Top 10 Fictional Cooks | fiction

VSProducing a fictional cook in prose is a challenge: using simple, monochromatic text, the writer must bring to life the world rich in flavors and fragrances in which his cook resides. But when he pulls it off, the fictional cook is a force to be reckoned with, often bursting off the page in a delicious, seductive frenzy of drama that tickles the taste buds.

When I started researching my novel, I was lucky to have original sources. The language of food tells the story of food writer Eliza Acton, who left behind two beautifully written cookbooks and a collection of poetry. I also had shelves of cookbooks and foodie memoirs. But, while often packed with tantalizing descriptions of meals, these books were less plot and character driven. And so, eventually, I turned to fiction, scouring libraries and bookstores for fictional cooks and chefs.

Here are some of the lesser-known fictional cooks I fell in love with:

1. Kitty Allen in The Good Ordinary Cook by Bethan Roberts
Bethan Roberts’ second novel is set in rural Sussex and tells the story of flamboyant socialist, Ellen Steinberg (inspired by Peggy Guggenheim), who places an advert for a “good simple cook to do domestic chores for an artistic household “. Local girl Kitty Allen responds. In response to Ellen’s requests for glamorous dishes such as quiche and artichokes, Kitty cooks “patched-up egg and bacon pies”, “cremated fish” and “flat” omelettes. But then Ellen asks Kitty to teach her how to cook. Kitty offers mutton chops, but Ellen wants French food. In this context, Kitty begins to find her own voice.

2. Manuela in The elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
In this bestselling 2006 novel, Manuela is a Portuguese housekeeper and the “only friend” of the janitor and co-narrator, Renée. However, Manuela is also a talented baker. She visits Renée every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, bringing a homemade delicacy that is presented as artfully as it was prepared. The almond tuiles are “nestled in scrolls of crimson tissue paper”, the almond biscuits are “set in frilly white paper”, the dark chocolate Florentines are wrapped in “ivory tissue paper” tied with a blue velvet ribbon. With her benevolence, Manuela transforms Renée’s solitary life “into a warm and joyful epic”.

3. Anatole in the Jeeves series by PG Wodehouse
Anatole is an “outstanding” mustachioed chef “of most extraordinary vitality and skill”, who first appeared in Wodehouse’s 1925 story, Clustering Round Young Bingo. He subsequently featured in 11 novels and short stories by Jeeves. Employed by Aunt Dahlia in her country home, Anatole is hailed as “God’s gift to gastric juices” whose cuisine includes dishes such as velouté with zucchini flowers, candy apple broth, Mediterranean Nomais with fennel as well as a “masterful” English steak and a kidney pie. Unsurprisingly, he is in high demand and several plots revolve around Anatole’s unscrupulous poaching or Bertie’s threat of exclusion from his aunt’s dinner parties.

4. Tarquin Winot in Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
Lanchester’s 1996 debut novel features the sinister and creepy self-taught cook, Tarquin Winot. While this darkly humorous book is described on its cover as “a sly commentary on art, appetite, jealousy and failure”, it’s also a starving hymn to the pleasure of eating. The amazed Tarquin devotes pages to his cooking tips, his knowledge of culinary history and his menus (omelet, roast lamb with beans, peaches in red wine, or egg curry, prawn curry, condiments and sorbet à la mango). Horror, hunger and humor combine as Tarquin forages, cooks and kills.

Legendary… Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). Photography: Aliyah

5. Monsieur Escoffier in White Truffles in Winter by NM Kelby
Legendary French chef, Auguste Escoffier, is reimagined in his final year, as he returns to his wife, Delphine. She asks him to make her a dish, just like he did for the other love of his life, actress Sarah Bernhardt (a creamy strawberry dessert he named Strawberries Sarah Bernhardt and a chocolate macaron also called Sarah Bernhardt). We follow Escoffier as he reflects and then prepares a final menu for his wife: scrambled eggs served in their shells with wild caviar; a casserole of pigeon and peas; and wild strawberries served with brie “drizzled with candied lavender and honey”.

6. Mr. Armand in The Summer of the Reines-Claude by Rumer Godden
Godden’s much-loved 1958 novel features a chef – Monsieur Armand. Based in Champagne, France, where a mother and five children are locked up for the summer, Armand runs a vast kitchen with “always a good smell of cooked onions, fresh bread, coffee and wine”. His kitchen (“Tarragon chicken, veal and entrecôtes, salads and snails with garlic butter”) and the discovery of French cuisine by the narrator Cecil form an evocative setting, inevitably shaping this story of love and deception. Meanwhile, Armand drinks a bottle of wine between lunch and dinner, and fattens Cecil’s sister with “slices of chicken and spoonfuls of cream”.

7. Tilo in The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Tilo is an Indian immigrant who runs a spice store in California. As she roasts, grinds and blends spices, she also brings her wisdom and guidance to her local community. Until a lonely American girl shows up, threatening to destroy her magical powers forever. Sumptuous descriptions of spices are woven through this story of magic and myth – “fried chickpeas, yellow sticks of sev, spiced peanuts in their red skins… whole mung beans green like moss… spiced clove tea.” Like Eliza Acton, Divakaruni was first a poet – and it shows in her shrewd prose.

8. Rosa in Lily Prior’s Kitchen
Rosa Fiore is a solitary librarian passionate about the cuisine of her Sicilian homeland. When Randolph Hunt (Rosa only knows him as L’Inglese) comes to research the local cuisine, Rosa’s life changes. After a summer of fervent cooking, eating, and sex, he disappears, leaving Rosa to seek solace – once again – in the kitchen. Caponata, pasta, soup, pies, marzipan, cakes, roast pork, mountain spinach, rosemary potatoes, quince apple pie… but how will Rosa ever forget the man who ate oysters from her naked body and weaved spaghetti bolognese in her hair?

9. Gabrielle in The story of Elizabeth Ayrton’s cook
Ayrton has written several cookbooks and his understanding of food radiates from this first novel (published in the US as Sauce and Sensuality). Gabrielle has transformed her parents’ roadside cafe into a much-loved hotel, serving classic French dishes. When she falls in love with Erasmus Delacroix, Gabrielle must choose between being a wife or a professional cook. As she reflects, she tells the stories of the many talented cooks in her family, from great-great-grandmother Marthe to Aunt Solange. Ayrton takes up the favorite dishes of each cook (chicken with white grapes, apricot tart, fondue), so that the recipes, “all practical and proven”, can be followed by readers.

10. Gerald Samper in Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
Gerald is a C-list celebrity ghostwriter who likes to invent recipes. From his Tuscan hillside, he cooks with great enthusiasm, using copious amounts of an Italian digestive called Fernet Branca. The plot is fast but silly, the characters ridiculous but hilarious, and the recipes imaginative but ridiculous. Chocolate mussels, garlic ice cream, cat and kerosene tart, all doused in Fernet Branca, and described by one reviewer as “persisting in the mind like poems”. This romance prank is a perfect reminder that no cook should take themselves too seriously.

Freeda S. Scott