Review: The Cook


November 7, 2012 by markstani

Take Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’. Add a heap of rabid ambition and a glug – no, make that a bucket-full – of gore, and you get, more or less, Wayne Macauley’s wildly entertaining tale of a teenage delinquent turned aspiring chef, The Cook (pub. Quercus).
Actually, for all its obvious comparisons with Bourdain’s biographical account of his life in the world’s high-end, high-testosterone kitchens, it has to be stressed that as a work of fiction, ‘The Cook’ is entirely unique.
This is the account of seventeen-year-old Zac, who is given the choice of either going to a young offenders’ institution or enrolling in a rehabilitation scheme that teachers troubled teenagers how to cook. The more Zac learns, the more he becomes convinced he has found his true calling in life, and the more determined he is to succeed, whatever it takes.
Armed with a copy of ‘Larousse’ plucked from the kitchen shelves, Zac immerses himself in basic techniques before he becomes, like Bourdain, obsessed with stretching boundaries, until his nascent desire to serve, to please, to succeed, threatens to spiral dangerously out of control.
This is not a book for avowed vegetarians or the easily queazy. There is a lot of fattening and slaughtering involved. Try this bite-sized chunk for size:

My next challenge was agnelet. Milk lamb three to four weeks old four to five kilos in weight born in winter raised indoors fed milk only the meat very tender and delicate. I moved my lamb pens closer to the house and made three more for my pregnant ewes each ewe a bit bigger that than the next. I got Terry to show me how to spot a pregnant one and the ones I spotted I put in my pens. The trick with agnelet is to control the mother how she lives what she eats I fed these mothers quality lucerne up to about three weeks before delivery then intensely fed then a mixture of grain rosemary pinot noir and sea salt after that. This way the unborn lamb could take up via the placenta some of those flavours quite focussed and intense in utero then softened after birth when I bottle-fed it on high-fat cow’s milk and whisked raw eggs. At slaughter I would have a lamb subtly flavoured with a bit of its mother’s old grassiness but overlaid with hints of grain rosemary wine and salt yet exceptionally tender on account of the milk and eggs.

Macauley’s riotous tale is made all the more urgent by his employment of a colloquial first-person vernacular, bringing Zac’s scatter-gun, hundred-mile-an-hour thought processes brilliantly to the page. It’s as if the narrator has scribbled down these notes while he’s half-watching a pan on the stove. While it takes some time to tune into, this works fabulously: Zac is, after all, a troubled and presumably relatively uneducated teenager, thus his narrative becomes increasingly mashed up with expressions gleaned from the cookbooks he scours.
All of which imbues this book with a fierce readability, propelling you through the pages with the simple desire to discover whether Zac succeeds. And I am not even going to hint at what transpires, beyond saying that you are very unlikely to read a more memorable ending to a book this year. A fun, high-octane, Bourdain-busting book. And, I should imagine, a real talking point if someone you know unwraps it just before they plonk the Christmas turkey in the oven.


7 thoughts on “Review: The Cook

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh yes indeed, I enjoyed this one too. And good on you for not spoiling THAT ending for others!

  2. If that passage is supposed to make me feel queasy then I think I'll be OK. I've just finished The Cow by Beat Sterchi which contained lots of really gruesome abbatoir scenes. I think I'll really enjoy The Cook. I'm hoping to start it tonight.

  3. Mark says:

    Hi Jackie, yeah I suppose it's the old foie-gras principle rather than the graphic descriptions. Anyway, you don't know the half of it yet! ; ) Lisa, have you read any of Wayne's other books?

  4. stujallen says:

    I ve this lined up for later this month like comparison to Bourdain I ve enjoyed his books ,I like the nick cave quote on the front ,all the best stu

  5. Tony says:

    Ironically, I was randomly sent a UK edition of this book – ironic because it's an Australian book. And I'm an Englishman living in Australia and……oh, I'm sure you all get it.I might even read it at some point.

  6. this does have some appeal, liking the gore aspect & am a great fan of cooking (originally trained to be a chef).

  7. Tom Cunliffe says:

    Sounds like a fascinating read and obviously takes Masterchef to a new level. I suspect that the ending is not at all happy – but no doubt that all adds to the fun of it

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