116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Consumption of the Flesh in Marie NDiaye’s La Cheffe, roman d’une cuisinière

Raquelle Bostow, Vanderbilt University

Marie NDiaye’s most recent novel, La Cheffe: roman d’une cuisinière (2016), examines the relationship between pleasure and consumption of literal (animal) and figurative (female body) flesh. I argue that the main character, la Cheffe, subverts the patriarchal schema of carno-phallogocentrisme (a Derridian neologism) through her engagement with the culinary arts.


In this paper, I read Marie Ndiaye’s La Cheffe, roman d’une cuisinière (2016) as a contemporary feminist response to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût, ou meditation de gastronomie transcendante (1825). Brillat-Savarin’s foundational work in the history of gastronomy provides a philosophy of taste and consumption amidst convivial anecdotes, recipes, and reflections. In his discussion of desire for food, Brillat-Savarin warns against gluttony and proffers that one can realize the pleasure of eating only when the food is thoughtfully prepared and consumed in moderation. By emphasizing that one must “know” how to eat, savoir manger, Brillat-Savarin elaborates a science of culinary art that corresponds with strands of rationalist thinking of 18th century France.  


Physiologie thus provides an appropriate lens through which to examine Ndiaye’s main character, la Cheffe, and heraversion to the erotic dimension of victual consumption as well as her regard for meal preparation as a meditative, spiritual ceremony. Set in late-20th century Bordeaux, the novel figures food and its preparation as a form of communication, breath, and language, rather than a vehicle of lust-like desire or guilt. For la Cheffe, whose name we do not discover until the final pages of this nearly 300-page work, cooking is sacred, and mealtime is a moment for contemplation and spiritual communion.


La cuisine, both the space of the kitchen and the food that is prepared there, becomes a place and a material substance in and through which la Cheffe dares to create, to imagine, and to commune. Indeed, la Cheffe finds her unbound imagination most stimulated within the physical realm of the kitchen in which she has total freedom. While Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie figures God as the Creator who has compensated humans for the necessity of food with the pleasure of eating, la Cheffe transcends patriarchal religious structures and serves as the spiritual officiant of her own ceremony that takes place in and through la cuisine. Not drawn to traditional measures of success, as proved by her indifference to the Michelin star accorded to her restaurant, la Bonne Heure, la Cheffe’s greatest intentions are to prepare delicious food at prices that are affordable to all social classes within an environment that is supportive of her staff’s creativity and happiness. La Cheffe ultimately finds success within a profession dominated by men in the 1980s and falls into a lineage of Ndiaye’s other powerful female characters as represented in Trois femmes puissantes (2009) and Ladivine (2013). Consequently, the novel acts as a feminist response to Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie in its attention to female strength in the kitchen as a channel for hope and social harmony.