Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe (translated beautifully by Jordan Stump) is billed as “a chef’s novel” but it is not a typical novel. Some of the people who read this book and rated it on Goodreads didn’t like it because it didn’t follow the typical genre rules. These readers found the book boring. That wasn’t my experience at all. Once I got the hang of The Cheffe I found a lot of things that I love in fiction: a very unreliable narrator, writing about food, and a thorough psychological portrait of a contradictory chef.
An unnamed narrator tells the story of the great Cheffe, who ran the legendary La Bonne Heure and Gabrielle in Bordeaux, France, to an equally unnamed source. We learn about the Cheffe’s first meals, created when she had to suddenly fill in for a cook during the long summer vacation. We see how the Cheffe got her first official job as a chef’s apprentice, and then how she opened La Bonne Heure and later Gabrielle.
This is what one would expect from a story about a chef. What makes The Cheffe light years ahead of a typical novel about a chef is the layers of psychology piled on top of that story. Our unnamed narrator does not hide his deep, abiding love for the Cheffe. He desires the Cheffe and her friendship, but he also seems to view her as some kind of secular saint. The Cheffe lives an ascetic kind of life. She has equally ascetic views about food. At times, the narrator sounds like they’re writing a hagiography of the Cheffe instead of a biography. That’s what hooked me on The Cheffe.
When someone is in love with another person, the lover will do a lot to excuse any bad behavior by the beloved. The Cheffe isn’t a bad person, but her complicated relationship with her daughter is completely misunderstood and misreported by our narrator. The narrator has no apparent sense of self-awareness about how his feelings have caused him to turn into the Cheffe’s first unintentional disciple. He also seems to have no clue that his utter devotion to the Cheffe wasn’t returned. She never saw him as anything more than a colleague and maybe a friend who would listen to her talk about anything.
The deeper I got into The Cheffe, the more I—well, enjoyed is not quite the right word—was hooked on the story. This is not the kind of book you can sink into. It requires a reader who is always on guard, always looking for clues as to what’s really going on instead of the narrator’s almost religious version of events. For readers who like picking books apart, The Cheffe is a great choice. Readers who want a book they can sink into, however, might get as annoyed as some of the others on Goodreads.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.