There is an incredibly misleading photograph of the Cheffe: she’s never looked like this, she was actually “resolutely closemouthed, discreet, sometimes unknowable.” But all writing about the Cheffe now uses this photo nonetheless, “a close-up of that laughing, frivolous face, as if it that were the Cheffe’s real face.”
So begins the character study in the new novel, The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel, by the acclaimed, daring French writer Marie NDiaye, winner of France’s Prix Goncourt for Three Strong Women in 2009 and author of the harrowing Ladivine and the brutal descent into madness depicted in My Heart Hemmed In, among others.
But who is telling this story? An unnecessary device I’m afraid. It is disappointing to find a writer as talented as NDiaye employ a narrator who is, sure, unreliable, but in discursive and extremely frustrating ways. The Cheffe is so compelling a character that a reader is bound to wonder: do we need her unrequited lovesick one-time employee here at all, let alone narrating her story? When the only discernible response to that inquiry is that the narrator allows the author of the book to ramble and pose questions with short answers that will be addressed hundreds of pages later, it really isn’t a good sign. Nothing can be said about the Cheffe that isn’t filtered through a narrator who smacks of a mechanism merely for plot contrivance. The Cheffe is eternally enigmatic, until she is not. The Cheffe is boundlessly independent, until she is not. The Cheffe comes from poverty and knows there is genuine dignity in it, but the novel keeps forgetting all about that.
That last one stings most. NDiaye is a writer with a great many talents, but the primary talent The Cheffe uses is her deftness with the matter of social class, a through-line in much of her work. As in her other novels, the need and desire for social mobility is not benign. There are great moral risks involved. The Cheffe’s parents, for instance, are happy being poor. They do not accept any gifts from their rich daughter who wants to lavish it on them. That is how dignified they are; how sure they are that their lot in life involves nothing to be ashamed of. The Cheffe’s daughter, who demands the money and uses it, however, is profligate, undignified, and shameless.
Or is she? Unclear, because the narrator harbors some melodramatic ill-will toward her, which casts doubt over the whole thing. But what kind of doubt? Why? The narrator, apparently, was devoted to the Cheffe night and day, loves her dearly, seems to want to go to the ends of the earth to find out more about her, and insists — this elicits the most skepticism — that he knows the Cheffe better than anyone. Add all that up and the doubt it seems readers are supposed to feel makes it difficult to weigh things: either the Cheffe’s parents are dignified, and her daughter is not; or the Cheffe’s parents only pretend to be dignified, and her daughter is. Which version is real? Beats me, but let’s go with the first.
Of course, The Cheffe is a Marie NDiaye novel, so even with such a grave misstep, NDiaye’s spry prose and psychological acuity — in a translation from Jordan Stump — are on display, dimmed greatly, but not gone. How the Cheffe goes from indigence to somebody with razor-eyed, almost-mystical levels of culinary brilliance is the real story, and the most intriguing part of the book (naturally, every time the arc is picked up, the narrator finds a way to lead us off-course). As a young girl, the Cheffe goes to a wealthy family’s house — the Clapeaus — and works in their kitchen. The Clapeaus are an odd bunch, embodying all the most peevish behaviors that accompany the theatricality, gluttony, and mania of being obsessed with fine cuisine:
They also gave [the Cheffe] an example of what it is to be helpless and lost, not because good food was the only thing they ever thought about but because their own nature shocked and alarmed them, and they looked at themselves with the same stern, censorious gaze they would have given anyone whose life was ruled by an obsession.
They hated that about themselves, they couldn’t even understand it …
And although this obsession comes to define the Clapeaus, they’re more than a sad, idiosyncratic bunch. The Cheffe, for instance, does not dislike them the way the Clapeaus’ cook does. Instead, she seeks to understand this family that otherwise seems ripped out of a Roald Dahl tale. Ultimately, the Cheffe realizes that the cook — who supplies harsh training to the Cheffe, whips out fancy, new dishes at the ready — is very mediocre. “[E]very sauce was a béchamel, with different seasonings depending on the dish, or else a cream or butter liaison, and the sauces were inevitable and excessive, ladled over everything in exactly the same way, you couldn’t tell fish from meat or potatoes.” For the Cheffe, this raises a key question about the Clapeaus: “Why don’t they cook for themselves? Why grant that cook […] the power to make them unhappy? They knew so much more about cuisine than that cold, morose woman, they’d developed an interest in gastronomy so much broader and better informed than hers.” The Cheffe is “deeply troubled by their pathetic, forced devotion to the cook, its shamelessness, its twistedness.” And she seeks to learn why.
Consequently, the Clapeaus teach the Cheffe a great many things. How much power the greedy will grant simply out of fear. How, for those who do not cook because they do not need to, “cuisine is a thing to be touched by authorized hands only.”
The Clapeaus are also responsible for who the Cheffe becomes. One day, when the Clapeaus announce they are going to Landes for a few weeks in the summer, the cook refuses to go with them, packs her bags, and leaves. The Cheffe gets the job by default and thus begins a heady journey leading up to the very first meal she prepares for them. This is where the novel begins to get delicious, literally. Over that summer in Landes, the Cheffe comes up with many of what will become her signature recipes. She makes “her little vol-au-vents with Camargue oysters, her clam and green asparagus soup, her calf sweetbreads flambéed Armagnac.” She makes “roast duck with blueberry jus, fresh salmon ravioli, confit of rabbit, fricassee of fennel and carrots with lavender honey, eggplant-and-pistachio-stuffed sea bream, cauliflower fritters in sauce piquante.” Obvious advance note: One may want to make a reservation at a French restaurant before one reads The Cheffe.
It’s a thrilling story: the girl who discovers her calling by accident, who realizes the joy of cooking — the only joy she has, she claims, other than her daughter. NDiaye supplies mouth-watering detail. The Cheffe thinks of everything from the smallest hint of an ingredient to the tint and color of plates. She serves her food in austere pots instead of grand, decorative tureens. The Clapeaus are, of course, enthralled, except by a simple peach tart (the Cheffe cannot reconcile with their desire for excessive sweetness in desserts). A thrilling story, yes, but the great NDiaye quality of precision lies in the uneasy consequences. In what is an unmistakable commentary of class treason, the Cheffe returns to her parents with many of her dishes in tow and is horrified to find they do not like the food and are ashamed of her for it. “It was a terrible shock. What a strange, what a deformed reflection of herself in her parents’ quietly evasive gaze.”
The brutal idea captured with this turn of events is a natural extension of Marie NDiaye’s work: the idea that refinement and mastery of craft is antithetical to humility and noble simple-mindedness. It’s as if NDiaye is writing out of self-flagellation: one may achieve the high-mindedness of award-winning novelists, but one should never pretend that success isn’t, on some level, a moral failure. This failure is something that the Cheffe carries throughout her life: when she opens the restaurant that garners the fame she shies away from; when her elitist daughter intercedes in the restaurant’s affairs to attract a more high-end clientele and increase menu prices the Cheffe desperately wishes to keep modest; when the restaurant receives a prestigious Michelin-like star rating the Cheffe emphatically does not want. The Cheffe is emblematic of the double-edged nature of prodigious talent in the finer things in life: art, theater, writing, et cetera. “How could she make humble gratitude for what she’d been given coexist with the knowledge that her gift now served only to please a privileged clientele.” How, she wonders, “to remain decent, detached, rigorous, and honest when you’re working for these people, not that you want to be but you are, those people who […] so soon corrupted you?” She is somewhat proud of her gift, but much more than that she is ashamed. What pride is there in being excellent at cooking (or writing) for a small number of “refined” people?
Like so many of NDiaye’s characters, the Cheffe is tragic in her class-motivated self-hatred. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clearer that this fundamental ambivalence defines the character’s destiny. Unfortunately, the novel simultaneously turns more to the narrator’s own life — presumably well after his time with the Cheffe — which is entirely unmemorable. When the whole point of a story is so incisive and provocative, it is sad to see the whole carry such an irrelevant burden.
But most of all, the question The Cheffe raises for its high-minded, literary audience: Is Marie NDiaye the only acclaimed novelist willing to be self-aware, even guilty, of her own stature?
Kamil Ahsan has a doctorate in biology from the University of Chicago and is currently a doctoral student in history at Yale. His work has appeared in The Nation, NPR, and Dissent, among other places.