THE CHEFFE: A Cook's Novel. By Marie NDiaye. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump. Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pages. $26.95.
Marie NDiaye's latest novel is a tour de force of style. Narrated entirely from the viewpoint of the eponymous cheffe's adoring former apprentice, it offers the narrator’s memories of his intense but ultimately unfulfilled relationship with a well-known female cook.
The novel assumes that we already know about the cheffe; the rambling, meditative narration, seemingly delivered in response to questions posed by a real or imaginary interviewer, tells us as much about the narrator’s own attitude toward the cheffe and his unacknowledged love for her, as it does about the details of her life.
Gradually we piece together the cheffe’s story and how the narrator had come to work for her and an almost monomaniacal fixation on her as she appears to do on her cooking.
Born into poverty in southwest France, the cheffe had become one of the few female restaurateurs to earn a Michelin star. Completely untaught, her achievement apparently came from her single-minded purity of intent, and part of the novel's interest derives from the narrator's defense of her opaqueness to outsiders — food-writers, interviewers and the like — who in turning her into another celebrity-chef would have ruined the art of her cuisine.
According to the highly unreliable narrator, it is the return of the cheffe’s daughter, seeking to cash in on her mother’s success, that compromises her art. By persuading her mother to adapt to what she presumes to be consumers’ tastes — changing her menus, pricing and decor — the daughter causes her mother to lose the Michelin star.
The narrator’s animus toward the daughter, evident from the start, appears at first to stem from anger at the damage she wrought, but in fact wells from a deep jealousy of the cheffe’s attention to her daughter, which prevents her from being open to his love and admiration. We learn that the narrator’s history with the cheffe’s daughter is more complicated than that.
The translator's note tells us that the word "cheffe" is a recently minted word in French, and that no equivalent yet exists in English. However, the novel appears to be less concerned with making a point about the long-standing chauvinism of the restaurant business than about the way public expectation and the parasitism of critics and reviewers can destroy truly original art.
According to our narrator, the cheffe’s art was both “spiritual” and “sacred,” and hence marked by an ascetic quest for “exquisite simplicity” rather than anything fancy.
Like Samuel Beckett’s efforts to write “without style,” the cheffe’s drive for perfection in cuisine “pushed her rigorism to the limit.”
On the last occasion the narrator sees the cheffe, rather than prepare a meal for him, she points to the chickens, vegetables and cherries in the inn garden where they are meeting and tells him that “the meal was there, spare, magnificent, and perfect ... she would never invent anything simpler or more beautiful.”
While the language of the novel is far from spare — the narrator’s mode tends to the garrulous and effusive, and some of the descriptions of the dishes the cheffe prepares are luscious and downright mouthwatering — NDiaye’s writerly disdain for the kinds of standard mechanisms that drive the action of most fiction prompts a further comparison with Beckett.
As with “Waiting for Godot,” “Cheffe” is a work in which nothing happens more than once. Although there is much in “Cheffe” to tickle the literary palate, readers may well wish for more substantial fare.