Books

The Cheffe review: A genius in the kitchen tries to make it in a man's world

The Cheffe
The Cheffe

“La Bonne Heure,” we learn in Marie NDiaye’s luminous, strange new novel, cannot be precisely translated from French to English. “À la bonne heure” might mean “in the nick of time,” “just in time,” “the right time” and so on, each slight variation signaling a tiny difference.

“La Bonne Heure” is the name NDiaye’s title character gives to the restaurant she eventually opens in Bordeaux, and that title, “The Cheffe,” clues us in to the author’s purpose. For so long, the heads of fine restaurants have been referred to as the masculine “le chef.” Why does no feminine construction exist in the French language? Shouldn’t a woman overseeing a restaurant be referred to as “la cheffe?”

The book’s narrator believes so, and if his storytelling takes many discursive turns, repeatedly reminding us of the Cheffe’s poverty-stricken origins, personal difficulties and professional struggles, we forgive him, because he is in love with his mentor and doesn’t care about their age gap or her complete indifference to his adoration.

Our narrator wants the world to understand her purity of focus toward food, how she never wants to flaunt an ingredient or its flavor. Instead, “she came to offer a deeply thoughtful cuisine, highly refined in its appearance, preparation, and cooking, conceived precisely to erase any memory of labor, of duress, of punishing hours.” Descriptions of the recipes she develops and the meals she concocts tantalize. Who wouldn’t want to taste “Webb lettuce with roast beef juice and dried fruits?” NDiaye has given deep thought to how a feminine genius might approach cuisine.

However, she’s given even deeper thought to how difficult it is for feminine genius to shine and succeed in a man’s world. The Cheffe may be born into a Western nation (her racial and ethnic origins are never entirely clear), but she is also born into a bohemian family, with parents who care less about any kind of success than they do their daily happiness (which is either witless or brilliant, depending on your perspective). When the Cheffe receives the opportunity to work for a bourgeois family at their vacation home, she leaves and soon garners her first opportunity to cook for them. She never looks back - although until her dying day she will maintain an asceticism in dress and grooming that recalls her humble start.

Along the way the Cheffe experiences harassment, injustice, ignorance and ill fortune - but she also experiences good luck, kindness, love and fame. One of the most intriguing threads in the book concerns the woman’s ingrate of a daughter, to whom the Cheffe nonetheless kowtows, sending love in her child’s direction even when that child undermines her in every way. Any woman who has ever allowed her career to take precedence, even for an hour, over her offspring, will cringe in understanding. “The Cheffe” might ultimately be a meditation on the impossibility of combining an artistic life with a family life. And yet, the Cheffe makes it work in her own way, and her story feels like it’s being told at just the right time. In the nick of time? One can hope.

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