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Book review: Elza's Kitchen, By Marc Fitten

A gastro-farce that keeps all the plates spinning in the air

Brooklyn‑born Marc Fitten is drawn to matters Eastern European. His debut, Valeria's Last Stand, was the first in a proposed trilogy of novels set in post-communist Hungary. Elza's Kitchen, the second in the series, follows the adventures, culinary and otherwise, of a middle-aged chef who, much like her nation, is feeling deflated after several decades of unfettered consumerism.

Elza's popular eaterie, The Tulip, is located in the fictional city of Delibab. It's here that her signature dishes, Chicken Paprika and Shepherd's Goulash, can reduce grown men to tears. But despite the success of her food and the attentions of her young lover, the restaurant's sous chef, Elza is feeling out of sorts. Her breasts are sagging "like plastic shopping bags", her skin is sallow and her temples grey. She doesn't even care if her boyfriend leaves her. What she needs, she decides, is a dose of professional recognition. With this in mind she decides to woo The Critic, one of the harshest and most powerful restaurant critics in the land.

Fitten's cheery fable follows Elza in her quest for a new beginning. As in Valeria's Last Stand, most of the characters have the roughly hewn quality of woodcuts. Elza's many appreciative visitors to The Tulip – the Motorcycle Officer, The Post Inspector and The Humanities Professor – are never given real names. Serious nomenclature is only granted to Pisti, a little Roma boy who comes to play a significant role in shaping Elza's future.

Despite this broad-brush approach, Fitten gets us to care about his heroine's predicament. Although Elza succeeds in luring The Critic to her restaurant, she's deeply disappointed when he turns out to be a humourless pedant. To add to her stress levels, The Sous Chef has run off with The Pastry Chef with plans to open a rival restaurant. We can only wait and see if this establishment will prove more to The Critic's liking. Unfamiliar ingredients and an unusual setting make Fitten's well-paced gastro-farce a memorable one. Screwball comedies can wear thin, but this one keeps all the plates spinning in the air.