By Jan Baetens
Food is a key theme in cultural studies, but often the approach focuses on the negative or problematic aspects of it: anorexia and other eating disorders, obesity and fat studies, outdoor eating rituals and social distinction, the critique of deeply rooted national preferences as a form of modern “mythology” (in the sense of Roland Barthes), the commercialization of snootiness, and the relationship between alimentary habits and climate change.
Interesting as these topics may be, they overlook the most essential part of food: the pleasure that is in both making, serving and eating dishes and the joy of sharing it with others, in words and images, either on the spot, while preparing and consuming the food, or afterwards, for instance by making a comic on the many delights food can give us. Such a comic is Comme un chef (“Like a Chef”), a collaboration between Benoît Peeters, novelist, critic, theoretician, but also biographer of Jacques Derrida and scriptwriter of the famous The Obscure Cities series (http://www.theobscurecities.com/home/), and Aurelia Aurita, the comics author best known for Fraise and Chocolat (“Stawberry and Chocolate”), a work exploring the many joys of sex seen from a female point of view and unfortunately not yet available in English (https://lesimpressionsnouvelles.com/catalogue/fraise-et-chocolat-lintegrale/).
Like a Chef is a work with a double focus. It is, in the very first place, an autobiography, or at least in part, but it is also a vibrant presentation of gastronomy, more particularly the various types of the “new cuisine”, an approach to cooking and food presentation in French cuisine. In contrast to classic cuisine, an older form of haute cuisine, new cuisine is characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes, an increased emphasis on presentation, and the desire to make cooking as innovative and surprising as, for instance, art. Both perspectives come neatly together in the person of Benoît Peeters who, as a young author (he published his first novel at age 20), had to try to make a living. His love for food as well as his lust for innovation encouraged him to try his luck as a cook, and the book reports his many gastronomic adventures in the first years of his adult life, from the discovery –a nearly religious epiphany– of the new cuisine in the restaurant of the Troisgros brothers to his personal contacts with some great chefs such as Willy Slawinksi from the Apicius restaurant in Ghent and Ferrian Adrià from El Bulli.
Comme un chef is thus a very personal book, but also an extremely comical one. Instead of giving a “biopic” presentation of the new cuisine –this would have been the default option in the contemporary graphic novel, where many authors’ lack of ideas and imagination recycle documentary material in comics format, often with very boring results–, Benoît Peeters tells his own experiences within the new cuisine movement. His book is not a portrait gallery of great chefs or an illustration of famous dishes, but its own life as reconstructed with the help of the new food culture. It is permanently both hilarious and inspiring. One does not find real recipes here, but a funny yet very smart narrative of a young food lover and would be chef learning how to eat (how to order in a great restaurant for instance when one has no money and does not obey the dress code) and how to prepare food by trial and error (how to react for example to customers who ask the young new cuisine chef to make a very traditional dinner).
The beauty and dash of this autobiography is also much indebted to the vivid drawing style of Aurélia Aurita, who strikes the right balance between a more cartoonish presentation of the characters and the necessity to carefully reproduce a large amount of factual information. The chemistry works perfectly, and one can easily bet that the collaboration between Peeters and Aurita will set a new tone in the often uneventful and quite stereotypical current of biographical graphic novels.
Benoît Peeters & Aurélia Aurita, Comme un chef
Paris : Casterman, 2018, 216 pages, 18,95 € (ISBN : 9782203146754)