All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Elza’s Kitchen – Marc Fitten

Elza’s Kitchen
Marc Fitten
Bloomsbury Publishing
2012, 212p
Copy courtesy Bloomsbury ANZ

Elza has her own restaurant in Delibab, Hungary and has made a living for some years now. She opens for lunch and dinner and serves good, wholesome Hungarian food ‘like your grandmother made’ in a fine dining setting. She has always enjoyed her job, her restaurant and served her food with a smile, getting to know her regulars. But lately she’s experienced a dissatisfaction that threatens to consume her. And her relationship with her much-younger sous-chef is no longer tolerable.

The answer for Elza it seems, is to lure a notorious Italian food critic to her restaurant. He specialises in haute cousine, fine dining, particularly French food and Elza reads his column in a magazine religiously. She feels that she has the perfect meal for him, something he would love and she begins preparing it, testing it until it is perfect. Then all she needs to do is track down the critic – easier said than done. He’s always on the move and he’s always busy, but Elza is persistent.

When they get word that the critic is finally coming it couldn’t be at a worse time. Elza has finally ended her relationship with the sous-chef, refusing his marriage proposal for the last time. The sous-chef has retaliated by taking up with the pastry-chef and the kitchen is in chaos. Elza has very little time to whip them -and her restaurant- into shape for the critic’s special visit.

As I’ve mentioned, books set in places I’m unfamiliar with really appeal to me. This one is set in Hungary and it actually might be the first book I’ve ever read in my life that is set in that particular country. I found that aspect of it rather fascinating – it’s set after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “freeing of the Eastern bloc” and therefore there’s a theme of opportunity that runs through this book. The residents of Hungary have a freedom and the opportunity to do things that they haven’t had before.

Elza is in her late-40s, divorced and seems to live her life free of any attachment to anyone. She has no family and while she has been sleeping with her sous-chef for the past three years, she has no real attachment to him. She’s unbothered by him other than a warm body some nights and she constantly refuses his proposals of marriage. It therefore seemed to make little sense to me that she became so infuriated by his moving on to her pasty-chef. She didn’t care for him, she readily admitted that she didn’t. Both the sous-chef and the pasty-chef were very good at what they did and made the restaurant quite popular. I’m not sure why she sabotaged this because of a jealousy that made such little sense to the reader. It was written as an impotent fury, like Elza was the woman scorned when in fact she was not in any way.

When this book focused on the food, on Elza’s desire to lure the critic, on the pastry-chef’s beautiful creations, on the meals Elza cooks herself later on in the book for her customers, it was truly beautiful. It made me deliciously hungry for food I’ve never tasted before – chicken paprika, which seems a kind of Hungarian signature dish, creamy omelette’s with peppers, pork served in a beautiful dill sauce. I wanted to try absolutely everything described in this book, and I’m not a particularly adventurous eater! The language and description were fabulous, mouth-wateringly evocative. I enjoyed the idea of Elza luring this famous critic to her small, home-food style restaurant in Hungary and the process that took to make it happen. I even enjoyed the character of the Critic himself (a lot of characters in this book are never given names, simply referred to as the Sous-Chef, the Critic, the Motorcyle Officer, etc).

But this book did let itself down (for me) in the rather random story of the young gypsy Roma children who hang around the restaurant generally being a nuisance and begging for money and/or food. I found it detracted from the story of Elza and the Critic and also the Sous-Chef and his story and to be honest, I didn’t care about the gypsy kids, what they were doing and how Elza dealt with them and the ramifications and guilt because of that. I just wanted them (and that whole story) to shoo so I could get back to the kitchen so to speak and read more descriptions of food and Elza trying to reboot her restaurant. That’s where the book’s strength was, getting bogged down in the gypsy community did the book no favours and it was also sort of pointless. It portrayed the gypsies as scavengers and sheisters (which they well be) but to a stereotype that was almost painful to read. I didn’t feel for them, I didn’t sympathise with them, mostly they just irritated me and I wanted them gone from the page so I could get back to what I felt was the core of the story.

This book had so much promise but I just feel it failed to deliver on it. I found Elza prickly and unenjoyable unless she was cooking and her reaction to the Sous-Chef and her pastry-chef was just out of place and irrational. She almost allowed her jealousy to sabotage the one thing in her life that seemed to actually mean something to her and I’m glad that in the end that didn’t happen because it just would have been so unnecessary. Less focus on gypsies and jealousy and more focus on food and Hungarian tradition and culture would’ve made me truly love this book. I wavered between a 6 and a 7 but the food is so damn good that I’m feeling generous:

7/10

Book #184 of 2012

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