Living with a trained chef, it seems that an interest in all things foodie has become part of my life through osmosis. Actually, let’s rephrase that. Living with a trained chef the technical side of cooking, flavours and presentation has become part of my life through osmosis. I have always taken a possibly slightly beyond healthy interest in food and experience fine dining when I can. Note – living with a chef means I am never allowed to cook, or if I do it is always wrong (yes you can even stir a stir fry wrong, apparently). So books with a foodie slant have an interest to this household and having not read one for a while and it being Kimbofo’s ANZ Literature Month it seemed the perfect time to read Wayne Macauley’s The Cook.
Zac is a young offender who, after having committed an act of violence, is given the option of either going into a young offenders institute or of joining Cook School, an initiative set up by a celebrity Head Chef who wants to do good for the community and also quite possibly for his own PR. Here Zac learns all the trick of the trade, from slaughtering to sautéing, of cooking under the eyes of Sous Chef Fabian and occasionally the Head Chef himself. Zac soon gets a taste (sorry) for the world of cooking and as he watches the life the Head Chef lives, and the delights celebrity can bring, Zac decides that is the life for him and he will do anything to achieve it.
Head Chef stopped stalking the bench. It was a bit religious he had his arms out palms up his wedding ring was huge. You have been chosen he said each and every one of you it could have been anyone but of all the young people wandering the suburbs wasting their lives you and only you have been chosen. Do not waste this opportunity. You have a kitchen the envy of a Michelin-star restaurant the best teaching talent in the country fresh produce at your door it is up to you to use these resources and not waste them. Remember you are flying the flag for good taste gentlemen. If you are not prepared to aim higher and higher again I suggest you take your supermarket chops and go and eat them with the dogs.
Initially you could be fooled into thinking that The Cook is simply a satire on the cooking world and all the cookery shows, from Masterchef to the recent show Taste with Nigella and co, and at first glance it is. As we learn, grimly fascinated as the descriptions are quite full on, how you slaughter various animals after having reared them in fancy ways to make the most of your meat. We also learn how the finest chefs make everything top line with basic ingredients and maximum price, you know what I mean; mushroom foam, a piece of pork the size of an iPod mini with the tiniest stokes of sauce surrounding it. And also how the upper classes will happily pay through their noses for it. Highlighted all the more when Zac becomes an ‘in house’ chef.
Yet The Cook is actually so much more than that. At it’s very (cold, dark) heart this is a book about class, something I am learning Australian authors are very interested in. We watch as Zac watches the upper classes and all the while Macauley is saying ‘look how outrageous this is’. What I think Macauley then does which is very clever is break this, possibly subliminally, is then have it running into three strands. Firstly we see how the upper classes are not always based on the money people actually have and also the fall from grace when recession hits both at the Head Chef’s idyllic school and then in the rich suburbs of the cities.
Secondly, through Zac, we look at how this affects the younger people of today who are striving to find (let alone make) a place in this world when even the most privileged are struggling, even if it is behind closed doors. Zac was from the wrong streets before he became a wrong’en and therefore he has to work harder and harder and harder in order work against the preconceptions people will have of him, even the preconception of himself. Macauley creates a fascinating psychology being Zac as a boy who believes himself lower than the low and who may want the trappings of fame if he can’t become part of the elite then he can at least aim to be the highest of the lowest of the low, if that makes sense.
I don’t want to work for a boss who props me up just above drowning I want to work for a customer who knows I am below them and who knows that I know. This is my shame it is a shame I want to be proud of. The money is elsewhere it’s always been elsewhere that is the truth of our lives someone else is holding the string dangling it in front of our eyes do we jump like dogs for a treat or do we flatten our ears say I’m your dog you’re my master give him shame out of every pour make him feel so big and special that he can’t help dropping something down for you. It’s not up to us to change them our job is to lick their boots kiss their arses let them make the money they’re the ones who know how to and let’s be thankful for what trickles down.
This means that thirdly we look at the question ‘is there actually power in servitude?’ This is not something that is answered in The Cook instead it is a question that hangs in the air, or just behind the dining room doors. We are to go away and think about it and with the sudden dark twist, which should not be given away because when it happens its brilliant, at the end there is no doubt you will be thinking about it long after you have read it.
However, some of you may not get there because I occasionally struggled. You see Macauley’s cleverest trick with The Cook is also something that I occasionally found hard to work with and that was Zac himself as our narrator. Let me explain. Zac’s narration is initially very monotone whilst having the verbals. Everything comes out at once, Macauley doing this by having not a single comma (no not a one) in the book at all. He is also slightly cold, I couldn’t decide if this was some condition, lack of education or just his personality. This occasionally becomes slightly overbearing and so I needed to have a bit of space with him now and again. Yet his voice does change slowly over time and having continued I was fascinated as he goes from determined to delude to desperate. I was very glad I persevered.
I think that The Cook is a rather fascinating book, relatively small, utterly brimming full of themes and ideas. Macauley’s creation of Zac and his ways of narration are a risk that pays off with an ending that I will be left thinking about for quite some time. Less a satire for me and more an unabashed and often confronting look at society, the class divide and the future for those who are young and sometimes make mistakes and the messages of aspiration that we are sending them. Well worth a read.
Who else has read this and what did you think of it? Have you read any of Macauley’s other books, which I don’t think have crossed the water here yet, and if so what did you make of them? You can see other reviews of the book from ANZ Lit Lovers, FarmlaneBooks, The First Tuesday Book Club and Kim of Reading Matters. Kim has recommended the book to me many a time and so it only seemed right that I read it for her ANZ Literature Month this May. For more info on that head here. Back to The Cook… I do like a book with a dark little heart and one that builds and builds giving a final twist, can you recommend any others in that sort of style?