Maravan Vilasam is a Tamil with a passion for food. The youngest of four, he is raised by his great aunt Nangay in Jaffna after his parents burn to their death during the 1983 pogroms in Colombo; the same year that Sri Lanka is plunged into a brutal civil war that will last for over 27 years. With an early interest in cooking instigated by helping Nangay cook meals to sell at the market stall in Jaffna, he quickly learns from his mother's sister all the secrets to Tamil cooking and most importantly to Ayurvedic cuisine.
The novel opens with Maravan as a low-paid refugee-seeker in Zurich, living amongst Switzerland's Tamil diaspora. The civil war in Sri Lanka has reached its pinnacle as Maravan desperately tries to make enough money to send back to his ailing aunt Nangay who is suffering from a vicious type of Diabetes. The year is 2008, one of Switzerland's largest banks has had to write down a further US$19 billion and Lehman Brothers have gone into insolvency. Europe is officially in recession.
Things are tough on everyone in Switzerland but particularly so for Maravan who is working as kitchen help in one of Zurich's finest restaurants 'Chez Huwyler'. With N-authorisation status, which allows asylum seekers such as himself, to only work in specific catering jobs for low wages, there is minimal chance of advancement in his job. In spite of that, he continues to nurture his dream of one day owning a turmeric yellow van with 'Maravan Catering' on the side and to open 'Maravan's' which will be 'the place for avant-garde subcontinental cuisine, paying homage to the aromas, tastes and textures of Southern India and Sri Lanka'. Until then, with his meagre wage and what is left of it after he sends some money home, he continues to experiment with cooking at his home keeping him busy and mostly out of pocket.
At Huwyler, Maravan meets Andrea, a beautiful waitress who has trouble holding a job for more than a few months. After an altercation between the head chef and Maravan, she ends up inviting herself to Maravan's house for dinner. Wanting to impress her, Maravan 'borrows' a kitchen equipment to use for preparing Andrea's meal, the Love Menu. Although the meal goes partly as planned, the same cannot be said of Maravan's plans to return the machine without being noticed. He is fired, goes on the dole and understandably struggles to find another job.
That is, until Andrea comes up with an ingenuous idea to set up the 'Love Food' a private catering company which offers ancient Ayurvedic aphrodisiac recipes to a certain clientele. It all starts off simple and easy but with the business struggling to take off in the dire economic times and Maravan's obligations to his family and his amounting debts, the business takes a whole new turn. The company finds itself immersed in the world of shady dealings with shady people. Maravan's beliefs and values are tested and re-tested time and time again as he struggles to get to grips with 'the dirty stuff' side of the business. Maravan's life, as he knows it, is never the same again.
It is beyond a doubt that 'The Chef' has a lot going for it judging by its ratings - it is a bestseller in Europe. However, in my opinion, its main flaw lies first and foremost with its cover in which a woman's foot is suggestively riding up a man's trouser leg in an outdoor cafe. It is a cover that does not do justice to the story line, but in plain fact devalues it. This is a beautiful story with a very intelligent plot and in no need for such a gimmick. The book's cover is an unfortunate choice and misleading and seems to suggest a saucy read between its covers which is not only disappointing to the reader expecting them but in effect is as far from the reality of the book as possible. This is in fact a story where passion is compromised time and time again be it in Maravan's true passion for what he would like his cooking to do, or Andrea's passion for the call girl Makeda, and even business man Dalmann, with his accumulation of money and power, seems to lack the ability to experience passion. It seems that Martin Suter, whether purposefully or inadvertently, is trying to drive the point that in these times it seems that passion is a romantic notion consigned to the past to be ignored in these tough economic times. We do what we do to survive for if we don't do that, then others will.
There is a lot going on behind the scenes of this novel. 'The Chef' is a multi layered book, one of which is offering a glimpse into a segment of Swiss society rarely highlighted; that of the Tamil population. According to statics from 2008, the number of Tamils in Switzerland alone has reached 55,000. Although they have integrated to their full potential in the business sector, they remain a closed knit society holding on to its traditions, language and culture allowing very little, if any, influence to infiltrate from the hosting country. That is why it is quite refreshing to read the parts about Maravan's rituals upon entering his house, the Tamil festivals that he caters for and his relationship with the community of the diaspora particularly his relationship with Sandana, a first generation Swiss Tamil.
It is evident from the start that Maravan does not share the views of The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE) which makes Maravan's existence within the diaspora both difficult and suspicious. The LTTE are a powerful lot and it is apparent the amount of control they exert on people's lives and livelihoods, even resorting to blackmail in the case of Maravan, to secure the funds necessary for their fight against the Sri Lankan army in their homeland. Their path is not one Maravan believes in particularly with the knowledge of the LTTE 's recruitment of child soldiers. A fate he worries might be destined for his young 14-year-old nephew, Ulagu.
I did, on the whole, enjoy 'The Chef' although it did take a bit of a while to warm up to the characters. I cannot promise all of you will like it but one thing I can promise is this: if you are into cooking, as I am, then you are in for a gastronomic delight. The sections with Maravan preparing his magical dishes are mouth-watering. Although I have yet to try any of the recipes in the book that is not to say I am ruling out the possibility. Will keep you updated on that one!
For more on the author Martin Suter, click HERE
For more on the translator Jamie Bulloch, click HERE