Novels are often described as delicious by readers who relish a particularly tantalizing storyline. This takes on a deeper level of scrumptiousness when food is the central theme, as it is in the books listed below that treat food with literary exquisiteness and have chefs as their main characters and restaurants as their settings. Even though fictional, these books are rooted in humanity’s interest in cooking and savouring delicious food.
In the Kitchen (2009) by British novelist Monica Ali, opens with the discovery of a dead body in the basement of a London restaurant, followed by the termination of a ghost-like employee the next day. Chef Gabe Lightfoot’s professional kitchen is disrupted by the suspense and drama surrounding the death, as he tries to hold together the routines of the complicated dance that occurs in the kitchen between a motley crew of Russian sous chefs, porters, Mexican dishwashers, pastry chefs, butchers and a suspicious maitre d’ who could be using the restaurant as a front for human trafficking.
Writers of this type of novel, even if not chefs themselves, need to know a lot about food to provide a sense of authenticity. As Gabe shops for cheese for the restaurant, he selects “a ten-kilo Cantalet that had just enough hazelnut edge without it overwhelming the fresh milk flavor,” and we know that Ali must have extensive knowledge of cheese to validate those flavours.
Gabe’s personal issues are juxtaposed with his problems at work, and his life begins to spin out of control with elaborate lies to his girlfriend, too much drinking, too little sleeping, and a slow descent into psychological problems. The big question that haunts Gabe is whether the death will linger in his life and interfere with his dreams of opening his own restaurant, already precarious given the shady background of the benefactors willing to help him.
Before the gourmet food truck craze, there were fish and chip wagons serving Britain’s national meal. The Van (1991) by Roddy Doyle, in the inimitable style of one of Ireland’s best writers, tells the story of the Rabbitte family’s attempt to make a living from a food truck on the streets of North Dublin.
The book starts at dinnertime with Jimmy Sr. saying his wife’s burgers and chips are better than he gets at any chip wagon. This is long before he realizes this same food could be a way for him to support his family financially. Both out of jobs, Jimmy Sr. and his friend, Bimbo, buy a used chipper van, albeit with no motor, to start a business together. Hilariously, they have to push it around town because of its lack of motorized mobility.
They train themselves to become short order cooks, proficient at fish, chips, and burgers for their new restaurant on wheels, and open in time for the World Cup, hoping pub patrons will flock to their van for after-game snacks. Their opening night is after a match in which Ireland ties England and bar patrons are in a state of celebration. A week after opening, with business booming, they decide to buy an engine to make their rounds from pub to pub easier, and even extend their business to other towns. Fueled by the bond between friends, The Van is a success story of making things work in spite of life’s obstacles.
Like Water for Chocolate (1992), by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel, is full of fantastical elements that make for great storytelling, even though deliberately far-fetched to fit the style of fiction known as Magic Realism. Full of family traditions, complicated relationships, and the strong influence that food has on human emotions, the story revolves around a Mexican family of three daughters led by a controlling, widowed mother. Through her cooking, the youngest daughter, Tita, brings a fantastical euphoria to her family that cannot be rationally explained, and the story follows numerous family events, including weddings and baptism feasts, that involve food.
The title is a metaphor for how emotions are strongly tied to cooking and food. The boiling water needed to melt chocolate is a symbol of the heated rage that Tita feels for her fate in life — as the youngest daughter in the family she is required to take care of her mother, rather than marry someone to start her own family. Tita is subject to unrequited love that cannot manifest itself in a normal manner, because the man she secretly loves has married her older sister.
A recipe accompanies each chapter of the book, the ingredients and cooking instructions an important part of the narrative. Even though it is not a traditional cookbook, it is still a cookbook “which tells in each of its recipes this story of a love interred” and how love continues on as long as someone keeps family recipes alive.
The human senses and the consumption of food have always gone hand in hand. In his novel, Appetite (2013), British novelist Philip Kazan takes us to fifteenth century Florence to experience the unusual palette of fourteen-year-old Nino Latini, whose sense of taste is not normal. He tastes things that others cannot and he discerns each individual ingredient in a dish. The flavours and aromas of food permeate Kazan’s writing, the same way they permeate his young protagonist’s body.
Florence is the Italian city of artists and the book portrays the historical detail of the Renaissance period, with Nino surrounded by artists, including a young Leonardo da Vinci. Home cooking lessons from his mother lead Nino to a career as a chef in a high-end tavern serving artists, scholars, and royalty. The intensity of the kitchen work — the heat of the ovens, the aromas, the physicality of butchering meat — adds pages of detail to Kazan’s descriptions about the preparations that go into extravagant Renaissance banquets.
Amongst these elaborate depictions of food preparation and gluttonous feasting, the story is an epic romance and Nino ends up cooking an engagement banquet for his childhood girlfriend who is betrothed to another man. He loses all pleasure in food when he loses the girl he loves, but Nino has developed a mischievous side as a creative gastronome; he cannot help himself from preparing lavish dishes with licentious overtones, bringing notoriety to himself as someone who sees the world differently, through the artistry of flavour.
Before writing his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), John Lanchester was a British restaurant reviewer, and the main character, Tarquin Winot, was likely inspired by the author’s time spent in the company of gourmet food. Tarquin has an intense and snobbish appreciation of food and he starts out by stating that the book is not meant to be mistaken for a conventional cookbook, even though food and recipes make frequent appearances within the pages.
Tarquin’s pretentious tone merely portrays his haughty lifestyle, since the story is told through his voice alone. His primary influence in life has been that epitome of gastronomic writing, The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin, setting the tone for his philosophical and culinary opinions. Tarquin has sophisticated tastes, enjoying the best food he can find, especially when he can source it himself with mushroom foraging trips in the forests of Provence. His food knowledge is encyclopedic and, amid lengthy ponderings on different types of caviar and the numerous ethnic dishes throughout the world that use lamb, the reader cannot resist thinking that he could be the perfect dinner guest to fill the time with foodie banter.
Lanchester’s writing style is pretentious, dark, and humorous, and as the story progresses Tarquin’s psychotic tendencies tend to be as strong as his penchant for good food. His sinister side is revealed as he recounts nefarious past events in his life dealing with food. Maybe he wouldn’t be such an appealing dinner guest after all.
Stanley Park (2001), by Canadian author Timothy Taylor, is a locavore manifesto in the form of a novel, and takes place around the famous Vancouver park. The Monkey’s Paw Bistro, run by Chef Jeremy Papier, is known for using local ingredients with an emphatic nod to the concept of terroir. Jeremy enlists Jules Capelli, whose culinary philosophy matches his own, as his sous chef and they passionately set out to “remind people of something. Of what the soil under their feet has to offer.”
But the financial side of the business falls squarely on Jeremy and money troubles are too severe not to accept an offer from Dante Beale, an entrepreneur with a global chain of successful coffeehouses, who wants to invest in the genius of Jeremy’s culinary skills.
Strangely enough, as Jeremy is supplied meat from local farms, his eccentric father has found a community of panhandlers that cook local bounty from Stanley Park. Jeremy finds himself partaking in impromptu gatherings with this homeless clan using squirrels and ducks as their source of sustenance.
As Jeremy’s restaurant gets a facelift from the new owner, he has to re-invent himself as a chef working for a businessman with deep pockets. He is still given freedom in the kitchen to create innovative dishes to appease an uprising of fooderati, but on opening night, with the city’s wealthy and influential drawn in by the foodie buzz, does Jeremy take his localism too far?
Darin Cook is a freelance writer who works and plays in Chatham, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.