It seems unlikely that the Goncourt Prize-winning author Marie NDiaye set out to be the Camus of cuisine, but her latest novel, The Cheffe, brings to mind a number of parallels with the much-revered 1942 French novel The Stranger. First of all, its narrative is laid out in the first person, entirely in flashback. Second, the loner narrator seems to have an ambivalent relationship with his memory. And third, the novel is populated with somewhat astringent characters who aren’t much on small talk.
But let’s leave Monsieur Camus aside for the moment and consider the complicated relationship our narrator has with the woman he refers to throughout the book merely as “the Cheffe” (cheffe being the French word for a female chef). It’s quite clear from the outset that the Cheffe has passed on, and our narrator has some score-settling to do, some to a journalist and some apparently to himself in the wake of her departure.
While it’s not strictly necessary, it is helpful if the reader has some sense of French restaurant culture, which combines the military and the monastery in its rigorous discipline. Real-life chefs often wax nostalgic about the fearsome hierarchy in the kitchen, where even an arched eyebrow from le boss can reduce a sensitive young cook to a puddle. That goes double when the cook in question is carrying not just a knife but also a torch; the narrator’s unrequited love for the Cheffe runs through the novel like saffron threads through a bouillabaisse.
The Cheffe herself is somewhat inscrutable in a quintessentially Gallic way; obviously passionate about her food, but outwardly indifferent to the response it gets. In fact, when her restaurant gains its first star, she concludes, “It’s all over.” It isn’t, actually, but it sets into motion a cycle that propels the book to its unexpected climax. And like a great meal, The Cheffe leaves us pleasantly sated but still wanting more.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and writes extensively on food-related topics both in magazines and on his blog, templeofthetongue.com.