How do you distill the culinary essence of 5000 years of history into a single short book?
The Last Chinese Chef is one of those books where even if you don't know a thing about the subject matter to start, you will by the end. Moreso, you'll likely be grateful for it. The more you know to start with though, the better you'll probably like it. I'm a huge fan, and would recommend it to anyone who has a care for the relationship between food and culture, food and family, or food and more food!
Written by Nicole Mones, who also penned Lost In Translation (you may have seen the movie- Bill Murray had an inspired performance), it weaves the story of a food writer and a great chef into an already bright tapestry of Chinese literature, art, culture, and food.
Much of the main story is outlined by parables and Chinese idioms which serve to flesh out the story and make it seem a bit less thin. There are a lot of coincidences in the book, but that's sort of how literature works in settings like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China anyway. It's really hard to break the 'Asian Mystique' trope, I've found!
This manuscript bears a lot of underlying resemblance to Jennifer Lee's "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles", a book I reviewed a while back (I'll link to that review at the end of this one). Not in execution of course, but in intent. It serves to not only educate, but to illuminate and fascinate. It answers many questions you might not know you had, and subtly brings out the desire to explore further as it does.
There's one small caveat to the book- it was set in the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Using that context, the story fits superbly- the journey of a chef alongside the journey of his homeland, both seeking greatness, belonging, and approval as what they were and what they strive to be. The deliberate setting serves to highlight the past, analyze the present, and inspire hope for things yet to come. It's a superbly chosen parallel, but in fifty years, the lines may not be so clear. Something to keep in mind.
In spite of that one bit of bother, this book is well worth a read. It is indirect in its messages, but could never be called vague. Chinese style, by a non-Chinese.
And that's the point, really. Read it- you'll see.