中国烹饪史上大多数响当当的名字，都是美食家，是嗜吃的文人墨客，他们以食物为主题，作诗著文。 其中最著名的恐怕要数袁枚，十八世纪的散文家和诗人。他很早就从朝廷的官位上隐退，余生都居住在今天的南京。他在那里买了块地，修了“随园”，布景十分浪漫雅致，还有很多精美的楼阁。众多著述中，袁枚留给子孙后代一本相当了不起的食谱，《随园食单》。他在书中记录了烹饪理论和技法，提了很多卫生和食材选择方面的建议，列出了自己在食物方面的禁忌偏好，写了哪些味道融在一起比较和谐，并且对菜单的设计也提点一二。他还记录了三百多道菜谱，从简单的炒菜到复杂的鸭肉菜肴。但袁枚很有可能一辈子都是十指不沾阳春水。他只是一名观察者，站在家中优秀私厨王小馀的身后，尝菜、做笔记、问问题。 袁枚本人也给予了这位为家中宴席增光添彩的厨师应有的尊重。王小馀去世之后，他十分思念，在文集中为这位“下人”专门立传(7)，这在一众比较传统的士大夫和上流社会人物传记中显得颇为扎眼。然而，两个半世纪以后，王小馀这个名字湮灭在历史的尘埃中，而袁枚却被那些对中国饮食文化感兴趣的人时时提起。
Cooking is traditionally a lowly profession in China. The development of a refined palate and an appreciation of food was part of the education of the Confucian gentleman, but the actual cookery fell to the lot of the uneducated masses. Boys from poor households went into service in restaurants or private kitchens, often simply because their families knew they would be given three square meals a day. Many were illiterate, and they passed on their skills from one generation to another without the use of written manuals. They were known, disparagingly sometimes, as the ‘fire-head army’. Snobbery about kitchen work has its roots, perhaps, in the writings of Mencius, one of the great Confucian philosophers, who lived in the fourth century BC. Mencius saw a chasm between mental and manual work, and famously said that ‘the gentleman keeps his distance from the kitchen’.
Perhaps the most famous among them is Yuan Mei, an eighteenth-century essayist and poet. He retired early from the civil service, and based himself for the rest of his life in the southern city of Nanjing, where he bought a piece of land and built the ‘Garden of Contentment’, a series of gracious pavilions laid out in a romantic landscape. Among his writings, Yuan Mei left to posterity a remarkable cookery book, The Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment. In it, he wrote of culinary theory and technique, advising on hygiene and the selection of ingredients, outlining his own food taboos, suggesting which flavours went harmoniously together, and offering hints on menu planning. He also recorded some three hundred recipes, ranging from simple vegetable stir-fries to elaborate duck preparations. But Yuan Mei never sullied his own hands in the kitchen. He was an observer, standing at the shoulder of his skilled personal chef, Wang Xiaoyu, tasting, taking notes, and asking questions. Yuan himself gave due credit to the man who worked such magic for his dinner parties. After Wang died, Yuan missed him so much that he wrote his biography, an account of the life of a ‘lowly person’ that sat somewhat uneasily alongside his more conventional biographies of literary and upper-class figures. Two and a half centuries later, however, the name of Wang Xiaoyu has faded into obscurity, while Yuan Mei’s lives on in the memories of all those who are interested in Chinese culinary culture.