From the celebrated French writer Marie NDiaye--Prix Goncourt-winning author of Three Strong Women--comes the story of the Cheffe: a woman who lives in the single-minded pursuit of creating incomparable culinary delights.
Born into poverty in southwestern France, as a teenager the Cheffe takes a job working for a wealthy couple in a neighboring town. It is not long before it becomes clear that she has an unusual, remarkable talent for cooking, and soon her sheer talent and ambition put her in charge of the couple’s kitchen. Though she revels in the culinary spotlight, the Cheffe remains secretive about the rest of her life. She shares nothing of her feelings or emotions. She becomes pregnant but will not reveal her daughter’s father. And when the demands of her work become too great, she leaves her baby in the care of her family and sets out to open her own restaurant, to rave reviews. As time goes on, the Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter remains fraught, and eventually it threatens to destroy everything the Cheffe has spent her life perfecting. Told from the perspective of the Cheffe’s former assistant and unrequited lover, this stunning novel by Marie NDiaye is a gustatory tour de force.
The life and career of a majestically talented, intensely private master chef is narrated by her greatest admirer and loyal employee in NDiaye's engrossing psychological novel (following My Heart Hemmed In). Born in the early 1950s in the southwestern French town of Sainte-Bazeille, to a large, poor family, the Cheffe leaves school at 14 to work as a maid for the Clapeaus, a wealthy older couple who "loved eating with a fervent, unrelenting love." She finds her calling in replacing the Clapeaus' vacationing cook and goes on to devote herself to cooking, moving through kitchens "with the kind of controlled, dynamic, galvanizing intentness that attracted miraculous ideas" and eventually opening her own award-winning restaurant. But this single-mindedness is also the source of painful lifelong conflict between the Cheffe and her only daughter, whom the narrator resents for what he sees as ingratitude. Deeply in love with the taciturn Cheffe, who makes him her confidante but doesn't return his feelings, the narrator acknowledges his bias but insists on the accuracy of his insights. Like the Cheffe's recipes, at first tantalizingly simple but eventually so austere they threaten to "tumble into fruitlessness" and become useless, the narrator's efforts to describe the Cheffe's mind and heart are both enthralling and fundamentally unreliable as a record of her life. Readers will be consumed by this tale of talent and obsession, even as the Cheffe herself remains both fascinating and mysterious.