FICTION

The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel

Knopf. Oct. 2019. 304p. ISBN 9780525520474. pap. $26.95. F
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Prix Goncourt–winning, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award short-listed NDiaye (Three Good Women) here presents the life story of a fictional female chef who inspired France’s minimalist nouvelle cuisine, told entirely in the voice of a devoted younger male employee. The novel seems like a documentary, with the camera focused in tightly on the narrator as he effusively recounts his boss’s rise from poverty in provincial France to become proprietor of a Michelin-starred restaurant. He offers up fascinating details of her creative approach and the perils of running a master restaurant, yet for all the lavish description, there are intriguing absences. The narrator’s life story emerges only as reflected through the assistant, whose name we don’t learn. Even the cheffe is referred to only by her title—evidently, a French female chef is so remarkable that the word cheffe was only recently coined. Given the acolyte’s obsession with the cheffe and his palpable contempt for her daughter, the reader is intrigued by what he might be concealing.
VERDICT Despite its holes, this is a finely constructed work with a surprising and satisfying ending, like a fine meal leading up to a delicious dessert. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/19.]

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