The Rumpus Book Club chats with Maylis de Kerangal about her new novel, The Cook (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2019), the desire to describe human beings “in the making,” and how she approaches conducting research for her novels.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Michele Filgate, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Elissa Washuta, Trisha Low, Ayse Papatya Bucak, Jeannie Vanasco, Leigh Camacho Rourks, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi everyone, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Maylis de Kerangal! Maylis, thanks so much for joining us today.
Eva Woods: Hi everyone!
Maylis de Kerangal: Hello Eva !
Eva Woods: Hi Maylis! I’m super excited to talk about this book with you!
ahf2101: Hi Maylis!
Nicole G: Hi there, happy to be here!
Maylis de Kerangal: I’m so happy to be able to exchange with you all!
Nicole G: So, the obvious question: Do you like to cook?
Maylis de Kerangal: Yes, I really like to cook, although I am a very poor cook. To me cooking represents the most genuine way to share and spend time with my friends and family! It also means creativity for me, as a writer.
Nicole G: I could tell! What prompted a book, based on cooking?
Maylis de Kerangal: What fascinates me is that in France gastronomy is a great part of the cultural patrimony, and to see what was “hidden,” to see it from another point of view, from the point of view of those who work in the kitchen, far from the dramatization and the staging that takes place in the dining rooms.
Eva Woods: Maylis, I’m particularly interested in translation, and it’s something that’s come up again and again in this club. Can you talk a little about the translation process?
Maylis de Kerangal: I’ve always considered that translators do no translate books but write translations. I regard them as true authors. However, the most important thing is to hear the precise rhythm and the musicality of the writing.
Kristen Gantt: I was curious about the translation process, too! Especially with all the technical cooking terminology.
Maylis de Kerangal: Nowadays, kitchens have become television studios and many cookers are regarded as stars, as millionaires. But I wanted to shed light on the hidden part of that reality, and reveal that cooking is first and foremost a hard, brutal work, which has something to do with passion. As far as the technical vocabulary is concerned, this has to do with my own taste: in my writings, I like to discover and to reactivate lexical fields which are precise, and normally considered to be far away from the traditional literary field. It endows my writings with a realistic dimension and immerses the reader into an untraditional and singular world.
ahf2101: You write early in the book: “These are the anecdotes that build a legend, that help create a logic along the lines of ‘Even when he was very young… there was none of that back then”—what is it about the way chefs’ stories are mythologized that intrigued you? How did you go about building Mauro’s legend? Do you watch shows like Chef’s Table, etc. that do this in an hour-long TV format?
Maylis de Kerangal: In order to build Mauro’s legend, I interviewed him, and attended one of his “shifts.” I saw him while he was cooking and working, in his own restaurant, then in the restaurants he used to work. I also explored the “backstages” of the restaurants. In France, there are also TV shows centered around cooking that I often watch, like Top Chef and Masterchef.
Nicole G: What kind of response have you received from chefs, who experience a similar reality? I would imagine there must be an echo of relief that their existence is normalized and recognized! And, there must be a fair amount of abuse in the kitchen?
ahf2101: What type of research did you do for the book? Did you observe chefs/kitchens in person? I thought some of your most beautiful descriptions painted the artistry of chefs in action.
Maylis de Kerangal: I did meet some chefs, but I mostly interviewed the chef who is embodied by Mauro in my book. I also heard of the abuse and violence that can take place in the kitchens. It is a common phenomenon, at least in France, but it remains a taboo, especially in the most prestigious restaurants.
Eva Woods: I’m curious about the decision to tell the story through the eyes of an unnamed woman. Can you talk about what that enabled you to do in the story that you might not otherwise?
Maylis de Kerangal: The choice to tell Mauro’s story through the eyes of an unnamed woman has to do with my desire to write a fiction, and not a nonfiction, or a reportage. By adopting that point of view, I was able to enter easily the psyche and the sensibility of my character. To be “Mauro’s best friend” could make his path more personified, incarnate.
Nicole G: Do you have any comparison to US kitchens? Are they similar? Do you now take a more critical look at a restaurant when you’re in one… trying to get an assessment on what’s happening behind that kitchen door?
Maylis de Kerangal: I didn’t have any comparison with US restaurants, except through a fictional prism (TV series, movies). Indeed, after this writing experience, I have a more critical outlook on restaurants in general. Interesting fact: The inner structure of the restaurants has changed. There is no longer a door between the dining room and the kitchen, but transparent glass, so that the client can be able to see what is going on in the kitchens. It unveils, in a way, the reality of the kitchen. This reorganization also allows the client to see the choreography of the cooks, their movements, their own rhythm. It becomes a real show.
Kristen Gantt: I really appreciated that the character of Mauro was not a one-path, one-goal kind of individual. Too often things we are good at must automatically become our fate. Mauro wasn’t tied to that.
Eva Woods: I agree with your point about a less linear life path for Mauro! I really liked reading about someone who didn’t seem to have a predestined fate, who had to figure it out himself. Maylis, was that a central theme of the book for you, or more of a reflection of the chef?
Maylis de Kerangal: Thanks for these questions. In some of my previous novels I explored the youth, and I like to describe human beings “in the making.” Precisely, what interested me in Mauro’s path was that he wasn’t predestined to be a cook. For instance he went to college, when in France the cooks usually leave school at fifteen to go study cookery in technical schools.
ahf2101: It seemed as though Mauro was driven by his aim to please, first with cooking, and then going back to school, and then via cooking again. Is that what compels you most about chefs (that they seemingly have in common the dual desire of wanting to impress/show off but also to bring people together)? How does/did food factor into your upbringing, for better or worse?
Maylis de Kerangal: The desire to please makes of the cook a human being who is at the same time powerful and weak. This desire of absolute perfection, which would allow them to connect, through cooking, with a transcendence, is also a weakness. This is what makes them true artists and creators. I think, like you, that each chef has inside him these paradoxical desires. They’re like heroes, in that perspective. They want to exist in the eyes of the world, but also push themselves to their own limits.
Maylis de Kerangal: I grew up in a large family. Meals were the occasion to be together, and where thus ritualized moments. My mother is a great cook. As we sat around the table, we would fight, debate, laugh… It was the place to announce something important, and the heart of our family life
Marisa: Maylis, how different is your writing process for each novel? Do you tend toward the same practices, or does that vary greatly from book to book?
Maylis de Kerangal: Yes, over the years, I think that I have created my own “method”: when I dream of a novel, I first collect various books. These books are not particularly linked to the one I wish to write, but they constitute a “library” I can carry and keep with me all the time. I scarcely do any research before beginning to write, whatever subject I choose (heart-transplant, cooking, bridge engineering, painting). It is only when I am immersed in the writing process that I begin to do research. The novel, in that way, invents its own documentation. However, I always visit the places linked to my novels: for instance I witnessed a heart-transplant when I was writing The Heart.
Eva Woods: That sounds so intense! Witnessing a heart transplant!
Maylis de Kerangal: Yes it was! It was one of the most intense nights of my life. An extraordinary experience.
Nicole G: Maylis, thanks for your time today, I have to run. I will be thinking about my own culinary experience tonight!
Maylis de Kerangal: Thanks for your questions, Nicole; it was great meeting you.
Eva Woods: The language of the novel was so specific and spare, which struck me as at odds with the cacophony of a professional kitchen. Did you highlight that contrast intentionally? It really added a layer of texture to the book.
Maylis de Kerangal: This is such a delicate and attentive remark! To me, the question of language and of the writing is what matters most. To me, what is truly literary must invent a language. I had the intention to build a contrast between a precise use of the cooking vocabulary and the overcharged atmosphere of the kitchens. I wanted to plunge the reader into an immersive experience in the rush of the kitchens
Eva Woods: It absolutely worked!
Marisa: I always also like to ask who your artistic influences are, literary and otherwise?
Maylis de Kerangal: I was extremely influenced by Balzac and Flaubert when I was young. I also love Sidney Lumet’s movies, and Terence Malick, Michael Cimino… The cinema occupies a great place in my literary life!
Marisa: I love that! I think I’m often more inspired to write by other forms of art outside of books and literature.
Eva Woods: Thank you for your time, Maylis! This was really interesting and gave a ton of insight into a very cool book.
Marisa: Yes, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Maylis!
Maylis de Kerangal: Thank you all for having taken some of your time to speak with me and thanks for your very interesting questions! It has been a pleasure and a very exciting moment!
Photograph of Maylis de Kerangal © Emmanuelle Marchadour.