THE CHEFFE by Marie NDiaye


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A saint in the kitchen: the legend of a culinary genius recounted by her most devoted disciple.

“Every day I get something from what my love made of me, and if I can live my life on good terms with myself it’s only because my exclusive, absolute, imperishable love transformed the boy I was, conventionally eager to succeed, ordinary, pragmatic, into a young man capable of marveling and sacrificing.” To present the story of a renowned restaurateur known only as the Cheffe, NDiaye (Ladivine, 2016, etc.) has created a uniquely unreliable (and unnamed) narrator, the chef’s former apprentice and No. 1 fan, now living in boozy retirement on the Spanish Mediterranean. In his hands, the life of the Cheffe is a hagiographic fairy tale, complete with an ugly witch—the Cheffe’s daughter, whom the narrator is still furiously fighting for favor even long after his mentor’s death. “I have my own opinion, you’ve met her, you’ve seen that unpleasant, sterile woman, arrogant and vain and now trying to peddle specious anecdotes about the Cheffe to the whole wide world.” The preferred version of the story—the narrator’s version—begins once upon a time in the village of Sainte-Bazeille, where a sweet little girl was born to destitute farm laborers. They put her to work in the fields, then sent her away as a teenager to work for some wealthy weirdos in a neighboring town. Obsessed with food, the Clapeaus install the girl in their kitchen, where she discovers her vocation: “Now, moved and joyous, she realized her body was made up of many little animals who’d learned to work flawlessly all on their own, and who, that afternoon, happy, modest, at once obediently and quietly enterprising, showed her all their savoir faire, working as a tight-knit team that in a sense excluded the Cheffe for her own good.” My, my. The mice and bluebirds that sewed Cinderella’s ball gown take a backseat to these industrious creatures. What specious anecdotes could that awful daughter possibly come up with to match these?

So eccentric, long-winded, and overblown, it's almost endearing.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-52047-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2019


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