Nothing prepared me for the ending. And while of course I would never divulge it here, it is to the author’s credit that he twists his tale so subtly and with such craft that the denouement delivers a force quite mighty. Largely set in a Cook’s School, a farm where wayward boys have been sent as a sort of second chance in life a la Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen project, it is recounted by Zac, a likeable-enough character, at least initially, whose crime is never disclosed. Zac, unlike all the others, really does want to learn how to be a great chef and the lengths he goes to in order to do so are often extreme – such as feeding his personal ewes grain, rosemary, pinot noir and sea salt in order that the unborn lamb he
will subsequently slaughter and cook will take up those flavours via the placenta. The relative paucity of punctuation and idiomatic tone – following the rhythms of Zac’s thoughts and speech – rapidly become unnoticeable as he takes you further into
his obsessive mind. And while the book may be described as a satire on themes like modern cooking, the celebrity status afforded chefs and the purist’s pursuit of impossible and often outlandish perfection, I found it disturbingly close to what really goes on
in today’s food-fanatical and food-gimmicky world. I was also reminded of M J Hyland, another writer we were lucky to have grace our Writers’ Festival last year, whose seemingly simple, spare style of storytelling merely paves the way for the horror ahead. Equal measures moving and funny, chilling and entertaining, this book is well worth the journey – even if cooking is not your thing.
The Cook – Wayne Macauley. Text Publishing.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview author Wayne Macauley, a telephone session between Melbourne and the northern rivers. My first question was whether in a past life he had worked as a chef, so knowledgeable had he been in his evocation of food and cooking and a chef’s life.
‘No’, was the response. ‘I came to it completely naively – just as the character Zac had done. Sure, I picked up a few tips along the way, but I’m an amateur cook… I guess that a lot of the research was into really high-end restaurant food, which I would never emulate.’
It was, he told me, a deliberate artistic choice to start out as naive as his protagonist – ‘so my journey into culinary knowledge was the same as Zac’s… I wanted to begin in the dark, like him, and fill in the gaps of knowledge as he went along. I was doing the research as I wrote… I tend to write my books like that. I don’t like to plan too much – it kills off creative possibilities if you plan too much. If I don’t have an answer at my fingertips at a certain point I’ll leave a blank on the page.’
I brought up the satirical nature of the book, and Wayne remarked that a lot of his work is indeed satirical. ‘But the word is much degraded now’, he continued. ‘I approach satire in a political way, like Jonathon Swift. It’s that kind of satire that informs my work. As a writer I have my ear to the ground, always reading the Zeitgeist… There’s something excessive about all this (fascination with food, cooking, celebrity chefdom) – the crazy amount around us in all the media. You can’t get away from it. So as a satirist and simply as a writer I can’t help taking that and putting it under a microscope. At the moment cheffing is how you get your head on the telly – I find that strange, and funny. It’s not hard to see humour in us human beings. We are sad and funny at the same time. When you take away God and reason we are left sad and funny. I wanted always to explore that in my work. I’m most interested in us stripped bare…’
Wayne Macauley appears alongside local author Jim Hearn (High Season) at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival on Sunday 5 August in the Blue Marquee at 12 midday in a session entitled ‘Cooking Your Way To Salvation’.