When you’re young, and you’re making decisions about school subjects and careers, there are inevitably pressures. For some kids, their passions line-up with family or social expectations. Lucky them. For others, expectations can steer them away from what they’d really, really like to be doing. I think we all know of that person who desperately wanted to be a carpenter or an artist or in advertising, yet they come from a ‘family of doctors’ and suddenly find their Year 12 dominated by chemistry and biology rather than graphic design. Personally speaking, I traded a Forestry degree for Environmental Planning – I think I probably would have ended up in the same place regardless but I can’t deny that my mum’s concerns about my being posted as a park ranger somewhere remote, didn’t go unheard.
The story of The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal begins along similar lines – Mauro is a young self-taught cook. While he has a natural flair for cookery and his bohemian parents encourage him to pursue it as a career, he chooses the security of a degree in economics. He works in a kitchen simply to pay his way through business school and to fund his travels. Eventually his love of cooking takes over and as Mauro travels from Paris to Berlin, Thailand, Lisbon and Burma we get snapshots of various cuisines, chefs, and kitchen politics.
The story is tightly condensed and yet you get to know Mauro via the unnamed female narrator. Quite frankly, I thought he was more smart-arse than wunderkind – his ego was as big as any of the chefs he scorned and he was prone to pontificating.
…he does have principles: junk food is a form of violence perpetrated against the poor; the mass-produced ready-meal a sign of the solitude of urban existence.
Cooking is not the shiny happy world they’re making it out to be; there’s not much affection… Violence is an old refrain in kitchens. Physical blows, thrown objects and utensils, burns, insults.
Kerangal’s writing has been described as poetic – there were certainly obvious and sure changes of pace, which gave energy to the kitchen scenes but not the frenzy captured in other stories such as Danler’s Sweetbitter. I was left thinking that if you wanted a kitchen a story, with its violence, creativity, and craziness, you really can’t go past Bourdain.
Following a recipe means matching sensory perceptions to verbs and nouns – and, for example, learning to distinguish what is diced from what is minced, and what is minced from what is chopped…
2.5/5 It does have a gorgeous cover…
I received my copy of The Cook from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Mauro must make a raspberry zabaglione as a test. He buggers it up – ‘…damaging the raspberries so that their delicate shape is lost, their flesh torn, the cream stained with pink smears – Damn, it looks like a fucking fruit puree!’