2007/05/09

Last Chinese Chef: Interview with Nicole Mones

By JULIETTE ROSSANT

Nicole Mones, photo by Own Carey

[See also book review "Nicole Mones: The Last Chinese Chef"]

Super Chef sat down on a beautiful late Spring day at an outdoor cafe to discuss The Last Chinese Chef and Chinese cuisines with author Nicole Mones:

     Super Chef: How does The Last Chinese Chef fit in with Chinese cookbooks?
     Nicole Mones: Most of what is written in English about Chinese cuisine is how to cook -- recipes, techniques. This book focuses on the cuisine as art and the food culture as a whole. Conceptual framework, philosophy, criteria of excellence and the ways in which cuisine in China evokes the arts, the natural world, and the continuing line of Chinese civilization.

     Super Chef: Food is important in America, but in your book, food is even more essential. Is that true of all of Chinese society?
guanxi      Nicole Mones: In China food functions as the power regulator, the setter of hierarchies, and the engine driving guanxi (or connectedness, relationship) which in turn drives Chinese society. Everything in China gets done through relationships, be it in business, institutions, or personal life. And guanxi is propelled by dining. Dining is always for the group. Nothing in China is ever plated for the individual, ever.

Coming back to the regulation of power and setting of hierarchies... in this area I came to see gradually (over 18 years of doing business) that Chinese cuisine had a secret language. Who invites whom? What menu is selected - does it flatter the diner's subtlety of intelligence? Does it convey the appropriate commitment to the relationship (in, say, grandness or refinement or fabulousness of ingredients)? Who sits where? Who toasts whom and how? Who serves whom? Through these symbolic choices and gestures the ritual of dining cements and nurtures relationships. Cooking and eating is only the beginning.

     Super Chef: Besides not plating dishes, what else sets Chinese cuisine apart?
The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones      Nicole Mones: There is a tradition with dishes of artifice. This is a way to provoke the intellect as part of a meal. A dish will come to the table looking like one thing but turning out to be something else. The most common example is vegetarian dishes that look like whole ducks or fish but are entirely made from soy and gluten. A subtler kind of artifice dish is found in the novel when Sam makes his banquet. He make spongy tofu (tofu rapidly boiled for thirty minutes until it becomes sponge-like and 'drinks' the sauce) with a crab reduction sauce made from 30 crabs. This way a dish comes to the table looking ultra-simple and proletarian, but when you bite into it it's something else entirely - incredibly luxe.

Another thing that sets Chinese food apart form the West is its
conscious effort to heal and balance the body AND mind. In traditional Chinese medicine, the balance of the human constitution (e.g. is it too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet, and many other qualities) is very important. Each and every food ingredient that exists is thought to have some impact on these multiple continuums. So, foods can be selected (by the superior chef) to not only heal and balance the diner's body but also to clear, correct, balance and strengthen the heart and mind. This is why Sam cooks a chicken for Maggie that is meant (literally) to begin to heal her grief.

This quality of Chinese cuisine - along with its emphasis on community - is what makes it the perfect backdrop for this story. It's through food (and the caring that comes with it) that Maggie comes to feel connected again. She has lost her soul, lost her connection with the human world. Through Sam, his family, and his food, she finds her way back.

     Super Chef: In the book, Sam talks about the different regions of Chinese cuisine. How did that come about?
Su Dongpo      Nicole Mones: Some say the regional cuisines of China evolved to serve different constituencies or audiences. Shanghai is the cuisine of the wealthy merchant; Szechwan is the cuisine of the common people; Hangzhou, grew up hand in hand with poetry and literature. It is the cuisine of the literati. Beijing cuisine was the cuisine of officials, all the way up to the emperor. I remember going to a restaurant in Hangzhou. Patrons inside were eating a dish named for the famous poet Su Dongpo, who had died 1,000 years earlier. When I came out there was a man with a brush as big as a mop writing Su Dongpo's poetry in water on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I asked him what he was writing. He said it was lines of poetry by Su Dongpo. By the time he finished the line the beginning had evaporated.

     Super Chef: I noticed that in the last Conde Nast Traveller ranking of best new restaurants, there was one restaurant in India, another in Russia, but most were in Western Europe, the US and Australia. What do you think about that? How does that make Chinese chefs feel? What do you think will change that?
     Nicole Mones: The reason I wrote this book is Chinese restaurants are never on the lists. People aren't aware of them. Immigrant chefs in America cook two cuisines. A cuisine for American tastes and a cuisine for Chinese tastes. What is the difference? American taste is characterized by pre-mixed sauces. You mix up black bean sauce, and serve it in a limited number of dishes. For Chinese tastes, every dish is individual and there is unimaginable diversity. Chinese chefs here think that Americans aren't willing to try something new.

The fundamental relationship in Chinese cuisine is between the chef and the gourmet. The chef has to create, and the gourmet has to show discernment and appreciation. That has failed in the US. Why? When I ask immigrant chefs that question, they say that Americans treat Chinese food like exotic fast food. They want it to be the same everywhere. Kung Pao Chicken should always taste like this. Americans have to get past that.

     Super Chef: In the book, Sam takes part in a competition in which he has to prepare a banquet. Is there a real competition like this?
Chinese American Idol      Nicole Mones: There is no real competition like Sam's, but I think there soon will be. They already watch a Chinese version of American Idol. There are chef cook offs and contests. They are done in real time, in a big stadium or convention center. There are a large number of chefs. They all get the same ingredients and the same amount of time to cook.

Accompanying article:
Nicole Mones: The Last Chinese Chef

Previous articles:
Year of the Golden Pig: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook
Susur: A Culinary Life
[Cookbook Reviews - complete]

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