- - Thursday, October 17, 2019

Starting with the title, “The Cheffe” is a tease. 

First, the word cheffe. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard it before. Jordan Stump, the translator of this French novel explains “Cheffe is a recently minted word in French; its meaning, of course, is “female chef.” Because no good English equivalent exists, this translation will use the French word.” 

Then there’s the subtitle “A Cook’s Novel.” It could mean a novel for a cook, or a novel by a cook, or a novel about a cook. It’s a translation of the French subtitle roman d’une cuisiniere, which has a similar range of meanings. 

This novel is definitely about a female cook, the Cheffe of the title and always referred to by that term. The narrator — the fictional author — was, also a cook, an apprentice to the Cheffe, who fell in love with her and became, he says, her only confidant. 

He presents an entirely laudatory account of her. As he explains “I’d like to tell the Life of the Cheffe the way people write the Life of a Saint, but that’s impossible, and the Cheffe herself would have thought it ridiculous.” But just as hagiographers have no concern for shortcomings, so our narrator is all adulation.

His first pages extol her intelligence, apparently doubted by some who knew her. When asked the “question you’re thinking of” — presumably how she’d gained her “glorious reputation … without really trying” — she replies by shrugging her shoulders “It’d not hard, you just have to be organized.” When pushed, she amplifies “It just takes a little taste.”

According to the narrator she had not only taste and organizational skills but also intelligence teamed with industriousness, fastidiousness, devotion, modesty and many more saintly qualities. Pages and pages of them. Again and again the narrator writes of her austerity and her devotion to her art.

“She had no taste for preciousness or grandiloquence, and no respect. She knew all about the force of the senses, after all it was her work to awaken them, and she was always enchanted to see that force show on the diners’ faces, she strove for nothing else, day in and day out, for so many years, virtually without rest. But the words people used to describe it struck her as indecent.”

Details of her history are woven into the panegyric. She was born in a very poor but not pathetic family, and that, according to the narrator, underpinned her distaste for praise. She learned to cook as a kitchen maid watching the household’s slipshod cook and fantasizing about what wonderful dishes would emerge were the work done properly.

She learned also from the talented chef of the Bordeaux restaurant where she worked, never understanding how such an obnoxious man could be such as good cook because to her good cooking and fine character were a continuum. She had a daughter, but like much else, the identity of the father is shrouded in mystery. 

In every saint’s story there is a devil, and in “The Cheffe” it is the daughter: An “unpleasant, sterile woman, arrogant and vain.”  As the novel progresses this daughter plays a larger and ever more destructive part. If any reader ever suspects that our narrator is unreliable, his attitude to the daughter will confirm it.

He has retired from his work as a chef, and spends his time in the Catalonian resort of Lloret de Mar, hanging with a pleasant boozy crowd, dreading the threatened appearance of his own daughter.

The twinned narrative threads of the Cheffe’s and the narrator’s lives are conventional enough — scarcely the substance of a compelling novel. Yet this novel is just that: Compelling in its prolonged insistence on the Cheffe’s character and the determined vigor of the narrator’s delineations.

The slow-moving narrative and repetitive descriptions couched in long reflective sentences give the novel an hypnotic quality. It’s irritating too. Together these two responses make for an emotional engagement likely to be lacking had the tale been told more conventionally.

Also lacking is much information about what the Cheffe cooked. Her dishes are noted only briefly. The exception is her green-robed leg of lamb, often mentioned but only described near the end. Rooted in her wish “to taste the exquisite Paulliac lamb and Belleville sorrel in their most highest form, refusing to hide the sorrel’s roughness behind cream and butter.

“To that she added spinach, she liked a trinity of ingredients, then slow-braised the lamb in its wrapping of bitter greens so the meat’s fatty juices mellowed the sorrel and the lamb turned out at once triumphantly tender and so strongly flavored that the contrast — a young dark-tasting meat disconcerted the eater’s first mouthfuls.” 

Cooks hoping that the subtitle referred to them as well as to the Cheffe and her narrator must satisfy themselves with this.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Marie Ndiaye

Translated by Jordan Stump

Alfred A Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages

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