Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

Translated by Alison Anderson 

Published in France 2004, in UK 2006       
Part 2 chapter 18

[Camille and Franck are working in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve]

Camille was surprised by the atmosphere of agitation and concentration which already reigned in the kitchen.

It was suddenly so hot.

‘Here you go, boss. A brand new commis.’…

[Later] Camille heard someone ask her: ‘Everything okay?’

She looked up and was dumbfounded.

She didn’t recognize [Franck]. Spotless trousers, an impeccably ironed jacket with a double row of round buttons and his name embroidered in blue letters; a little pointed bandana, immaculate apron and dishtowel, and his toque resting nice and tight on his head. She’d never seen him dressed any other way than as a consummate slob; she found him very handsome indeed.

[Camille sees the maître d’, and another worker explains:] ‘They’re all good-looking, the ones who work on the floor. At the start of the work day, we’re the ones who are clean and they go around vacuuming in their t-shirts and as the day goes by it tends to go the opposite way: we start to stink and get grubby and they walk by fresh as daisies, with their impeccable hairdos and suits.’

observations: If this were a film, Camille would be played by Audrey Tautou. Oh, it is, and she is. The story and the characters teeter on the edge of being precious, but there is a hard core at the centre saving it from tipping over, most of the time. It could do with being shorter – the plot takes a long and depressing time to get going – but it is very atmospheric, you get the feel of Paris and its apartments and offices and restaurants. Four people end up sharing their lives: the aristocratic Philibert who can’t cope with the world, Camille the artist who doesn’t eat, Franck the chef who is full of anger, and his grandmother Paulette who doesn’t want to be in a home. So, yes, you can predict quite a lot of it from that, given that the book is widely described as ‘feelgood’. But it is cleverly done, and the (very) slow-moving relationship between Franck and Camille is charming.

The New Year’s Eve where they work together in a smart, busy restaurant for one night only is absolutely fascinating – it’s just a couple of chapters in the middle of the book, and doesn’t particularly fit in with anything else. It is a very detailed description of food preparation and the workers concerned, but it is strangely riveting.

With thanks to Jackie (again) for recommending the book.

Links on the blog: Plenty of books set in Paris – The Dud Avocado, A Moveable Feast and the fictionalized version A Paris Wife, and Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred: all four books about English-speaking visitors. For the French version of the city, Claudine in Paris, and Les Miserables.

The black and white photo is of a restaurant kitchen run by noted chef Paul BocuseThe colour picture is of the kitchen of the renowned El Bulli restaurant (now closed), and was taken by Charles Haynes.