Food writer Nicole Mones has spent 18 years traveling to China, so it's fair to say that when she writes about a food writer who spends two weeks in China, Mones is up to the task. Although the novel contains no actual recipes, it won a World Gourmand Award in the category of Chinese cookbook. Such is the extent to which Chinese food is the thread that holds this story together. Cutting a clear path through the forest of noodles is narrator Elisabeth Rodgers, giving voice to the metaphor that extends from cooking to loving with a refreshingly crisp negotiation of the Chinese language.
The food writer in the story is a widow on a mission to determine if her late husband fathered a child by some other woman during his work in China. Since she may as well do some work while waiting for the paternity test results, Maggie profiles Sam, a competitive cooking descendant of the famous chef who authored the canonical kitchen text The Last Chef. Each chapter begins with a short excerpt from this mythic cookbook that relates as much about Chinese sociology as it does about the value of pork fat, read by the always delightful James Chen, whose voice unfortunately pops up only in these opening bits.
Foodies will find a treasure trove of practical information on the unjustifiable undervaluing of Chinese cuisine, and all listeners will enjoy some extended lessons on the cultural traditions that can heal lonely hearts. Rodgers is terrifically funny as Sam's uptight uncles, as well as the enigmatic lawyer and translator who assist Maggie with her husband's estate. Mones has written her third paean to Chinese virtues, and whatever you may make of the legal drama or the love story, you will never look at a takeout menu the same way again. Megan Volpert
In her satisfying, sensual third novel, Nicole Mones takes readers inside the hidden world of elite cuisine in modern China through the story of an American food writer in Beijing. When recently widowed Maggie McElroy is called to China to settle a claim against her late husband's estate, she is blindsided by the discovery that he may have led a double life. Since work is all that will keep her sane, her magazine editor assigns her to profile Sam, a half-Chinese American who is the last in a line of gifted chefs tracing back to the imperial palace. As she watches Sam gear up for Chinas Olympic culinary competition by planning the banquet of a lifetime, she begins to see past the cuisines artistry to glimpse its coherent expression of Chinese civilization. It is here, amid lessons of tradition, obligation, and human connection that she finds the secret ingredient that may yet heal her heart.
©2008 Nicole Mones (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
"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." (Amazon.com review)
"Early in her visit, Maggie scoffs at the idea that 'food can heal the human heart.' Mones smartly proves her wrong." (Publishers Weekly)
"Elisabeth Rodgers delivers the novel with verve. James Chen narrates the chapter openings, which are quotes from a revered ancient tome on Chinese food preparation and philosophy. Cookery lore; subtle aromas and flavors; bold colors and textures all vie with story elements that focus on culture and family to keep listeners fully engaged." (AudioFile)
I am not one to wax eloquent over most books - but this is one of the exceptions. A great story - especially if you are a foodie and interested in China. Beautifully written - very engaging - as it moves between characters, time frames, and focus. The descriptions of cooking and eating are very fun. The narration is excellent. I highly recommend this book.
Do you read the book before you dislike my reviews?
I'm kind of surprised that I enjoyed "The Last Chinese Chef." I was expecting a love, romantic story and wasn't thrill to listen to it, but as I got more into the story, I liked it and couldn't wait for more. Instead of listening about a man and a woman falling for each other, I learned so much more about the Chinese culture and how their food is a staple of who they are. The book is written well. As you follow the characters, you start to understand the Asian culture more by respecting their food as if it was art. The cooking competition over shadows the romance between the two main characters.
I love a novel in which I learn about an interesting subject wrapped in a compelling story. The Last Chinese Chef does all that quite well. I was fascinated to learn about the importance of food in the Chinese culture and how differently the Chinese view the experience of eating than do westerners. Simultaneously, I couldn't wait to find out what was happening with Mones' well wrought two main characters as their parallel stories intertwined. Mones successfully brings together the experience of an American writer looking for closure re her husband's life and sudden death and the experience of a Chinese-American Chef competing in a national competition as a lead up to the Beijing Olympics. A fun and different novel.
The use of language! Mones use of verbs and descriptors made this food/mystery/romance palatable. Since listening to it we have been on a Chinese food cooking jag.
Beautifully read. One of the best readings we have heard! Lovely intonation, never over done or flat.
Yes, we laughed. It brought back many memories for my husband.
We have already shared our love of this novel with friends
I have no idea when -- or indeed why -- I bought this book. I am a low-key foodie of sorts, but plain and simple are the operative words. I have no knowledge of, or indeed, much interest in, anything Asian at all. Beyond the fact that we eat Chinese food on Christmas, I'm not really hooked into this kind of food, or the history of the country, or much of anything else Asian. (Nothing personal. Just that I already straddle three-and-a-half cultures. I can't take on another one.)
No kidding, my first recollection of this book is in my passing it by, time after time, as I scrolled through my iPod playlist, every time skipping it with a "What in the world was I thinking?" shrug. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure I did buy it -- must have been a hellva sale somewhere, I just don't know when or what I was planning.
So. Maybe three weeks ago, I was listening to Joseph Finder's new book, "The Fixer". That book ended, and because I had my hands deep into the dirt outside in a fervor of tree planting, I didn't stop to select a new book. I merely allowed it to rotate over to the next book on the list, which was, indeed, "The Last Chinese Chef."
Well, huh. In spite of all everything I've said, the book drew me in from the very beginning. The idea of this food writer, newly widowed, struggling to find her way mirrored, in a way, my daughter's situation. She too is a new widow, her husband having lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. No, no paternity claim (thank Gd) but at age 40, she's floundering a bit, too, trying to adjust to this new reality for herself and her three-year old daughter. So I found myself listening pretty closely, finding common ground.
It's a darn good story, I'll say that. I blush to admit that when I got back into the house, maybe three hours into the book, I actually went to check, to see if it was fiction or if it could be a true story on some level. It's fiction, but really really well done..... very credible.
The only times my mind wandered was during the parts where the "last chef" -- the real last chef, which was Sam's grandfather -- was telling the story of his youth, his escape, his hard times. I just have no cultural markers on which to attach that kind of history, so I wasn't quite as keyed in as I was to the rest of the story. My mind went to other matters during those parts. I also felt queasy at some parts of the actual "food" tales -- I can't deal with animal slaughter, and far worse than that, the idea of eating things that are still alive is to me pure evil. A couple of times I took out my ear buds to let that insanity pass. I wish that hadn't been there -- that's the stuff of nightmares as far as I'm concerned.
Still, those parts are minimal. I thought there'd be a slightly different ending than there was, but I wasn't at all disappointed. I finished it, but even then didn't plan to write a review -- I usually only comment on books that I really loved, or those I was really disappointed in. This one, while good, edged too close to "Meh?" territory. I liked it, but I didn't really love it.
Then, a couple of days ago, I realized something had happened. In the two weeks or so since I finished listening, several times I found myself remembering things that happened, or were said, in this book. There are lots of memorable story elements -- in fact, it's filled with them. One was the whole idea of eating always being a communal activity -- not something one ever does alone. Very interesting -- and compelling, the way it's told. Then too, the whole notion of some foods being for taste, others for texture, or color... I hadn't thought of any of that before, but now that I have, it's stuck in my mind. That's just two -- there are many other things I remember from having listened to this book.
So now I have to rate this long-ignored book much higher than I would have, even a couple of weeks ago. I can even see the day when I might listen to it again -- it's that good.
It's still way out of my cultural ken, but still, a fine novel. Very engrossing. I'm glad I finally latched on to it.
Loved this book! Fine story and writing, and really neat descriptions of food and fascinating information on the Chinese philosophy about the properties of food and how the top chefs interested in the imperial style strive to complement and balance the perfect banquet.
If you want to listen to something soothing, refreshing and that will just make you feel warm and cozy, this is the one
So nice to read a simple romance with so much heart.
It was one of my favorites and I'll listen to it again. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from the "Last Chinese Chef" she is writing about are worth paying attention to. The cadence of the narrator never varied, for all circumstances, which distracted from the story a bit, but not much. If you love food, you'll love learning about the rich history and traditions of the Chinese. A wonderful book, easy to listen to, heartwarming and educational.
The intermingling of food, culture, tradition and family.
Alter her cadence.
Part history, part food love story, and part relationship - it was a fascinating voyage to a place I've never been before.
The food was my favorite character - the explanations and descriptions made it come alive and brought all the ancient principles to life.
It made me hungry - very hungry for Chinese food. The food I ordered had no resemblance to the masterpieces Sam made. I'm still hungry.
I was surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. It has all the ingredients of an excellent read - a gripping story - what happens next? It is a sad story - a man dies, the grieving widow becomes a heroine and we learn a lot about China and its cuisine. The narrators have served up an excellent mixture of past and present.
If you are interested in food, especially Chinese food, in China and its history and in a good yarn do buy this book.
"Good, not great"
This is a reasonably good book. The characters are believable and engaging and the description is quite vivid. I found the narrator a bit bland - she didn't add a great deal. The other thing I found was that the description of the food was a bit monotonous. Everything was the most wonderful thing she'd ever eaten. It would have made for a believable story, and made it easier for the reader to empathise if there'd been a few nice things, a few not so good, as there are for most people discovering a cuisine. But still a decent book, engaging plot and not badly written
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