"The Last Chinese Chef"
by Nicole Mones
Houghton Mifflin, 278 pp., $24
It doesn't seem quite fair for a writer to be as skilled at genre hopping as Nicole Mones, author of the engrossing new novel "The Last Chinese Chef."
Her articles in leading foodie magazines are drool-worthy. Those thoughtful restaurant reviews roving from Shanghai to Los Angeles? Almost like being there. Then there's her past work as a translator for archaeologists in China, or the textile business she started and ran for 18 years there.
All those accomplishments pale next to Mones' fiction, on which one can blissfully dine for days at a time. Her earlier works (especially "A Cup of Light") established Mones as a writer of sumptuous fiction, drawing on a relationship to China so intimate as to be woven into every page.
"The Last Chinese Chef" is a love story at many levels: love of tradition, love between family members. Love for a marriage ended by tragedy, for the possibility of new tastes and experiences. At its center is Maggie McElroy, a recently widowed food writer who travels to China to investigate a paternity suit against her husband's estate. She accepts a magazine assignment as well, a feature on promising Chinese-American chef Sam Liang. Both Maggie and Sam are traveling in two worlds — her world of the past and the present, his of overlapping, clashing cultures.
Remarkably, Mones entrances both the serious cook and those of us belonging to the "How long do I microwave this?" school. In her care, the lovingly prepared meal is both a conscious act of culinary craft, meticulously described, and a metaphor for meaningful spiritual exploration. As a wise uncle of Sam's reflects: "Almost anything could be recalled or explored through food."