314 pages, Fingerpress
Guest Review by Greta van der Rol
"The Fat Chef" is, at its heart, a love story, set amid the turbulence of war. It's a not uncommon theme but the author has chosen as his protagonist a most unlikely hero. Raoul Verney is the head chef at the Metro hotel in occupied Paris in WW2. And (as the name of the book suggests) he is fat to the point of being obese. He also has many of the insecurities of a man who has been overweight from boyhood. He was bullied, laughed at. But he could cook – very, very well. Cuisine is his anchor, the rock on which he secures his identity.
When the Germans occupy Paris, Raoul’s fairly comfortable life becomes rocky. Natalie, a demi-sous chef in his kitchen and the the secret object of his affection, is Jewish. She and others of the staff are targeted by the SS. Indeed, the Metro hotel itself is under the direct scrutiny of HauptSturmFuhrer Schiller. When his staff begin to disappear, Raoul decides to hide those under threat in the hotel, and in the vast cellars underneath. It's a dangerous game and when Schiller discovers Natalie in the kitchens, Raoul kills the German with a frying pan.
I confess it took me a few chapters to become engrossed in this novel. It's not filled with action-packed excitement. The introduction of a flashback halfway through chapter one to explain Raoul's bullied background didn't help the flow of the narrative. However, I persevered and I'm glad I did as Raoul goes through a gradual metamorphosis. He discovers that Natalie, the love of his life, loves him, too. She becomes the focus of all his actions from then on. He will risk anything for her, even murder.
What's lovely about this book is the way Nath maps the changing relationships between people, all driven by the twisted reality of trying to survive in an occupied city. Raoul is very close to becoming friends with German General Mueller, who appreciates food almost as much as Raoul does. Then there's chef Marek, who doesn't appreciate Raoul's approach to the Germans, seeing the head chef as a collaborator. Marcel is an out-and-out partisan, who just wants to kill Germans. Raoul's neighbour, Lebeuf, is a school teacher – but when he's sacked from his job he finds a new talent.
As does Raoul himself. He sustains fugitives in the hotel with skill, and protects his staff from the Germans, while his love affair with Natalie grows. Raoul often finds himself in a quandary, trying to decide what is right against what is possible. Those choices ramp up, starting as almost civil disobedience toward the Germans, then gradually becoming more and more dangerous for Raoul himself. When he kills Schiller, Raoul's life becomes much more precarious as he tries to hide his deadly secret. For him, his murder of Schiller is a shameful sin, even though he can argue that he had no choice. There are a number of unexpected twists in the narrative which took me by surprise.
Through all of this there is food. Nath describes the cuisine and how it is cooked. I'm not a chef, but I was convinced. Then there’s the wines, wonderful vintages piled high in the Metro's cellars. Every chapter starts with a foodee definition from the Larousse Gastronomique, underlining what it is that gives meaning to Raoul's existence, and giving the story a solid basis of authenticity. Taste, touch, smells and weather all have their place to make this a sensory journey, as well.
As mentioned earlier, I could have done without the flashbacks. One later in the novel, in particular, seemed to me out of place, throwing me out of the story to work out why this part was here. And I confess to wondering about some of Raoul's actions late in the story, on the lines of would he not have learned by now?
All in all, it's a great read. I studied Nazi Germany at university and I think you'd be hard pressed to find a novel that portrays life in Paris under the Nazis quite so vividly.