that Sam is the last in a line of gifted chefs tracing back to the imperial palace. With Sam gearing up for China's Olympic culinary competition and news that his new restaurant would be opening soon, she knew this profile will make a great article for her column.
On the other end, Sam Liang is disappointed that his restaurant is not going to open as he'd lost his investor. When Maggie asked if she could do a profile of him, he rejected because without a restaurant there isn't much to say about but Maggie is adamant and is willing to interview and watch him prepare for the banquet for the competition. As the days go by, Maggie finds herself fascinated by Sam's culinary skill as well as his determination. Through their exchanges, she found out that Sam's late grandfather, Liang Wei, was a great chef himself and had written a book called The Last Chinese Chef. Sam and his father, Liang Yeh, are currently working together in translating that book but the progress is slow, given that Sam's father's heart isn't in it. Liang Yeh used to cook but has given up this skill the time they'd moved to America. Sam decided to continue their family's line of cooking and he returns to China to learn all the skills and techniques from his three Uncles, who are living in China. Sam knows that the Chinese cuisine is different from the Chinese-American cuisine back home and he intends to cook up a storm not only for the competition but for him and his father as well.
As Maggie watches Sam prepares for the banquet, she finds herself drawn to him by his passion for cooking and most of all, the friendship he has extended to her when she is alone and helpless in China. Sam has even gone through the extent of being with her when she faces the woman's family and the little girl who is believed to be Matt's daughter for the first time. Aside from Sam's friendship, Maggie also learns a lot about Chinese cuisine, its history and artistry and most of all, the human connection (关系 guanxi) which not only brings people together in a banquet but also this "ingredient" which has warmed and healed her heart.
What I really liked about this story is aside from the history and the culture of Chinese cuisine, it tells a heartwarming tale of two different people coming together and the discovery of one's self. I especially liked reading snippets of the various philosophy and metaphor about the Chinese cuisine history/culture at the beginning of each chapter; and though they appear to be excerpts from Liang Wei's The Last Chinese Chef, I found them to be very informative and meaningful. One example:
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? t 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 make 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
Finally, this novel is a nominee for the Kiriyama Prize* for Fiction (2008).
* The Kiriyama Prize is an international literary award awarded to books about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. Its goal is to encourage greater understanding among the peoples and nations of the region. Established in 1996, the prize was last awarded in 2008. (From Goodreads)