As the self-proclaimed "biggest fucker-upper the world has ever brought forth," Myriam, 43, is an unlikely restaurateur, but her headlong, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink narration soon makes clear that she's got little left to lose in changing her life. With a past that she reveals only slowly and a stint cooking for a circus under her belt, Myriam fakes some cooking and management diplomas, takes out some loans and opens Chez moi, a tiny 25-seat Parisian eatery in which she also sleeps and bathes. With help from Vincent, the halitosis-afflicted owner of the flower shop next door; from Ben, a gangling, knock-kneed lad who shows up with a solid business plan and ideas for marketing and publicity; and from Ali Slimane, an elegant farmer with perfect meats and produce, Myriam's restaurant begins to flourish-which terrifies her. This lovely book is a cassoulet bulging with lush, delectable descriptions of cuisine and straight-shooting observations on life. Myriam's restaurant has as much to do with improvising ways of living, loving and finding one's way home again as with eating well. It's a frothy, complex pleasure to linger there with her. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Chez Moiby Agnes Desarthe, Adriana Hunter
At forty-three, Myriam has been a wife, mother, and lover—but never a restauranteur. When she opens Chez Moi in a quiet neighborhood in Paris, she has no idea how to run a business, but armed only with her love of cooking, she is determined to try. Barely able to pay the rent, Myriam secretly sleeps in the dining room and bathes in the kitchen sink, while struggling to come to terms with the painful memories of her past. But soon enough her delectable cuisine brings her many neighbors to Chez Moi, and Myriam finds that she may get a second chance at life and love. Redolent with the sights, smells, and tastes of Paris, Chez Moi is a charming story that will appeal to the many readers who fell in love with Joanne Harris’s Chocolat and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
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AGNÈS DESARTHE was born in Paris in 1966 and has written many books for children and teenagers, as well as adult fiction. She has had two previous novels translated into English: Five Photos of My Wife (2001), short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Jewish Quarterly Fiction Prize, and Good Intentions (2002).
ADRIANA HUNTER has been working as a literary translator since 1998, and has now translated over thirty books from the French, including two other novels by Agnès Desarthe. She lives in Norfolk with her husband and their three children.
Praise for Chez Moi
“Chez Moi is a delectable confection of renewal and hope, peppered by surprises and sweetened by friendship, set in a little restaurant in Paris. Agnès Desarthe’s mouthwatering novel, like an innovative menu, introduces scenes and sorrows and characters in unexpected flavors; culinary ingredients rush in by flurries of musical aromas. The pages beg to be licked!”
—Cynthia Ozick, author of Dictation: A Quartet
“Thank you, Agnès Desarthe, for letting us into the imaginative mind of this wacky, philosophic, good-hearted, and altogether brave woman. I loved her from the piquant start to the satisfying finish, like an inventive meal with a deliciously perfect dessert.”
—Susan Vreeland, author of Luncheon of the Boating Party
“Sometimes—very rarely—a book comes your way that is so deceptively approachable and sastifying, it is only when you are finished that you realize it has offered profound human wisdom and a refreshing new way of looking at life. This is such a book.”
—Linda Olsson, author of Astrid & Veronika
“Chez Moi is full of surprises and delights. Myriam is the sort of friend we’d all like to have—smart and determined, eccentric and brave—a person who will serve you fine coffee and praline raspberry mousse while she listens to your story. Her own story, with its pleasures of discovery and piercing losses and errors of the past, will catch your attention and make you want to linger in her restaurant over yet another cup of coffee, and then one more.”
—Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in Great Britain by Portobello Books Ltd 2008 Published in Penguin Books 2008
Copyright © Agnes Desarthe, 2006
Translation copyright © Adriana Hunter, 2008 All rights reserved
Originally published in French as Mangez-moi by Les Editions de L’Olivier, Paris.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Desarthe, Agnès, 1966-
Chez moi / Agnès Desarthe ; translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.
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To DanteTo my friends, for whom I love to cook, and to Claude, at Le Passage.
Am I a liar? Yes, because I told the man at the bank I’d been on a hotel and catering course and done an eighteen-month work placement at the Ritz. I showed him the diplomas and contracts I’d made the day before. I also brandished a management training certificate, a really good fake. I like living dangerously: that’s how I lost my way in the past, and why I’m on a winning streak now. The banker was completely taken in, and gave me the loan. I thanked him without turning a hair. The medical check? No problem. My blood, my precious blood is clean, nice and clean, as if I hadn’t been through anything.
Am I a liar? No, because I can actually do everything I claim I can. I can wield spatulas like a juggler with his batons. Like a contortionist, I can supplely activate several different parts of my body independently: thickening a sauce with one hand while separating eggs and tying filou pastry parcels with the other. True, teenagers with fuzz on their lips, spots on their foreheads and greasy hair under their kitchen boys’ caps can master the amber colour of an impossibly unctuous caramel, they can fillet a mullet without losing one milligram of flesh, and stitch their crepinette sausages with all the dedication of Penelope. But. BUT! Stick them in a kitchen with five starving bawling children who keep getting under their feet and need to be back at school within half an hour (one’s allergic to dairy products and another won’t eat anything), throw our splendid young apprentice chefs into that lion cub’s den with an empty fridge, pans that everything sticks to and a desire to give the little darlings a balanced meal, and watch them cope. Watch those chubby-faced boys toil away and fall apart. Everything they’ve learned in cooking school I’ve learned from my different lives: the first one, in those far off days, when I was a housewife and mother, and the second, more recently, when I earned my crust in the kitchens of the Santo Salto circus.
My restaurant will be small and inexpensive. I don’t like frills. It will be called Chez moi because it really will be my home, I’ll be sleeping there; I don’t have enough money to pay for the lease and a rent.
It will serve all the recipes I’ve invented, the ones I’ve transformed and the ones I’ve worked out for myself. There won’t be any music - I’m too emotional - and the light bulbs hanging from the ceiling will be orange-tinted. I’ve already bought a giant fridge on the Avenue de la République. They’ve promised me an oven and a hob at a good price. Does it matter if it’s scratched? It doesn’t matter at all, I’m pretty scratched myself! The salesman doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t even smile. Men don’t like it when women do themselves down. I also order a fifteen-setting dishwasher, the smallest model they have. It won’t be big enough, the man says. It’s all I can afford, it’ll have to do to start with. He promises he’ll send me some customers. He promises he’ll come for supper one evening himself, without any warning: as a surprise. Now he is lying, that’s for sure, but I don’t mind, I wouldn’t exactly have loved cooking for him.
I cook with and out of love. How am I going to manage to love my customers? The sheer luxury of that question makes me think of prostitutes because that’s precisely what they don’t have - that luxury.
I didn’t let my friends or family know about the day of the opening. I gave them the wrong date. This time, there’s no denying it, I lied too. The shopping’s done. I’ve written my menus. I’ve prepared everything that could be prepared. The rest is last minute work. But there is no last minute. I’m still waiting. And there’s no one coming through the door. No one knows my restaurant exists. I shake with anticipation from quarter to twelve till half past three. It’s very tiring and my navel, which is the epicentre of frequent nervous spasms, is sorely tested.
When someone stops outside my door or hovers at the window I mentally shoo them away. A restaurant should be either full or empty. A single customer is worse than no customers at all. I’ve decided I’ll be open at lunchtime and in the evenings. Maybe that’s too much to start with. But I don’t see how I can avoid mistakes. I’ve never run a restaurant. I don’t know how it’s done. I’ve thought at length about stocks and leftovers. How much should I buy? What should I cook? How long should I keep it? I’ve thought about it and found an answer: do what you would for a large family. With fish: raw on the first day, cooked the next if it hasn’t been eaten, made into terrine on the third and soup on the fourth. That’s what my grandmother does. That’s what most women do and no one’s ever died from it. How do I know? It would have been in the paper. With meat it’s the same, except I think tartar is a bit vulgar, so I cook my meat the day I buy it, then it becomes meatballs, soft little meatballs with coriander and cumin, celery tops, fronds of chervil, cream, lemon and tomatoes, roasted in garlic. There’s no third chance for meat. Well there is and there isn’t. I’m not allowed to write about it. With vegetables it’s even more straightforward: raw, cooked, puréed, in soup, as stock. It’s the same for fruits. Dairy products are such a help: they hold up well. I have a particular weakness for them. I trust them completely. Juices, of every sort, are kept separately in glass jugs. Very important, glass jugs. That’s something else I got from my grandmother.
The first sitting hasn’t happened. I’m exhausted. I hope this evening I’ll see the chock-full tables of my dreams. Mind you, I’m even more frightened of streams of customers arriving than none at all. I’m not ready. Will I ever be? I have a nap from four o’clock to six o’clock. The banquette I got from a charity shop proves a very good bed. I sleep without really sleeping, my eyelids fluttering like butterfly wings. I keep going over things, checking through everything I have to do. The moves and the words: ‘Have you reserved a table? What would you like to drink? The bill? Certainly, I’ll bring it straight away. Go on, give in to temptation, the desserts are all home-made.’ Impossible. I’ll never be able to say things like that. Luckily, there are no more punters in the evening than there were at lunchtime. I close at twenty-five to eleven without clearing the tables and with no washing-up to do. I lie down on the banquette again, this new life is so draining - and it’s only day one! I think about bills, working out everything I’ve got to pay when I haven’t earned a thing. I feel I’ve been abandoned by everyone. Punished. At five o’clock in the morning I’m woken by the dustbin lorry. So I must have slept. Good news. I’d better get up, have a shower in my huge sink - I shouldn’t write about that either - and get to work. Today’s the real first day, the launch.
My friends think the food is delicious. They’ve brought champagne. My parents think the tables are too cramped and the chairs not comfortable enough. I feel like telling them it’s not a restaurant for old people and they don’t know what they’re talking about. But they’re right. I don’t like my tables; I don’t like my chairs either. It was the man on the Avenue de la République who gave them to me. He took pity on me, he was going to throw them out. ‘They’re all wonky,’ he said, ‘uneven. But just ask your husband to put a few bolts in them, tighten the odd screw here and there.’ A bolt and a screw, me and my husband. Oy oh-yoy. Just the thought is embarrassing. I change the subject, asking when the dishwasher will arrive. ‘Soon enough, soon enough,’ he assures me; this time, he’s not lying. The day he comes to deliver the furniture he brings the machine too.
‘What’s that?’ he asks scornfully, pointing at my nice green banquette from the charity shop, soft moleskin set off with gold piping.
‘It’s a banquette. For the ladies!’ I add to shut him up.
He shrugs and starts methodically filling Chez moi with furniture so that it suddenly looks very cramped to me. That’s worrying, I think. Has it got smaller? Have we got bigger?
‘It’s nice,’ he says when he’s finished. ‘It’s cosy.’
‘What can I offer you to eat?’ I ask, hoping he won’t want anything too specific.
‘The best you’ve got,’ he replies.
I think: me, eat me, but I don’t say that because it all comes down to the same thing anyway. I serve him a portion of chocolate, pear and pepper tart with a glass of chilled rosé. I watch him eat, and think that, in the end, he didn’t lie: he is eating in my restaurant. Except it’s not supper time, so he did lie. I look at him and think he’s feeding off me because I put all of myself into that first tart, that inaugural dessert. I kneaded gently, melted patiently, saved the juice as I sliced, then incorporated it into the pastry, with the Massai-black chocolate, my brown pastry in my hands, rolling it out and shaping it, rolling it out and shaping it, the pepper over the pears because I believe - in the kitchen as in other areas - in the mysterious power of alliteration. The peppercorns are dark on the outside and pale yellow on the inside, not crushed or ground. Sliced. My pepper-mill is a grater, creating tiny slices of spice. The man eats and I can see it has an effect on him. It breaks my heart. Why? I have no idea. Neither of us is worthy of the exchange.
My friends think my chairs and tables are fine as they are. ‘Why’s the pavement on this chard tart all green?’ my mother asks. She’s never trusted me and probably thinks I’ve let it go mouldy. ‘Because I’ve put chopped dill and chives in it. It looks better and it makes it lighter too.’ My father spits it out. He doesn’t like herbs. He thinks they’re for girls and for cattle. My mother’s the only person I know who calls a pie crust a pavement. I think it’s sweet and can pardon her the offence. Has she forgiven me mine? The raw tuna marinated in cébette onions is a success I regret. It cost a fortune and it’s so easy to do it’s soulless. It’s the sea they should be thanking, not me. My own vanity is intoxicating. I’ve made the decision: no more raw fish.
My first two customers are schoolgirls. They come through the door at quarter past twelve. Chez moi has been open for several days. I’ve had a visit from the florist next door who has bad breath and claims to be very persnickety. He announces the fact proudly, as if it were some sort of prestigious pedigree. I think he chose the flower trade in the hope of masking the wafting bile that creates such a stench on his palate. If you were really so persnickety, I feel like telling him, you would make up your mind to be a bit less so. If it goes too far it just makes you grumpy and generates black bile. A hair on the television screen provokes stomach cramps, a paper plate for a salade niçoise and the vice squeezes tighter and your oesophagus flares up, a customer who confuses ranunculus for anemones is enough to taint your saliva. If you weren’t so persnickety, you would smell better and the world would be cleansed as a result. But I don’t say anything.
The silence makes him uncomfortable and he feels he has to offer me something. ‘To decorate the place,’ he says, ‘I could keep my unsold flowers. With a reputation like mine, I can only sell flowers that will last a week, I can’t keep them in the shop more than four days…’. He expects gushing gratitude, but I don’t say anything, don’t show anything. I don’t even manage a smile. It’s because of the smell, as if a tiny corpse were rotting inside him. ‘They won’t be wilted,’ he assures me. Perhaps he read the disgust in my eyes.
When I close the door behind him I can finally breathe through my nose, and I think of Leslie, the tight-rope walker who used to wind me up with her constant complaining, languid mutterings melted into the bland sauce of her American accent: ‘Meat again!’ she would moan. If there were vegetables she would complain they gave her wind. When I cooked pasta she snivelled, saying it all went straight to her thighs. I explained that pasta didn’t make you fat. She laughed her funny laugh like a sheep with melancholia and shook her head, casting her eyes to the heavens.
My first two clients aren’t like her. They’re schoolgirls. Their trousers hang from their well-padded hips. My little poppets, I think secretly. I find their bodies charming, like giant apricots. I can’t help wanting to prod the perfect flesh of their stomachs, offered so openly, bulging under their gleaming skin. Of course, I do nothing of the sort.
When they order only a first course I don’t try to hide my surprise.
‘It’s too expensive,’ they explain.
‘But you’ll be hungry, afterwards. Have you got lessons this afternoon?’
‘You need to eat before philosophy. I’ll cut all my prices in half. Let’s say it’s my contribution to the future of world philosophy. What if one of you becomes the greatest thinker of the century?’
I’ve said too much, they’re bored. They think I’m mad, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make the most of my generosity. As I watch them drinking their avocado and grapefruit soup I wonder whether I like them or loathe them. I notice I’ve left a bra drying on the gas tap. That’s the drawback with an open kitchen. I put it in my pocket and open the fridge to get out my old steak aiguillette - a waste that would break many a house-wife’s heart - because it’s meatball day. But with me it’s different. I run a restaurant. I can do what I like with expensive cuts of meat. It’s not a waste, it’s a sign of quality. I mince the luxury meat and, so as not to disturb my two young philosophers’ chat, I take the processor into the toilets. That’s the other drawback with an open kitchen. For a moment I picture a full restaurant, twenty-five covers, orders piling up, and customers using the toilets stopping me from taking refuge in there to do the noisier jobs. I could always just close, I tell myself, reeling at the thought.
When I come back out, I notice they’ve taken out a packet of cigarettes. I am gripped with an irresistible urge to announce that Chez moi is a non-smoking establishment, but that would be stupid: I smoke myself and it would be unbelievably bad for business. The gluttons have already finished their first course. Didn’t their mummies teach them to eat slowly, putting the spoon down between each mouthful? The scrolls of Camel smoke merge with the clouds of steam from the saucepan. We become ghost-like figures, lost in thick mist. They don’t seem to mind and I congratulate myself that my first two customers aren’t persnickety. Passers-by have started gathering, intrigued by the mysterious fog. This is the beginning of my glory. A man rushes in to save us, looming out of the mists yelling ‘do you want me to call the fire brigade?’ Startled, we burst out laughing. You know, there’s a wonderful atmosphere here.
After reassuring him that everything is all right, I suggest he sits down. I open the door to create a draught, and offer him an ice-cold beer. ‘While I’m here, I’ll have a bite to eat,’ he says, loosening his tie. I catch him eyeing the girls’ amber-coloured hips, and make up my mind to give them their desserts on the house.
Meet the Author
Agnès Desarthe has published six novels in France as well as more than twenty-five children's books. She has also translated numerous books from English to French. She lives in Paris with her husband and two children. Adriana Hunter has been working as a literary translator since 1998 and has now translated more than thirty books from the French, including two other novels by Agnès Desarthe.
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With a cover featuring prominent blurbs by Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper's Daughter) and Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club), it is clear that the publisher hopes to capture the commercial domestic fiction market with the English translation of his French novel. Indeed, it is easy enough to describe Chez Moi as a charming and touching read. However, this novel also contains a dash of philosophy that gives it a subtler taste than its American counterparts. The narrator is Myriam, 43, who has set up her own hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a quiet part of Paris, on a bank loan she obtained with the help of a forged hospitality training certificate. Chez Moi (meaning 'my place') is literally Myriam's home - as she can't afford a separate place to live, she spends her nights in the restaurant, sleeping on a bench and bathing in its giant metal sink. Gifted at cooking but hopeless at pretty much everything else it takes to run a restaurant, she initially drowns under a heap of unpaid bills. Fortunately, she is pulled from the brink of bankruptcy with the miraculous arrival of the orphaned Ben, an idealistic and self-sufficient political science student who becomes her indispensable waiter and accountant. As she feeds an ever-increasing clientele, who range from her awkward florist neighbour to the two vivacious schoolgirls who were her first customers, readers find out that her air of rootlessness is a result of her desire to abandon her dark past. This past includes emotional estrangements from her husband and son, a spectacular scandal that leads her to flee her home, and the healing purgatory that was her time as the in-house cook for a small travelling circus. The dream-like series of scenes both past and present is peopled with characters who seem too perfect or convenient to be real, from the indomitable Ben to the reassuringly solid farmer-grocer Ali to Hugom, her angelic son. But you soon realise that being bothered by this two-dimensionality is quite beside the point, as these characters largely serve as symbols or plot devices which allow the author to flesh out Myriam's own issues. She struggles with ideas of choice versus fatalism and the nature of truth, the latter even turning up as the philosophy class question that torments her two schoolgirl customers. The author handles these introspective interludes with a light and whimsical touch: For example, repeated references to Alice In Wonderland - 'too small, too big, my life keeps changing proportions and I'm never the right size for what I m trying to do' - culminate in the appearance of a character actually bearing a large mushroom. Meanwhile, cooking is the means by which she expresses and defines herself, and foodies will love how strongly she identifies with her gastronomical creations. Take the first meal she offers someone in her restaurant: 'I look at him and think he's feeding off me because I put all of myself into that first tart, that inaugural dessert.' Don't read this book on an empty stomach better yet, take yourself to a favourite cafe and allow yourself to indulge along with the printed word. Her descriptions of food are exquisite, from a shin of veal 'pale as a ballerina's tutu', to a carrot and walnut cake, with its 'unctous lemon-flavoured icing', it's 'grainy sponge' and finally 'the delicate alloy of cinnamon and brown sugar'. While the conventionally sweet ending might leave some craving something more substantial, the musings on love and relationships that come before still provide much food for thought.
Woohoo! Awesome! Although you could've made it a bit interesting by adding more detail and making like a scenario where the mane six had to help her with something or her and Derpy go on a quest. But besides that, I can tell you are a gifted writer. Nice job!
Agnes Desarthe's Chez Moi is a classic novel in the style of Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies and Chocolat that revels in the sensual and emotional power of truly great food. Its narrator, Myriam, is a talented cook with a forged resume and a past tainted with disaster. At 43, Myriam feels that her life (including a failed attempt at motherhood) has been a failure, and her dearth of organizational abilities always leaves her in a bind. Her latest attempt is to open a restaurant with a staff of one: she doesn't want to hire waiters, cooks, or dishwashers, and she has no idea how a restaurant is run.
Despite a life tainted with tragedies, Myriam whips up extraordinary culinary concoctions that delight her audience. She shields herself from emotion with food, willing herself to forget about painful past betrayals and near-misses. But her small restaurant, which she's christened Chez Moi ("My house"), is her home, for she can't afford to rent an apartment and instead sleeps on the donated banquette and bathes in the large stainless steel sink.
The descriptions of food are heady and sensual, from delicate sauces to silken desserts. Ever practical, Myriam reuses things rather than throwing them out, and comes up with one menu for adults, another to cater to children.
Despite her lack of advertising (Chez Moi doesn't even have a sign proclaiming it's a restaurant), her creations attract a regular crowd of schoolgirls, young children, and workers. The neighboring florist Vincent, with breath that could kill an elephant, expresses romantic interest in her. When the talented waiter Ben appears, he helps Myriam by creating a website and bringing customers (and a catering business). Myriam is fascinated by Ben's physical awkwardness (he seems to have some mild physical impairment) and his asexuality (finally, a strong asexual character whose personality isn't defined by his asexuality!), his broad range of knowledge, and his talent in the kitchen. Ben puts Myriam in touch with a romantic figure from her past, and this has earth-shattering consequences for the timid, haunted Myriam.
There are mentions of Myriam's Jewishness, although fleeting, and of her family: successful little brother Charles, an eccentric aunt, and her disapproving parents, and the role that all of these characters have played in her development. Myriam's past failures threaten to engulf her, until her new network of co-workers and friends gives her the ability to move on.
Beautifully told, this portrait of a haunted woman and her talent in the kitchen will be sure to delight fans of Joanne Harris and Laura Esquivel.