Throughout this book, I could not shake the image of the 2011 Archibald prizewinning portrait by artist Vincent Fantauzzo of TV chef Matt Moran, in his chef’s whites, with a devilish grin on his dial and a glint in his eye reflecting the glint of the sharp scythe-like blade in his hand, whilst surrounded by slaughtered and skinned animals. The artist, it is claimed, is a friend of Matt Moran’s. I’m wondering if Wayne Macauley had Chef Moran in his mind, and if they are friends, because quite frankly, I’m not sure who has drawn the better picture of the manic chef!
A dark novel, and darkly comic, it centres around Zac, an errant juvenile who is given an opportunity to refocus and gain new skills through Cook School, in rural Victoria. The novel is written in Zac’s voice, and the sentences and paragraphs run on into each other, without a lot in the way of punctuation. It takes a few pages to get used to, but it works well. Zac’s chance to improve himself becomes an obsession. The madness seeps in early and you get the feeling it’s not going to go well, even as Zac’s star rises through his hard work and his all-consuming focus. There are pages of details about food prep, about cooking with seasonal produce, about farming, but this is not dull detail, oh no! It is completely fascinating, and often, downright shocking (disgusting). For those of you out there who are teetering on the edge of vegetarianism, this book will give you that final big shove. I could not mindfully eat another grain-fed piece of freshly slaughtered lamb again.
This book is Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class revisited, and like Veblen, it maintains a humourous stance throughout. Zac is more than aware of his place in the world, and is almost gleeful that he has found the key to his future – that is, if he kisses the right arses, serves the right people exactly what they want, is able to predict and serve what they want, then his future success will be guaranteed. He is eventually hired by a wealthy Melbourne family, and is given a room in their mansion, the keys to a car, his own phone, his own gold card, and free rein with their kitchen. His plan has worked to great effect. In the family are two daughters, and one is upset at her parents for hiring a cook (the reason he is hired is so the mother can spend quality time with her family at the table, not in itself a bad ideal) and believes her parents are causing Zac’s oppression. She, meanwhile, is heading off to Cambodia to do volunteer work (on daddy’s sharetrader earnings, and there is a wonderful scene when the whole shebang is going down the gurgler and she is begging her father to send her still more money).
Now said Nick correct me if I’m wrong but I reckon you probably come from a crap-poor family from the wrong side of the tracks you can see it in you even while you’re bowing all that jealousy and resentment but listen Chef let’s be honest where would you rather be in your little outer suburban crap-hole or in a mansion like this in one of the best streets in Melbourne? That’s what Melody doesn’t understand she got infected at uni doing soft-cock arts subjects but you and I know the real world’s got nothing to do with nanny-state socialism looking after those worse off than us by giving them just enough to make them happy and keep them where they are.
Things go from bad to worse, as the economic downturn forces people to get out of their businesses and make dramatic changes to their lifestyles, and Zac is caught in the downward spiral like a fly being washed down the sink. He makes a series of moves that will amuse (effectively setting up a hobby farm in the backyard of the mansion) and then finally shock. I’d recommend this book for any book groups out there – there will be lively discussion! I read it until the small hours of the night, because I had to find out where it was all leading. At the risk of spoiling anything, I’ll leave it there. Read it. You’ll be appalled.