The Last Chinese Chef

by Nicole Mones

Hardcover, 278 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 | purchase

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The Last Chinese Chef
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Nicole Mones

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Book Summary

Struggling to get back on her feet in the wake of her husband's premature death and stunned by a paternity suit against her husband's estate, food writer Maggie McElroy plans a trip to China to investigate the claim and to profile rising chef Sam Liang.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Last Chinese Chef

1
Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine?
Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic,
or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking,
but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken
alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites
cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes
an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?
— Liang Wei , The Last Chinese Chef, pub. Peking, 1925

Maggie McElroy felt her soul spiral away from her in the year following her
husband's death; she felt strange wherever she was. She needed walls to
hold her. She could not seem to find an apartment small enough. In the end,
she moved to a boat.
First she sold their house. It was understandable. Her friends
agreed it was the right thing to do. She scaled down to an apartment, and
quickly found it too big; she needed a cell. She found an even smaller place
and reduced her possessions further to move into it. Each cycle of
obliteration vented a bit of her grief, but underneath she was propelled by the
additional belief, springing not from knowledge but from stubborn instinct, that
some part of her soul could be called back if she could only clear the way.
At last she found the little boat in its slip in the Marina. As soon
as she stepped aboard she knew she wanted to stay there, below, watching
the light change, finding peace in the clinking of the lines, ignoring the
messages on her cell phone.
There was a purity to the vessel. When she wasn't working she
lay on the bunk. She watched the gangs of sneakered feet flutter by on the
dock. She listened to the thrum of wind on canvas, the suck of water against
the hulls. She slept on the boat, really slept for the first time since Matt died.
She recognized that nothing was left. Looking back later, she saw that if she
had not come to this point she would never have been ready for the change
that was even then on its way. At the time, though, it seemed foregone, a
thing she would have to accept: she would never be connected again.
She stayed by herself. Let's have dinner. Join us at the movie.
Come to this party. Even when she didn't answer, people forgave her.
Strange things were expected from the grieving. Allowances were made.
When she did have to give an excuse, she said she was out of town, which
was fine, for she often was. She was a food writer. She traveled each month
to a different American community for her column. She loved her job, needed
it, and had no intention of losing it. Everybody knew this, so she could say
sorry, she was gone, goodbye, and then lie back down on her little bunk and
continue remembering. People cared for her and she for them — that hadn't
changed. She just didn't want to see them right now. Her life was different.
She had gone away to a far-off country, one they didn't know about, where all
the work was the work of grieving. It was too hard to talk to them. So she
stayed alone, her life shrunk to a pinpoint, and slowly, day by day, she found
she felt better.
On the September evening that marked the beginning of these
events, she was leaving the boat to go out and find a place to eat dinner. It
was a few days after her fortieth birthday, which she'd slid past with careful
avoidance. She found the parking lot empty, punctuated only by the cries of
gulls. As she reached her car she heard her phone ringing.
The sound was muffled. It was deep in her bag. Living on the boat
kept her bag overloaded — a small price to pay. She dug, following the green
light that shimmered with each ring. She didn't answer her phone that often,
but she always checked it. There were some calls, from work, from her best
friend, Sunny, from her mother, which she never failed to pick up.
When she looked at the screen she felt her brows draw together.
This was not a caller she recognized. It was a long string of numbers. She
clicked it. "Hello?"
"Maggie? This is Carey James, from Beijing. Do you remember
me?"
"Yes." She went slack with surprise. Matt's law firm kept an of-
fice in Beijing, and Carey was one of its full-time attorneys. Matt had flown
over there more than a few times, on business. Maggie'd even gone with him
once, three years before. She'd met Carey — tall, elegant, faintly dissipated.
Matt had said he was a gifted negotiator. "I remember."
"Some year," he said, his manner disintegrating slightly.
"You're telling me." She unlocked the car and climbed in.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm surviving." What was this about? Everything had been over
months ago with the firm, even the kindness calls, even the checkins from
Matt's closest friends here in the L.A. office. She hadn't heard from any of
them lately.
"I'm calling, actually, because I've come across something. I
really should have seen it before. Unfortunately I didn't. It's a legal filing, here
in China. It concerns Matt."
"Matt?"
"Yes," Carey said. "It's a claim."
"What do you mean? What kind?"
Carey drew a breath. She could feel him teetering. "I was hoping
there was a chance you might know," he said.
"Know what? Carey. What kind of claim?"
"Paternity," he said.
She sat for a long moment. A bell seemed to drop around her,
cutting out all sound. She stared through her sea-scummed windshield at the
line of palms, the bike path, the mottled sand. "So this person is saying —"
"She has his child. So I guess you didn't know anything about
this."
She swallowed. "No. I did not. Did you? Did you know about a
child?"
"No," he said firmly. "Nothing."
"So what do you think this is?"
"I don't know, honestly. But I do know one thing: you can't ignore
it. It's serious. A claim has been filed. Under the new Children's Rights
Treaty, it can be decided right here in China, in a way that's binding on you.
And it is going to be decided, soon." She heard him turning pages. "In — a
little less than three weeks."
"Then what?"
"Then if the person who filed the claim wins, they get a share of
his estate. Excluding the house, of course — the principal residence."
To this she said nothing. She had sold the house. "Just tell me,
Carey. What should I do?"
"There's only one option. Get a test and prove whether it's true or
false. If it's false, we can take care of it. If it turns out the other way, that will
be different."
"If it's true, you mean? How can it be true?"
"You can't expect me to answer that," he said.
She was silent.
"The important thing is to get a lab test, now. If I have that in hand
before the ruling, I can head it off. Without that, nothing."
"So go ahead. Get one. I'll pay the firm to do it."
"That won't work," said Carey. "This matter is already on the
calendar with the Ministry of Families, and we're a law firm. We'd have to do
it by bureaucracy — file papers to request permission from the girl's family,
for instance. It would never happen by the deadline. It won't work for us to do
it. But somebody else could get the family's permission and get the test and
let us act on the results. That would be all right."
"You mean me," she said.
"I don't know who else. It's important, Maggie. We'll help you.
Give you a translator. You can use the company apartment. You still have
Matt's key?"
"I think so."
"Then get a flight. Come in to the office when you arrive." He
paused. "I'm sorry, Maggie," he said. "About everything, about Matt. It's
terrible."
"I know."
"None of this was supposed to happen."
She took a long breath. He means Matt, hit by a car on the
sidewalk. Killed along with two other people. Random. "I've wrestled with that
one," she said. "So this child —"
"A little girl."
She closed her eyes. "This girl is how old?"
"Five."
That meant something would have to have happened six years
ago. Maggie scrolled back frantically. It didn't make sense. They were happy
then. "If you'll give me the months involved I'll go back through my diaries and
see if he was even in China then. I mean, maybe it isn't even possible. If he
wasn't there —"
This time Carey cut her off. "Winter of 2002," he said softly. "I
already checked. He was."

The next morning she was waiting in the hallway when Sarah, her editor,
stepped from the elevator.
"What are you doing here?" Sarah said. "You look terrible."
"I was up all night."
"Why?"
"Bad news about Matt."
"Matt?" Sarah's eyes widened. Matt was dead. There could be no
more bad news.
"Someone filed a claim."
Sarah's mouth fell open, and then she closed it.
"A paternity claim."
Sarah went pale. "Paternity! Let's go inside." She unlocked the
door and steered Maggie to the comfortable chair across from her desk. "Now
what is this?"
"A woman filed a claim against him in China, saying she has his
child."
"Are you serious? In China?"
"Yes, and because of the agreements between our two countries,
this claim can be ruled on in China and collected from there."
"Collected," repeated Sarah.
"Generously," said Maggie.
"What are you going to do?"
"Go there, right away. I have no choice. I've never asked you, in
twelve years, not even when Matt died, but now I'm going to need a month
off."
"Please! Doll! We run old columns all the time when someone has
an emergency. You're the only one who's never asked for that.
Don't even worry about it. And a year ago" — Sarah looked at her,
eyes soft with unspent empathy — "I told you to take off. Remember?
I practically begged you."
"I know." Maggie reached over and clasped her friend's hand. "The
truth is, work kept me going. I needed it. I've always been like that. I'm
stronger when I'm working. I don't know how I'd ever have made it through
without it." She looked up. "I'm better lately. Just so you know."
"Good. By the way, your last check came back." Sarah showed
her the envelope. "Do you have a new address?"
"I got a new P.O. box, one closer to where I'm living."
"Where are you living?"
"In the Marina," she said, and left it at that.
Sarah wrote down the new mailing address. "Thanks. Anyway, of
course you can go, take a month off, we'll use an old piece. Don't even think
about it. Maybe it'll be good for you, actually. You should make the best of it.
Recharge."
Maggie spoke carefully. "Do you feel I need to recharge?"
"No. No, it's not that, it's just . . ." Sarah paused, caught between
friendship and responsibility. "Lately you don't seem that excited about food.
You must have noticed it too. I don't get the old sense of wonder."
I don't either, Maggie thought sadly. "In which stories did that
bother you?"
"Well. The one on the Pennsylvania Dutch. Couldn't you have
found anything charming about them?"
"You're talking about people whose principal contribution to
cuisine is the pretzel. Who make perfect strangers sit at a table and share
fried chicken. Whose idea of a vegetable is a sliced tomato. And don't
get me started on their pie!"
Sarah smiled. "See, you're as wonderful as ever. Just go off like
that. Let yourself go."
Maggie laughed.
"And don't forget that part, too. You always found the happiness in
food."
"I'll try."
But now Sarah's small smile melted, and concern took its
place. "Do you think — there's no possibility this is true, is there?"
"You mean Matt? I have no idea. Did he tell me anything or lead
me in any way to think anything? No. He went to China on business
sometimes, but so did all the lawyers in his office."
"You went there with him."
"I did, once, for a week. Three years ago. Nothing. And you know
me. I am watchful. Being attentive is the way I write, and it spills over. I
sensed nothing. But this, if it happened, would have been a few years before
that. I can't think like this, Sarah, is the truth; I'll go crazy. I have to go and
get a lab test, and that's that. Then on from there."
"It's going to be a difficult trip," Sarah said, now as her friend.
Maggie nodded. "And just when I was getting the guy kind of
settled in my mind, you know? And in my heart. Plus, to be honest, Sarah,
even though it's necessary and all, it's not really a good thing for me not to
be working, even for one month. I perform better at everything when I'm
working."
"Are you saying you'd rather work?" said Sarah.
"Of course I'd rather work, but I can't. I have to go there and see to
this."
Now a new smile, different, the impish smile of an idea, was
playing on Sarah's face. "Would you like to work while you're in China?"
Maggie stared. She wrote only about American food. "How?"
"File a column from there. We can run an old one — I already told
you, it's no problem, you have some classics I'd love to see again — but we
also have an assignment in China. It just came in. I can give it to anyone, in
which case I'd have to send someone. Or I can give it to you, since you are
going, and it can be one of your columns."
"You don't think I'm an odd fit?" said Maggie. She did do ethnic
food, of course. From the Basque country-style platters of the San Joaquin
Valley to the German sausages of central Texas, it was impossible not to.
American cuisine had so many incoming tributary tastes. She knew them all.
What she never did was foreign food.
"It's a chef profile. American guy, born and raised here, but half
Chinese."
"Hmm. That's a little closer."
"He's not cooking American," Sarah said. "The opposite — back
to the old traditions. He's descended from a chef who cooked for the Emperor
and in 1925 wrote a book that became a big food classic, The Last Chinese
Chef. Liang Wei was his name. The grandson's name is Liang too, Sam
Liang; he's translating the book into English. He's a cook. Everything he
does is orthodox, it's all according to his grandfather, even though Beijing
seems to be spinning the opposite way, new, global."
"I like it," Maggie said.
"He's about to open a restaurant. It's going to be a big launch.
That's the assignment, the restaurant."
"Look, I won't lie, for me it would be ideal. I would love to write it,"
said Maggie. "Not to mention that it would keep me sane. It's just — I don't
know how you can give it to me. I'm the American queen."
"Sometimes it's good to mix things up. Anyway, you're going.
When are you leaving?"
"Tonight."
"Tonight! You must have a ticket."
"I do. And I'll have a rush visa by midday. Tell you what, Sarah, if
you just reimburse me for the ticket, I'll take care of all the other expenses. I
do have to go there anyway." And she did have the company apartment.
"I can sell that," said Sarah. She shone with satisfaction. She
loved to solve a problem. "Are we there yet?" she said. "Is that a yes?"
They knew each other well. Maggie had only to allow the small lift
of a smile into her gaze for her friend to read her agreement.
"Good," said Sarah. "So." She handed Maggie the file. "Sam
Liang."

In Beijing it was late evening. Yet people were still out, for the autumn night
was fine and cool, faintly sharp with the scent of the chrysanthemums along
the sidewalk. It was the local life in his adopted city that Sam Liang loved the
best, like here, the people shopping and strolling on Gulou, the street that
went right up to the dark, silent drum tower for which it was named. Sam
barely glanced at the fifteenth-century tower, which rose in the center of the
street up ahead. He didn't look into the brightly arranged shop windows, or
the faces of the migrant vendors who had set up here and there on the curb.
He searched ahead. There was a cooking supply store on this block. His
Third Uncle Xie had told him about it. Xie lived in Hangzhou; when he came
north to Beijing he always stopped there.
Sam was hoping to find a chopping block, heavy, round, a straight-
through slice of tree trunk, the kind that Chinese chefs had always used. He
had two for his restaurant and he needed a third; a busy restaurant really
needed three. Every place he'd tried had cutting boards, but they were the
plastic ones — the new, modern alternative that had taken hold all over the
capital. Plastic was cleaner, people said, safer; it was the future.
Sam didn't agree. He hadn't come all the way to China to switch
from the traditional tree slab to plastic. Plastic ruined a fine blade. Besides, it
was true what his grandfather had said, that wood was a living thing beneath
a man's knife. It had its own spring.
Ah, he spotted the store ahead — its lights were on, it was open.
If any place still had the old-style chopping blocks, it would be this one.
More than once Xie had explained how to choose one. "Never buy
from a young tree, only an old one. Make sure its rings are tight with age.
See that the block's been conditioned properly with oil, that it has a sheen.
Don't bring home the wrong one."
"And what kind of wood?"
"When I was young all chefs used soapwood. Now most chefs
use ironwood, though some like the wood of the tamarind tree from Vietnam.
Listen to Third Uncle. Choose the wood that feels best under your hands.
Forget the rest."
Sam opened the door to the shop. In one hopeful sweep he took
in the long shelves with their stacked woks and racks and sieves and
steamers. He saw the cutting boards, white plastic, in their own section. He
saw only plastic; no wood, no tree trunks.
"Ni zhao shenmo?" said a woman's voice, What are you looking
for?
It was the proprietress, a white-haired woman Sam recognized
from Xie's description. "Elder Sister," Sam said politely, "I seek a chopping
block, but the old kind, wood."
"We no longer have them."
"But why?"
"They are not as hygienic as the plastic. Especially now, you
know how it is, everything is supposed to be clean."
He knew what she meant — the Games. "But if I may ask, when
you stopped selling them, did you have any left?"
"No," she said.
His hope was sliding. "Zhen kelian." Pitiable. "My Uncle Xie told
me he thought I could find one here. Do you know him? Your old customer?
Xie Er?"
Her old eyes widened. "You know Xie Er?"
"He is my uncle."
She looked hard at him. He could feel her weighing the Eurasian
mix in his face. Everyone did it. He was used to it. It was the light above his
head, the air in which he walked. She wouldn't find anything in his face
anyway, for Xie Er was his uncle not by blood but by other ties. "His father
and my grandfather were brothers in the palace."
"You're a Liang," she said.
"Yes," he said, surprised.
She slid off her stool, stiff, and opened a back door behind her.
Sam moved closer. She touched a switch, lighting a storeroom of
crowded shelves and boxes. "In here," she said, and he followed her. "This
one." She moved some papers to the side.
As soon as he saw it, he knew. It was about two feet across,
seven or eight inches thick, still ringed with bark, everything finished to a dull
gleam. A heavy metal ring was embedded in one side, for hanging, as such a
block should be stored vertically when not in use. He could imagine it ten
years from now, twenty, its cutting surface worn to a gentle suggestion of
concavity, changing with him, with his cooking, under his hands. He wanted
it.
"I could pay you cash for it," he said. "I'd be so happy to do that."
"Do you cook?" She was eyeing him. "Yes?" she said at his
emphatic nod. "Then just give me a moment. I'll think of a price."
"Please take your time," he said softly, but inside he was over-
flowing. He reached out a practiced hand to feel the chopping surface. "And
sister, if you happen to know, this is what sort of wood?"
"That?" she said. "That is the old kind. Soapwood."

Maggie stood in the airport in front of the candy counter. Matt had always
given her candy corn. It was their signature candy, something she used to
say every relationship should have. For them it was more of a sacrament
than a food. The first time he brought it home he'd had in mind a joke on her
American food specialty, but that was soon forgotten and it became his
parting token. He would present her with a little bag before leaving on a trip.
She could still picture how he'd looked one morning in their bedroom, in the
slow-seeping dawn light, packed, dressed, ready to go. When? A year and a
half ago? They both traveled so often that they rarely rose for each other's
early departures. That particular morning she was half-awake, drifting; she
could hear the rustle of his pants and the crinkle of plastic as he dug in his
pocket for the little bag of corn. She heard him settle it by her bedside lamp
and lean down to kiss the frizz of her hair. Just that. Too nice to wake her.
Then the click of the door. Remorse bubbled in Maggie now. So many times
she had let him go like that.
She walked over to the plexiglass tube filled with orange-and-white
kernels and opened a plastic bag underneath. On the day he left for San
Francisco, the last day she saw him, he did not give her any candy corn,
because he was coming back that night.
In the year since, she had not eaten a kernel. She pulled the lever
now and they gushed into her bag, a hundred, a thousand. She got on the
plane and ate steadily, sneaking the sugar-soft kernels into her mouth one by
one and letting them dissolve until her teeth ached and her head felt as if it
would balloon up and float away. Queasy, full, she refused the meals when
they came. She started a movie and turned it off. She sat washed by waves
of guilt, guilt she'd felt many times this past year as she remembered that
she and her husband, in truth, had always loved each other best when they
were apart. And now it was for always. She closed her eyes.
She felt her computer bag between her feet. She hadn't even
thought yet about the job. What with getting her visa, collecting a sample for
Matt from the hospital where he had banked blood, delivering it to the DNA
lab, getting the collection kit, packing, speeding to the airport — with all this
she had not given the first thought to her interview with the chef. Actually it
had been a relief to have to move so fast. Grief, which had become half-
comforting to her, almost a companion, had seemed finally to take a step
back. She felt like a person again, even if she barely made it to the gate on
time with her carry-on.
Then she was strapped in, with her candy corn. She attempted to
face the situation. Was it possible? Could the claim be true? She let her
mind roll back once again. She lingered over every bump, every moment of
discord; she knew where each one was located. They were all inside her,
arranged since his death alongside love, rue, and affection. She threaded
through them now. Another woman? A child? It just wasn't possible to believe
he could have kept it from her. He was such a confessor. It was a joke
among people who knew him. This was the kind of thing he could never, ever
have kept to himself.
Especially since the question of children was one that came up
between the two of them. Originally they were both in agreement. They did
not want children. Halfway through their decade together, though, Matt
changed his mind.
At first, when it started, she reminded him of the ways in which
parenthood did not suit them. She traveled every month, and so did he. If
they had a child, someone would have to stop. That would have be her,
clearly; he earned most of the money. The thing was, she didn't want to stop,
not for a while. She loved her column. Let me work another year, she would
say. Matt was patient. He was the one, after all, who had changed his mind.
But always the subject came back.
He could never have hidden a child. This thought seemed clear to
her in the humming silence of the plane. The other passengers were
sleeping. After a long time of shifting uncomfortably in her seat she got up
and went to the back of the plane, to the hollow where there is always a tiny
window. She looked out through the trapped streaks of moisture to the deep
darkness, thinking. Finally she crept back to her seat and fell asleep.
When they landed in Beijing she felt a little sick from the sugar,
and she dragged her feet past entry agents who stamped her passport and
waved her ahead. She stopped at a currency booth to change a few hundred
dollars and, thus fortified, stepped out of security into the crowded public
area.
Touts swarmed. "Hello?" said one. "You want taxi?"
"No, thank you."
"Taxi. This way."
"No." She rolled her bag toward the glass doors, outside of which
she could see people in line for taxis. On her right she passed a European
man. "How much into Beijing?" she heard him say to one of the men.
"Three hundred," the man replied, and the European agreed. She
kept walking.
Meanwhile the first man was still following her. "Taxi," he said, and
then to her shock actually wrapped his fingers around her arm.
"Get away from me," she said, and shook him off with such force
that even she was surprised. He stepped back, the loser, his smile derisive.
She strolled to her place in the taxi line and felt herself stand a little taller.
Her turn came and she showed the driver the firm's Beijing
business card, which bore the apartment address, then let herself melt in the
back seat. She had done it; she was here. A freeway sailed along outside,
dotted by lit-up billboards in Chinese and English for software, metals,
chemicals, aircraft, coffee, logistics. What was logistics? Not knowing made
her feel old.
She still had a few loved ones, at least. She flipped open her
phone. It chirped to life. The first number was her mother's. Maggie didn't call
her often, but every time she got a new phone she put her number first, at the
top of the list, anyway. Her mother had raised her alone and done it well,
even if she hadn't been able to make much of a home for Maggie. She
deserved to hold the top slot.
Next came Sunny, her best friend and most frequently called
number. Then Sarah; her other friends. And Matt's parents. Her heart
tightened, as always, at the thought of them. Their suffering had been like
hers.
She closed her phone as the car swooped down off the ring road
and into the city. Right away she saw this was not the Beijing she
remembered from three years ago. The boulevards were widened, the office
buildings filled in, the street lighting redone. Maybe it was the coming of the
Games. Or maybe it was just the way Beijing was growing. She remembered
Matt saying it had been under construction all the time, going back more
than a decade. Always building, investing, expanding, earning.
The driver turned down a side street and stopped in front of the
building she remembered. She paid the fare — ninety-five kuai. She
smiled at the thought of the man in the airport agreeing to pay three hundred.
It was like being her old self for a minute; she'd always loved to be the better
tourist.
Inside and up the elevator, she let herself into apartment 426 and
clicked on the overhead lights. It was the same. The couch, the television,
the windows that faced the city.
She rolled her suitcase to the wall. Her steps were loud in the
silence. There was an envelope on the coffee table. To Mrs. Mason, it said.
From the law firm. She opened it. Welcome you to China. Please come to
the office in the morning.
Only someone who didn't know her would call her Mrs. Mason.
She had never changed her name. No doubt they didn't know her; Carey was
likely to be the only one still in the office who had been there three years
before, when she came. She rememberedMatt telling her that, aside from
Carey, the Beijing office was never able to hold on to foreigners for long. That
was one reason the lawyers in the L.A. office, likeMatt, had to go there. Then
in the last few years they'd hired two Chinese attorneys who had gone to
university and law school in the States and then returned, and the pressure
eased. Matt didn't go at all the last year and a half before he died. In any
case — she checked her phone again — it was too late to call the office
now. Calder Hayes would be closed.
It was early enough to call the chef still, but first she had to do
some reading. She slid out the file with Sarah's writing on the tab, Sam
Liang, and made herself into a curl with it on the couch.
The first thing she saw was that he was a chef of national rank,
which had to be near the top in the Chinese system, and there was a list of
prizes and awards. That was fast, she thought. He'd been here only four
years. Then she came to an excerpt from his grandfather's book, The Last
Chinese Chef.

Chinese food has characteristics that set it apart from all other foods of the
world. First, its conceptual balance. Dominance is held by fan, grain food,
either rice or wheat made into noodles and breads and dumplings. Song or
cai is the flavored food that accompanies it, seasoned vegetables,
sometimes meat. Of the latter, pork is first, and then aquatic life in all its
variety. The soybean is used in many products, fresh and fermented. Dian xin
are snacks, which include all that is known under the Cantonese dim sum,
but also nuts and fruits. Boiling, steaming, or stir-frying are preferred, in that
order, stacking food when possible to conserve fuel. Chopsticks are used. Of
the world's cuisines, only Japanese and Korean share these characteristics,
and everyone knows they have drawn their influence from the Chinese.

She looked up and out the window at Beijing. The urban shapes of
progress gleamed back at her, the cranes with their twinkling lights, the tall,
half-built skeletons. Clearly a city on the move. And yet this chef seemed to
be reaching back into the past.
Fine, she decided. Contradictions were promising. They gave
depth. She reached for her cell phone and punched in his number.
It rang twice, then clicked. "Wei," she heard.
"Hello, I'm looking for Sam Liang."
At once he turned American. "That's me."
"I'm Maggie McElroy. Table magazine?"
"Oh yes," he said, "the restaurant article. Wait. You're not here
already? In Beijing?"
"Yes —"
"I didn't send the e-mail yet, or call. I should have."
"What do you mean?"
He fumbled the phone and then came back. "I hope you didn't fly
here just to talk to me."
"What?" Wasn't that the idea? Wasn't she supposed to do that?
Sarah had told her he was ready to go. "Only partly," she said to him now on
the phone. "I did have some other business."
"I'm glad to hear that," he said. "Because right now, as of this
morning, my restaurant's not going to open."
"Why?"
"I'm afraid I have lost my investor."
"But you can get another, surely — can't you?"
"I hope I can. I'm going to try. But until that happens and while it's
all up in the air, I'm sorry, I can't do the story."
Maggie didn't think well on her feet. She always came up with the
right response later, when it was too late. Writing worked better, allowing her
time to sort things out; hence her choice of profession.
But she had to try to come up with something now. "The piece
doesn't have to be about the restaurant. A profile of you would be fine."
"A profile of me? Whose restaurant is not opening?"
"Not like that —"
"With what just happened I can't say it seems like a good idea. I
hope you understand."
"That could be a mistake." Her mind was whirling, looking for
strategies, finding none. "Really."
"Please — Miss McElroy, is it?"
"Maggie."
"Accept my apology. And please tell your editor too, I'm very
sorry. I had no idea this was going to happen."
"I know," Maggie said. "Do you want to at least think it over?
Because I'm going to be here for a few days."
"I'll think if you like. But I don't see how I can give you an interview
about a restaurant that is not going to open. Or how I can do a profile when
something like this has just happened."
"I understand," she said. She was disappointed, but she also felt
for him. A lot of attention had been trained on this opening.
"Enjoy your trip."
It was an American thing to say, polite, faintly strained,
distancing. He wants to get rid of me. "Take my number in case."
"Okay," he said. He took it down dutifully, and thanked her when
she wished him good luck. Then they said goodbye, smiled into the phone,
and hung up.

Copyright © 2007 by Nicole Mones. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.