Some of author Nicole Mones’s most avid fans got a chance on Sunday to sample what she writes about in The Last Chinese Chef when they gathered at Chang’s Garden, a restaurant in Arcadia, at an Autry-sponsored luncheon in the style of China’s most sophisticated cuisine.
About 70 diners showed up at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, for a recreation of the 13-course meal that is a key plot point in this 2007 book about Maggie McElroy, a food writer working her way out of grief, and finding new purpose, after her husband is killed in an accident. Her story becomes entwined with that of Sam Liang, a Chinese American chef who has gone back to his father’s homeland to learn the old way of cooking — really old, going back to the eighteenth century and even earlier — that his father and grandfather had followed while working for the Imperial Court. The food that kind of cooking produced was so much more than just food: it was an experience that had to be shared. For these cooks, food can be the doorway to a literary world full of reference and context, and knowing how to make a particular dish could have political implications.
It was the descriptions of the dishes that got readers asking Mones, as soon as a month after the book was released, where they might go to experience such food. So she put together a banquet at a San Francisco restaurant.
“I sold it out with one e-mail,” Mones said. “Everybody had such a great time that I started doing it again. I’ve done it in Ohio, I’ve done it in L.A., in San Francisco. But L.A. and San Francisco are the best places for me to do it because the best Chinese chefs in America are in those cities.”
And it was no accident that the meal occurred at Chang’s Garden. Mones said she has been following owner and master chef Henry Chang for more than ten years — this is his third restaurant. Mones said it was a 50th-birthday meal at Chang’s previous restaurant that got her thinking there might be something here to write about.
“I said to my husband, ‘Nobody’s ever written a food article about these Chinese chefs who have come to America, and all they’ve been through and what they’re trying to do with their art,’” she said. “So I sent an e-mail to Ruth Reichl, who was editor of Gourmet then, and she said, ‘Yeah! Great idea!’ So actually, interviewing him was the first stage in writing this book.”
Mones’s article appeared in 2003 and was called “Kitchen Warriors.” It led to more and more research, until she had the book.
“In a way, he inspired it,” she said of Chang. “So it’s really great to bring people here to eat.”
The afternoon’s experience was a little like slow-motion, barely controlled, joyful chaos, as the restaurant staff had to deal not only with the banquet participants but with the regular clientele of the afternoon. The dishes rolled out one after another as Mones shuttled from table to table, telling anecdotes or explaining the significance of whatever dishes were on the lazy susan at the center of the table. The variety was dizzying: some dishes were hot, some cold, some intensely flavored and others very delicate, some with crunchy textures and others with almost cloud-like sponginess. Throughout, the meal was punctuated with conversations about the book, about Chinese custom and practice, or about the dishes themselves.
“This is unique, in terms of a museum outreach cultural event,” said Rob, a participant who asked that his last name not be used. “People like to talk about multi-media. This actually is even more immersive than the traditional multi-media model. There are cultural contexts with food, you have the historical context as written in the book, and then, of course, your museum experience, trying to contextualize the Western experience, of which the Chinese American one is an integral part. So this was … perfect.”
His wife Kay, who is Cantonese and lived in Papua New Guinea, said the experience gave her a context for understanding her own culture.
“I was brought up in a Chinese household with an extended family, etcetera, etcetera,” she said. “But the thing about reading that book, was that it just made so much sense, but in a whole new way. So a whole new awareness of food.… We never eat by ourselves, for example. But that just made a whole lot more sense in the context of Nicole’s book. ”
She said the banquet’s “geeky” aspect appealed to her, because it made her think of how people who practiced this kind of cuisine were driven to improve on their craft for its own sake.
“It was weird,” Kay said. “For me it was very nostalgic because suddenly I’m remembering banquets from way past, and then (there were) not only familiar things but totally new things. I had no idea about the poetry and philosophy!”