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The Last Chinese Chef

(article, Nicole Mones)

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h3. From Chapter 3

p(blue). Editor's note: In this excerpt from Nicole Mones' newest novel, palace chef Liang Wei recalls what life was like cooking for the imperial family at the turn of the last century.

Peng and I went under Tan Zhuanqing. There has been no accident in my life luckier than this. It was not only that Lord Tan was the greatest chef of his generation, as he was; it was that he was a man of great accomplishment. All Manchus were pensioned at birth — Lord Tan used to say that this had been the downfall of the tribe — but even among them Tan Zhuanqing came from an especially wealthy and powerful family. From a young age he was famous for his intellectual attainments. By 26 he was a member of the Hanlin Academy. It was said he had written the best eight-legged essay in memory. He knew everything about antiquities and was a sought-after expert on cultural relics. He was an aristocrat. He had money, position. He could have spent his life doing whatever pleased him. And what pleased him was to cook in the palace.


h1. About the book and author

After 18 years running a textile business in China, Nicole Mones returned to the U.S. and became a novelist. All three of her novels are set in contemporary China; The Last Chinese Chef, her most recent novel, explores the traditions of haute cuisine in both imperial and modern-day China.

Excerpted from The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 2007 by Nicole Mones. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.  


"Why?" I would say. "The Old Buddha takes only a few bites."

"It is not her. Ten thousand years to her, of course, but she cares only for little cakes that comfort her and carry her back to other times. It's the princes! Gong, Chun, and Qing — General Director Li Lianying. It is they for whom I cook."

No more than a small remark, but it was one that made me see how all things fit together. There was a shadow audience for the palace kitchens, a discriminating and highly appreciative one. What happened to the food every day, after every meal, was no accident.

Each time the Empress Dowager entered the hall and ate, she left many dozens of elaborate dishes untouched. We packed these into large lacquer boxes, divided into sections, each box containing a meal for a family of eight, and tied them with hemp. These were carried by eunuchs to the homes of princes and high officials. There they got tips and gifts beyond imagining. 

When I went out into the city it was with Tan Zhuanqing. He liked to select his own provisions. Everyone knew him. He was famous. I heard people ask him: Why not leave the palace? Open your own restaurant. And he would always say there could be no higher calling than cooking for the Emperor. He was correct. But behind that truth was another one, which was that he also cooked for the cognoscenti. The gourmet was as important as the chef. Liang tiao tui zou: the art walks on two legs. To have one, you must have the other.

I learned from him. Sometimes I saw him come up to a stockpot when he believed no one was looking, and add a secret pinch of something from his pocket. We all saw, we all begged him to say what it was, but I was the only one he would tell. Then of course I told Peng and Xie. We were brothers.

Lord Tan arranged our education. He saw that Peng and Xie and I had gifts, and that meant we had to learn to read. "You must read the food classics," he said. "No Chinese can call himself a chef without doing so." We would have thrown ourselves off cliffs for him, done anything, so we worked hard for his tutor. We burned candles until daybreak, and in this way the door of words opened. Lord Tan gave us passage to a higher world. There everything had been recorded, the accumulated truth of all things past. 

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I felt myself leaving my old world, in a way, when I learned to read — certainly leaving the limited world of the immediate, which until then was the only world I had ever known. I found that everything I needed had been somewhere known, and somewhere written. Now that in this paradise of food the hunger of my early years had been satisfied, my appetite was for words. I wanted to know all that men had known before.

Yet what I read was not recipes; they were almost never written down. The way of cooking a dish was always secret, and exclusive, and the only way to learn it was by watching. So in my years of study, what I did was watch Lord Tan.

There was the day we prepared a midday meal for the Empress. He was creating his glazed duck. His secret for this dish was full concentration on the primary essence of the food itself. Thus he used duck fat, rendered from another duck, and duck broth, distilled from yet several others. Duck should taste entirely of duck; duck should be used in every way. This is what he taught me. It did not matter if four or five ducks were used to make one. This was the pursuit of perfection. And this was his secret: by doubling and tripling the essence of the duck he was able to reach nong, the rich, heady, concentrated flavor and one of the seven peaks of flavor and texture.

He was wiser than any alchemist. His dishes brought him all the glory under heaven. And he did it just as easily from coarse simple food as from rare delicacies. He often said that the best food was simple and homey; it reminded us of when we were young, or felt loved, or were lit up with believing in something. This was why the Empress Dowager always ordered xiao wo tou, crude little broom-corn cakes made with chestnut flour, osmanthus, and dates. They reminded her of when the imperial family had fled to the northwest during the Boxer Rebellion. Not that those who fled were heroic, he whispered to us, his young charges — they abandoned their capital. But it was over now, it was past, and she could remember what it had been like to be on the road, in the open air, eating rough corn cakes.

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