A young man makes a demanding but soul-stirring trek through the kitchens of France’s finer restaurants.
De Kerangal’s previous novel published in English, The Heart (2016), was a straightforward tale of organ donation from the donor’s death to transplant surgery. The trajectory of this novel is a similar forward march, but it encompasses more emotional and sensory detail; it’s slim but potent. The story follows Mauro and his love of cooking from childhood (baking cakes in elementary school) and young adulthood (weaning his friends off fast food with homemade meals) to pursuing a culinary career in his native France. Every tale of culinary apprenticeship seems to demand a trial by fire in a perfectionist kitchen, and this one is no different: He’s chided, whacked in the head with a melon baller, and works endless hours. His social life vaporizes; his girlfriend leaves him. But the author does a fine job of exploring why someone like Mauro is still enchanted by the lifestyle. A love of food is part of it, and she writes lovingly about “the taste of a tomato, the subtlety of a stalk of asparagus, the crunch of a curly endive.” She’s less interested in food porn, though, than in the way the kitchen provides a kind of holistic calm: “He can cook by ear as well as with his nose, hands, mouth, and eyes.” What Mauro’s life lacks is time to rest, and the anonymous narrator, vaguely suggested as a potential love interest, frames his life as bittersweet, shaped by success in the culinary world but resisting the compromises his increasing success demands, his “mental life simmering carefully like milk over a fire.” A life like Mauro’s is forever uncertain, the story suggests, but sweetened by an endless cookbook’s worth of options.
Too short to feel like a full-bodied novel but an admirable literary lagniappe.