A Conversation With Nicole Mones Author Of The Last Chinese Chef
Your novel comes to life against the unusual background of serious Chinese cuisine. Why did you choose this setting?
Because there is a magnificent world of Chinese food that remains invisible to most Americans. What we call Chinese food in this country is a hybrid cuisine, different and limited, so most Americans have never even experienced true Chinese food, much less glimpsed the depth and elegance of its conceptual framework. Cuisine in China does so much more than sustain the body. It heals; it nourishes the heart, stimulates the mind, and even calls back the soul. So while the novel does lift the curtain on a previously hidden world, its story is universal. We all have times when we need a little help in calling back the soul.
When did you become interested in Chinese food?
From the moment I arrived there. You can imagine what a shock it was to sit down to my first banquet in the People's Republic. I had never dreamed such dishes existed. In the eighteen years I did business in China, banquets were a regular feature of my visits to the provincial offices of the state-owned textile corporation. At first I did not understand why each banquet included me, the lone guest, and hordes of people from the local office - most of whom I'd never seen before. Years later I was chagrined to comprehend what these banquets actually meant to those people. Food then was rationed. The chance to eat real cuisine - banquet-level dishes that were works of art, cooked by top professional chefs - was extraordinary. Of course everyone crowded in.
As I learned Chinese, I also came to see that the cuisine had a secret language of its own. From seating to serving to the menu itself, every arranged meal sent signals without words. Often in those years I would hear foreign businessmen complain that they had sat through a three-hour banquet only to have every attempt to discuss business rebuffed. They did not understand that the banquet itself was the conversation.
Was there much of a restaurant scene then?
No. In the early fifties, the government allowed only a few restaurants to stay open; they shuttered the rest. By the nineties, that had changed. Privatization arrived and the restaurant industry was one of the first to bloom. You might say that food, formerly reviled as decadent, was one of the first of life's pleasures to be rehabilitated in the new free-market China. Now it's really big. There's keen competition to create great cuisine. It's a boom time for the art form.
After finishing this book, many readers will wish they could taste the dishes described in it.
They can. Many of the dishes featured in the book are currently in the repertoire of great Chinese chefs in various parts of the world and can be sampled should lucky travelers find themselves in the right place. Some chefs even gave me their recipes. Information on tasting and cooking dishes from the novel can be found on the Web site www.thelastchinesechef.com.
What was it like to research this book?
Fascinating from the start, and it only got better. Since 1999, when I started writing about Chinese food for Gourmet, the food scene has reemerged with great force, and I've interviewed a lot of people - chefs, gourmets, owners, managers. I've learned that Chinese cuisine has its own philosophy, sensibility, and inner erudition. It's so much more than merely food.
Obviously you know a tremendous amount about China - how did you become such an expert?
I got involved there early, in 1977, before diplomatic relations had resumed. The United States had lifted its ban on citizens doing business in China in the early 70s, but no more than a handful of Americans had tried to do anything. Maybe that's why I was able to do it. When Zhou Enlai and later Mao Zedong died in 1976,1 could see that China was going to emerge. After doing some research, I decided on buying woolen textiles to sell in the United States. My friend Cyndi Crabtree, an accountant and gifted financial analyst, did the business planning, and I sent letters to the Chinese government asking them to invite me to do business there.
What was it like when you first got there?
The Cultural Revolution had just been formally ended by the National People's Congress six weeks before. You had to go to a rural border village north of Hong Kong and cross on foot. British authorities would exit-stamp you to walk across a wooden bridge with your suitcase. You could see Chinese in green military uniforms waiting to admit you into their world. I remember being surprised that I made it across without fainting. It was very surreal. At that time China was premodern; to enter it was to fall back in time to the 1940s. And people were completely traumatized by the Cultural Revolution and the famine that had preceded it.
When you arrived did you speak Chinese?
Not a word. I had zero knowledge of China or its language. But I was thrilled to realize that because I was a business traveler no one kept much of an eye on me. I could go where I liked, alone, without any government minders. Only one problem: I didn't speak Chinese, so I couldn't go anywhere. I really had to go back to night school and learn the language. Then, as I was gaining the ability to converse, the curtain of silence was beginning to lift on recent traumas such as the Cultural Revolution. I found Chinese people everywhere filled with the need to tell their stories, to reveal what they had been through. In those years I absorbed countless tales of people's lives. This prepared me to write novels with Chinese characters.
How did you approach a cuisine so different from the food of the West?
For me, that was exactly what was most interesting to ask: how was Chinese food different? What qualities distinguished it from the world's other cuisines? As I traveled, conducted interviews, read, and ate, I found several answers. First, to a much greater degree than other cuisines, Chinese food consciously seeks to reflect and comment on its culture through a web of references and allusions. It encompasses a world, and maybe that's one reason the Chinese see it as a serious art form. Second, Chinese food specifically tries to engage the mind, not just the palate. There is a whole tradition of artifice - dishes come to the table looking like one thing but turn out to be something else. Other dishes call up events in history or great works of art. Still others aim to spur the creation of poetry at the table. Third, the highest lesson of Chinese food, its single most important characteristic, is the focus on community. All food in China is shared. Nothing is ever plated for the individual - the opposite of cuisine in the West. Through the ritual of eating together every day, the human bonds that hold the world together are forged and reinforced. That's the journey at the heart of 'The Last Chinese Chef’.