The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye (Author)

From the Booker Prize-nominated author of Three Strong Women: an elegant, hypnotic new novel about a legendary French female chef–the facts her life, the nearly ineffable qualities of her cooking, and the obsessive, sometimes destructive desire for purity of taste and experience that shaped her life.

Continuing her tradition of writing provocative fiction about fascinating women, here Marie NDiaye gives us the story of a Great Female Chef–a chef who was celebrated as one of the best in a world where men dominate, and the way that her pursuit of love, pleasure, and gustatory delights helped shape her life and career. Told from the perspective of her former assistant (and unrequited lover), now an aged chef himself, here is the story of a woman’s quest to the front of the kitchen–and the extraordinary journey she takes along the way.

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Oh yes, of course, she got that question often. Endlessly, I’d even say, after all the Cheffe was famous, and maybe she had a secret she’d give away, out of weakness or weariness or indifference, or by mistake, or moved by a sudden fit of generosity to counsel anyone interested in her trade and in some sort of stardom, or guaranteed acclaim at least.

Yes, that fascinated a great many people, that glorious reputation she’d gained without really trying, and maybe they thought, maybe they imagined she was keeping the key to that mystery to herself, they saw a mystery there, she wasn’t very bright.

They were wrong on two counts.

For one thing she was terribly intelligent, and for another you don’t have to be as clever as she was to succeed in the business.

She liked being misunderstood.

She hated people accosting her, prodding her, she hated the threat of being unmasked.

No, no, she had never had a confidant before me, she was too reticent for that.

Very often people asked her that question you’re thinking of, and inevitably she shrugged her shoulders, smiled with the look she liked to put on, faintly mystified, distant, a look of sincere or feigned modesty, it wasn’t clear which, and answered, “It’s not hard, you just have to be organized.”

And when they kept pushing, she told them, “It just takes a little taste, it’s not hard,” and turned her high, narrow forehead very slightly away, pinching her thin lips as if to say not only that she’d tell them no more but also that she’d put up a fight if anyone tried to forcibly unclench her teeth.

The look on her face, and even on her body—­hard, closed, removed—­turned dull and dim and ridiculously adamant, and that put a stop to the questions, not because people were sorry they’d troubled her but because they thought she was thick in the head.

The Cheffe was fantastically intelligent.

How I loved to see her delight in being taken for a simpleminded woman!

Our sly, shared awareness of her vast intelligence felt like a bond between us, a bond that I cherished and that she didn’t mind, a bond I wasn’t the only one to feel, because there were others, long-­standing acquaintances who knew just how sharp she was, how perceptive, and who also sensed she wanted to keep that a secret from strangers and meddlers, but I was the youngest, I didn’t know her before, back when she cared less about secrecy, I was the youngest, and the most in love with her, of that I’m sure.

But also, she thought there was something excessive in the praise people had begun to heap on her cooking.

She found the phrasing of those panegyrics ridiculous and affected, it was a question of style.

She had no taste for preciousness or grandiloquence, and no respect.

She knew all about the force of the senses, after all it was her work to awaken them, and she was always enchanted to see that force show on the diners’ faces, she strove for nothing else, day in and day out, for so many years, virtually without rest.

But the words people used to describe that struck her as indecent.

“It’s very good” was all she wanted, all she could possibly ask.

To analyze in graphic detail all the causes and effects of the pleasures offered by her green-­robed leg of lamb, say, since today that’s her most famous dish and the emblem of her style (what people don’t realize is that toward the end she didn’t want to make it anymore, she was tired of it, just as a singer tires of the same beloved song she’s continually asked to repeat, it sickened her a little, she resented that magnificent leg of lamb for being more famous than she was, and for having let so many other dishes languish in undeserved obscurity, dishes that took far more work and skill, dishes she was far prouder of), to subject that rapture’s many and varied forms to minute analysis was in her mind to expose something intensely private to the full light of day, something in the eater and by extension in the Cheffe, it embarrassed her, at times like that she wished she’d never done anything, offered anything, sacrificed anything.

She never said so, but I knew.

She never would have said so, that too would have been revealing too much.

But I knew it, from the cold, stubborn silence she closed herself up in when she was dragged from her kitchen to hear out a customer who insisted on offering his compliments, who, whether intrigued, troubled, or spurred on by the Cheffe’s silence, refused to give up until he’d gotten some sort of answer, and to be done with it she slowly shook her head from right to left, as if, modest as she was, that gushing praise was a torment, she didn’t say a word, she was ashamed to be exhibiting herself, stripped bare, and the customer too, even if he didn’t know it.

And afterward her mood was dark, as if she’d been not praised but criticized or insulted.

If I was there looking on, or if at least she thought I was (often wrongly, since I always tried to slip away when the Cheffe was forced out into the dining room), I sensed that she held it against me, her dignity had been wounded in front of me.

And yet for my part—and mine alone, I wish I could say, but how to be sure?—­nothing could ever diminish my reverence and tenderness for the Cheffe, not even the spectacle of a scene in the dining room when, as did sometimes happen, she met the complaints of the very occasional dissatisfied customer with her usual lofty silence, offending the customer, who thought she was scorning him when she was only ignoring him, in her reserved way, just as she did her admirers.

Yes, that’s right, no happier with applause than with attacks.

At least those attacks never aspired to eloquence, and their words didn’t aim to penetrate the Cheffe’s heart and soul.

Yes, that’s right, the complaints concerned only the food, the Cheffe’s decision to combine this ingredient with that (even the celebrated green-­robed leg of lamb, for instance, before its renown grew so great that today it can’t be questioned, there were those who found fault with its sheath of sorrel and spinach, they would have preferred one or the other, or even chard), whereas the applause soon turned to glorification of the Cheffe herself, and then ventured into the secret world of her presumed intentions, a longing to know her truest being, the only possible source for those sublime dishes.

“Idiots,” the Cheffe once said to me, of all that to-­do.

She also claimed she couldn’t understand a third of what people wrote about her cooking—­confirmation for those who thought her dim-­witted, who were convinced her gift had come to her purely by chance.

Yes, they thought the severe, intransigent god of cuisine had chosen to become flesh in the form of that difficult, slightly dense little woman.

As I’ve told you, she was perfectly happy to be thought simpleminded, it was a way to be free.

She wasn’t one of those people who play stupid for so long that they become stupid, forgetting it started out as an act, no, playing that part only made her wilier, shrewder, maybe a touch cynical, I don’t know.

She was sharp, she was prickly, but for all that I’ve always thought the girl she once was—­eager to please, keen to enchant everyone even as she stayed behind the kitchen door, finding pleasure enough in the contented murmurs filtering through as they savored what she’d conceived and created—­that lonely girl, ever searching for friendship and compassion, was still nestled deep in the Cheffe’s breast, and sometimes she rose up, suddenly remaking the Cheffe’s face, tempering her words, surprising even her.

She often showed me a softer face, she had faith in herself, and I’d get no more out of her than that.

Still, she was ambitious, yes, why not?

She wanted to be someone, but in her own way, without fuss, without having to talk about it, someone people don’t forget even if they never actually knew her.

She wanted to leave only a vague, marveling recollection in the eaters’ minds, so when they tried to remember where that delectable image had sprung from, and that melancholy image too, like a happiness that will never come again, they’d remember only a dish, or just its name, or its scent, or three bold, forthright colors on the milky white plate.

The Cheffe would have rather they not even remembered her name, rather they never saw her face, rather they had no idea if she was plump or slender, short or tall, if her body was pleasingly put together.

Which turned out not to be possible, it wasn’t the Cheffe’s habit or style to work at shaping her legend.

She never hid, even if she didn’t like showing herself.

She did this and that, she posed for a regional newspaper, standing with her employees at her restaurant’s front door, and that photo, amateurishly shot by the food critic, with the Cheffe grinning broadly at some off-the-cuff joke from the sous-chef behind her, with the Cheffe looking more, in her strange, self-satisfied cheeriness, squinting a little in the bright noontime sun, like a mother just awarded a medal for her flourishing fecundity than the inflexible, austere boss we all knew, resolutely closemouthed, discreet, sometimes unknowable, that photo of the Cheffe is the best known today, and every article on the Cheffe is now illustrated with a close-up of that laughing, frivolous face, as if that were the Cheffe’s real face.

It wasn’t, I assure you.

At the same time, because she had no sense of strategy, the Cheffe always said no to being photographed in the din­ing room with important customers, politicians, actresses, CEOs, and people resented it, they thought her cheaply manipulative or arrogant when in fact she was only skittish, timid, and tired too, of course.

Had she said yes, I have no doubt that those snapshots, showing her distant, uneasy face, adamantly closed over her inner complexity, would have portrayed a far greater truth than her impish picture in Sud-Ouest.

And in any case she wasn’t fond of that photo, not because she didn’t recognize herself in the look on her face, that’s one thing she might have liked, since the Cheffe always tried to throw people off where she was concerned, but rather because she was afraid that deeply incongruous pic­ture might make people think the photographer had cap­tured her genuine nature, and might make some of them hope they too could one day flush it out, could maybe even convince the Cheffe that that was her true self, that at heart she was that jovial, serene, earth-motherly woman she her­self didn’t recognize.

She didn’t particularly care if people misunderstood what sort of person she was, if they were convinced she was friendly and open and so on.

It’s just that she didn’t want anyone talking to her with that absurd misrepresentation in their head, she didn’t want anyone trying to summon up her beaming, beatific face by pushing her into places she’d never been, places that weren’t hers at all.

She didn’t want anyone wondering if that was a true or a false image of her real self, and she didn’t want them to have any reason, like that photo, to care or even think about that question.

That’s how she was. At least I think that’s how she was.

The Cheffe kept the deepest part of her nature hidden even from me.

Understandable, yes, since I was her employee, and we were separated at least as much by age as by rank, by experi­ence, even by gender, if you like, though I never thought it mattered, in my quest to understand the Cheffe’s soul, that I was a man, I never saw it as a handicap.

Quite the reverse? Yes, possibly.

I try even harder, I question everything I think I know, sense, or interpret.

Yes, if I were talking to you about another man I would possibly or even probably analyze his behavior by my own in some similar circumstance, and that would of course be a terrible mistake, because I’ve learned that I’m not like most men in the way I feel certain emotions, in the very nature of those emotions, whereas my innermost heart could always read the Cheffe’s, even though she was a woman, even though she was twice my age.

Forgive me this little boast, but I think I’m fairly perceptive.

Which was exactly what the Cheffe feared most, she tried to push me away and she couldn’t.

There’s nothing you can do faced with the loyalty of a lov­ing, impassioned person.

Did she accept that? Resign herself to it? Yes, of course, she loved me too, in her way.

You give me a cold smile and ask, “What about the child­hood of a Cheffe?” assuming I don’t get the reference, you’re convinced I don’t have much of an education.

You’re right, I didn’t learn much in school.

As soon as I walked into the classroom I felt a groundless terror contracting my bladder, and also, and worse, drain­ing my memory of everything I’d crammed into it the night before, at home, in many diligent hours of anxiety and des­peration to please, to be perfect, and so the precious fruits of my attempts to learn and remember vanished into thin air, the mere smell of the classroom—sweat, leather, dust, chalk—instantly turned my brain into a helium balloon, ready to fly out of my skull if I made just one move, and I knew what that move was, and I struggled in vain not to make it: it was my trembling, breathless little body hunch­ing down as the teacher looked for someone to call on, mak­ing me look guilty, like some laggard who didn’t even have the nerve to assert his boredom and laziness, when in fact I was yearning to cry out, “I know all this backward and for­ward, there’s not one question I can’t answer!,” and then the balloon started to rise, drifted out through the open window, climbed into the autumn sky to join all the others that had broken free before it, the balloon of my memory, my work, my intelligence, leaving only the shell of my true being on the chair, tiny, stupid, pathetic.

I’ve mostly lived alone.

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