So the story of Zac, juvenile offender, begins on his first day at Cook School, a residential camp on a farm outside Melbourne.
It’s a compelling read, even though Zac writes as he speaks, in a compulsive stream-of-consciousness, with no commas. Yet his story is as tightly structured as a thriller, with a shocking twist at the end.
From the beginning Zac is determined not to be a loser, and dreams of having his own restaurant. Cook School is run by Head Chef, a wealthy restaurateur, but most of the teaching is done by his sous chef, Fabian. The farm provides the freshest of ingredients, from free-range hens and baby lambs to organic herbs and vegetables. The teenagers’ first test involves watching a chicken being slaughtered, plucked, drawn and jointed. They are then given fresh vegetables and a bouquet garni, and expected to create a dish. Only Zac succeeds in producing something edible, the first sign that he has the makings of an extraordinary chef.
Their next lesson involves a lamb, and a demonstration of the process whereby the cute fluffy animal becomes a thing you can eat. One of the teenagers faints twice, but Zac merely comments: “Lamb chops don’t come from a packet they come from a lamb this was our first lesson today.”
Their culinary education continues with a dramatic demonstration by Head Chef. Zac reports the core of his message: “Power through service, this is your motto. By subjugating ourselves we become strong. And to what do we subjugate ourselves? To public taste. To whim. To folly. To whatever looks and smells new. We bow to the fickle and frivolous we are the servants of all that is decadent excessive unnecessary. What is your role? Simple. To get your customer to pay ten times what your produce is worth and thank you for the privilege.”
Part of the fascination of this novel is the gradual realisation that there is something terribly wrong with Zac’s priorities. Alarm bells start to ring at his nonchalant account of force-feeding a lamb, a cruel experiment he repeats several times. Then there is his indifference to his father’s death, and his refusal to go home to his mother: “I let the emails pile up till they stopped. I celebrated my nineteenth birthday with agneau de lait farci on my own in the dining room and don’t worry it was good.”
One day Zac is collected by a driver and taken to the house of a wealthy family in Melbourne: he is to be their cook. His description of the lifestyle of the rich is hilarious. Deidre, the mother of two teenage daughters, believes that their family life will improve if they all sit around a table for breakfast and dinner. Her husband is not convinced, rightly as it turns out.
Zac’s story is consistently entertaining, often shocking, but is also a serious critique of the moral vacuum at the core of a society that values money and novelty above all else. It will all seem uncannily familiar to Irish readers.