Great chefs are mysterious. They work miracles behind a swinging kitchen door, saying little, piquing our curiosity. And why not? They have the skill to transform what we eat, play with our tastes, change what we think food can be. In the right hands, an artichoke or tomato becomes sweet enough for dessert. A tough cut of meat melts in the mouth.
The woman at the heart of Marie NDiaye’s new novel is known to the reader only as the Cheffe, a “recently minted” French word meaning female chef. The book’s translator, Jordan Stump, notes that “no good English equivalent exists.” And maybe a new word is necessary, as few could adequately describe this woman, if she ever let anyone know her well enough to try. The closest she has to a confidante is her former kitchen assistant, our narrator, who loves her fiercely and unrequitedly. He tells the story of her life in rambling sentences, questioning himself often, and occasionally losing touch with what may or may not be true.
The Cheffe and her cooking are peerless, but she is so unassuming, almost anonymous, as to be opaque. Her hair is always pulled back into a chignon so tight that it gives the impression she doesn’t have any hair at all: sexless and saint-like. A slate this blank invites projection. She is an intensely private woman, at the center of a story told by a man who is desperate to know her, to be loved by her, and to figure her out.
Being a popular, innovative chef has come to mean many things. Cooking well and creatively suggests worldliness, sensuality, even an elemental, essential sort of genius. It’s a talent that fascinates us because it seems almost attainable. Looks and genetics and inherent ability keep people from becoming actors or musicians or professional athletes, but how hard could it be to expertly debone a fish, or pair a handful of strawberries with balsamic vinegar instead of cream?
Given this, it’s not surprising that the celebrity chef has become a fixture, a way of becoming famous that seems more possible. And if this popular interest in cooking comes in part from our insatiable appetite for fame and fortune, it’s intriguing, maybe even refreshing, that NDiaye’s Cheffe doesn’t aspire to more – no cookbook, no TV show, no empire.
NDiaye doesn’t elaborate much on the Cheffe’s process, or even the taste of her food. It’s simple, yet ineffably challenging to those who have the privilege of eating it: a leg of lamb robed in green herbs, foie gras on a bed of black radishes and red beets, an almost sugarless peach and verbena tart. It remains ultimately unknown to us, and all the more singular. Almost like religion, we’re not supposed to understand or linger on the details, only to believe. In any case, the style and philosophy behind her recipes are clear. “She strove to give each course and each plate a presentation so delicate, so rigorous, so pure that it would strike the eye only if the eye were open to that pleasure, only if it was ready for it, only if it wanted it.” The Cheffe intends her dishes to speak for her, and so we take what we can get.
Her love and inherent understanding of food came to her like a gift, unexpected and precious. At sixteen, while working as a kitchen assistant for a wealthy couple, she is first visited by what she describes as a spirit (“the exquisite fruit of a calling recognized and understood by every part of her body”) in their empty kitchen in Bordeaux, surrounded by pine trees. After the previous chef’s unexpected departure she is left in charge. With a bit of power and autonomy comes a flood of ambition, so overwhelming it reshapes her entire life. From that moment on, the Cheffe wrestles with an “almost painful euphoria that a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to create the infinitely varied, enigmatic, fertile cuisine she had in her mind.”
The appearance of this spirit offers a window into the Cheffe’s moral code – what she honors and detests — but just as quickly, she’s obscured again. Even the name of the storied restaurant she ultimately opens, La Bonne Heure, is ambiguous. “When the Cheffe was asked how she’d settled on that name for her restaurant, she always found some way not to answer, something like, ‘Well, it’s the perfect name, don’t you think?’” The Cheffe is so gracefully reserved that her story is equal parts alluring and infuriating. Not knowing usually is.
Cooking, serving, and enjoying food is its own method of communication. Making dinner for family is a wordless way of showing that you love them. The attention required to watch an oven or beat egg whites until they peak translates into evidence of care.
So, what are we to make of the Cheffe’s dishes, beautiful but anonymous, made for everyone and no one without a hint of ulterior motive? While cooking has stereotypically been a woman’s domain, there have always been far fewer female chefs, even now. If we are accustomed to food, whether a simple roasted chicken or an intricate soufflé, being made as an answer to a question or a way to connect, it’s understandable that the Cheffe’s work confounds — it serves a higher calling, devoid of any emotion beyond her own satisfaction. Is she bucking the stereotype, or erasing herself to fit it?
As a young woman, the Cheffe has a daughter, whose father she never marries or even names. Motherhood comes to represent more of a curse than a blessing. NDiaye describes it as “a loneliness all the more cruel in that she was never really alone.”
The Cheffe does her best, but can never reconcile raising her child with devotion to her work. Ultimately, the restaurant wins out, and the daughter plays upon her mother’s subsequent guilt masterfully, setting up a struggle that will define both lives.
What is the price we pay for true originality? NDiaye suggests it might be a rejection of the things we’re supposed to value, that might hold us back. The narrator, as if on cue, attacks the Cheffe’s daughter as an unequivocal villain, a leech on her long-suffering mother. It becomes apparent only later where all his vitriol is really coming from, who’s withholding and what’s actually true.
By telling the Cheffe’s story through her adoring assistant, NDiaye keep us off-balance. Are we seeing the Cheffe as she is, or as her assistant wishes her to be? He analyzes every detail of her life and work, over and over, wasting away by a Spanish beach, sunning himself and drinking too much, eating cheap takeaway meals instead of cooking. His memories of her are a knot, slowly unraveling.
For years, the Cheffe confided in him during late-night conversations in the restaurant’s kitchen, long after everyone else had gone home. He watched her tweak recipes and test out new ideas while reminiscing about her childhood and early successes. But in retelling her story, he takes it a step further. He plumbs the depths of her pauses and omissions, looking for meaning in everything she does and doesn’t do. He claims an authority over her life, making corrections as if he was there himself.
Early in the novel, NDiaye uses a phrase: “Everything hiding the secret of its taste.” It’s meant to describe an unremarkable filet of fish, or carrots still covered in dirt from the garden — the commonplace things that become extraordinary with the right seasoning, heat, and care. It could just as easily apply to the Cheffe herself, and to the narrator, this comforting, slippery idea that love brings out what is good in us, while the lack or refusal of it makes us worse.
“I’ve often thought my feelings for the Cheffe kept me from becoming a great cook, but I don’t regret it,” he says. “How could I regret becoming a far better man, morally and spiritually, than the man I would have been had that love not caught hold of me?” But where does that love go? What becomes of it when it isn’t met, can’t even be expressed? Maybe, NDiaye suggests, some are meant to love unrequitedly, or to be loved without loving, to learn and grow from that particular suffering. Maybe it’s what some people need in order to be great.
At the end of the novel, the narrator and the Cheffe share a meal, their last together. In his telling, the setting and the food are equally idyllic. They sit in a shaded garden, surrounded by the wandering chickens and ripe vegetables that will become their lunch. A chance for him to analyze her taste one last time.
“A longing to know her truest being,” he tells us, “the only possible source for those divine dishes.”