Cooking up a storm

The Chef, by Martin Suter, translated by Jamie Bulloch, Atlantic, RRP£12.99, 304 pages

The Swiss writer Martin Suter’s novel is a massive Euro-hit: translated into 30 languages, it has already sold more than 1m copies. It’s the story of Maravan, a Tamil dishwasher at Chez Huwyler, a high-end restaurant in Zurich. He is attracted to Andrea, a beautiful waitress. When both are fired, Maravan combines the techniques of molecular gastronomy with the ancient Ayurvedic recipes of his ancestors – with surprisingly aphrodisiac results – and seduces Andrea with his cooking.

The pair start a business catering “erotic” meals to jaded wealthy couples. The venture is a success in spite of Maravan’s moral reservations over serving those who are not in a legitimate marriage; what he refers to as “the dirty stuff”.

Andrea, meanwhile, falls in love with Makeda, a refugee from Ethiopia working as a prostitute, and Maravan is meeting Sandana, a Tamil girl fleeing an arranged marriage. Through his phone calls home we learn that Maravan’s family are under threat back in Sri Lanka.

When a client of Makeda’s and a regular at Chez Huwyler is revealed to be an arms dealer, illegally shipping surplus tanks to the Sri Lankan army, this odd group form a plan to exact a complete revenge.

Suter has peopled his novel with a mix of people with varied sexualities, ethnicities and troubled pasts, but the result is a set of characters who come across rather like a manufactured boy-band of the marginalised; and there is something very awkward about it.

The plot is based on the idea that there is, somewhere out there, an undiscovered and very potent aphrodisiac. It’s an idea that worked for Roald Dahl in My Uncle Oswald but one that turns on the simplistic notion that something as complex as sexual desire can be turned on and off by a single agent. That such an agent could be used to “convert” Andrea, even temporarily, to heterosexuality is obsolete and distasteful.

Suter’s descriptions of food are as technically perfect, complex and ultimately joyless as only molecular gastronomy can be. In fact, the dominant tone of the book – in spite of a cover photo of a woman shoving a shapely foot up a man’s trouser leg – is a lack of passion. Suter isn’t moved by food, the plight of his protagonists or by any sense of the erotic. Each of the few sexual encounters is glossed over in a way that would look prim in a 1930s movie, with the final “climactic” scene quite literally taking place “in another room”. It might be a function of the translation but, in this purportedly sensual bestseller, Suter recoils from passion wherever it pops up.

Tim Hayward is a restaurateur and writes for FT Weekend

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