“The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel,” written by French author Marie NDiaye and translated by Jordan Stump., will hit shelves Oct. 29. The novel charts the personal history and rise of a French female chef, whose hard work and near-obsessive commitment to craft makes her a celebrated woman in an industry dominated by men. Narrated by her former assistant — who happened to be in love with her — “The Cheffe” explores the fascinating journey of a talented, persistent, deeply private woman. The excerpt below includes the first pages of the book and introduces us to the narrator and the Cheffe.
Translator’s note: Cheffe is a recently minted word in French; its meaning, of course, is “female chef.” Because no good English equivalent exists, this translation will use the French word.
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 simple-minded 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, longstanding 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.
Excerpted from “The Cheffe” by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump. Translation copyright © 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.