In The Last Chinese Chef, Nicole Mones treats us to the largely unknown and enticing world of Chinese cuisine. True Chinese food, she shows us–and this fact should really come as no surprise–bears little resemblance to the meat-covered-in-brown-sauce and other dishes presented in uniform menu columns throughout Chinese restaurants in the United States. The food that is painstakingly planned, arduously prepared and joyously consumed by Mones’ characters not only tantalizes all of the senses, but also serves as the gateway to understanding a people.
The novel’s protagonist, American food writer Maggie McElroy, discovers the magic of real Chinese cuisine when she combines a professional mission with a wrenching personal errand: to investigate a paternity suit filed in China against her late husband’s estate. Grieving, numb and heartbroken, Maggie is asked to write an article about Sam Liang, an American of half-Chinese and Jewish descent who has gone to China to follow in the footsteps of several of his ancestors by becoming one of China?s most skilled chefs. Sam is also seeking a sense of community and belonging, and we learn as the novel?s story unfolds how closely intertwined Sam?s cooking, vocation and ethnic identity really are.
Sam has never learned to be comfortable inside the dueling aspects of his identity. He feels neither fully Chinese nor fully American, and he cannot escape the inherent Jewishness at his core. Even after living in China for several years, he is still branded a foreigner by his face. The limitations of his heritage are unavoidable: “Luck was with him that the other half was Jewish, as Jews were admired for their intelligence, but still, here in China, it was bad to be only part Chinese. This was always the first thought of Sam’s detractors.”
Unfortunately, this observation turns out to be the first of several superficial references to Sam’s Jewishness. Although Mones scatters a few additional nuggets of Judaism into Sam’s background, these convey only the most commonly known characteristics of what it can mean to be Jewish. For example, we are told that Sam’s lifelong passion for cooking began in his mother’s kitchen, where he learned to prepare “brisket, chicken soup, challah.” One wonders why a Jewish American woman would only teach her child how to prepare Jewish dishes; most such women I know–myself included–consider these dishes only a portion of our larger culinary repertoire. Alternatively, if these recipes were special to Sam for some reason–say, they were linked in his memory to nostalgic celebrations with his family–it would be helpful for the reader to be given this context.
In Mones’ only other reference to Judaism, Sam attempts to comfort a reluctant and distraught Maggie by preparing a succulent chicken dish infused with aromatic ginger and cilantro. These flavors, he informs her, are meant to “heal grieving.” When Maggie expresses discomfort at the assumption behind Sam’s invasion of her privacy–she has not yet told him all of the details behind the real purpose of her visit to China–he explains his action by noting that performing such acts was “how my mother raised me, to do things for people. She called it a mitzvah.” Perhaps this sort of kindness is what Sam has chosen to value from his Jewish half; maybe it represents a tiny part of himself that he accepts. But Mones does not delve deeper, so we are left to wonder: Is doing a mitzvah a tile in the mosaic that is the multi-ethnic Sam? Is it a piece of a heritage that he ultimately wants to embrace, as he has embraced a legacy of being Chinese and becoming a chef? These questions are never pursued–and never answered.
In sum, although Sam’s mixed national identities comprise a major theme of the novel, his Jewishness does not. The reader should not look here for deep insight into the psyche of a man torn between his Jewish and other faith parts. We never really understand why Mones believes Sam’s Jewishness to be important or what her purpose was in assigning him this identity.
The Last Chinese Chef is ultimately about a beloved cuisine that represents not merely a culture, but every aspect of a people: its poetry, its art, and, above all, its sense of community. In this central goal, the book succeeds in two ways. First, it instills a feeling in the reader that one must drop everything and board a plane for China–and Sam’s yet-to-open restaurant–in order to sample myriad dishes that most of us have never encountered. Second, Mones’s novel shows us how one man, in pursuing the calling that represents the only part of his identity with which he is comfortable, eventually comes to find a place in the world that he can truly call his own. But for a deep exploration of what it means to be partly Jewish, the reader will have to turn elsewhere.