Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2018

Elza’s Kitchen (2012), by Marc Fitten

Elza’s Kitchen ought to have been a beaut book for a Masterchef tragic like me.  Set in post Soviet Hungary, it’s about an ambitious cook who dreams of getting a favourable review in Europe’s top gourmet magazine.   This is the blurb that enticed me:

For years, Elza has managed to get by. She has her own little restaurant in the Hungarian city of Delibab,  cooking quality versions of Hungarian classics and serving them with a smile. But lately her smile has become tired.  She is weary of cooking for the same customers and the loveless affair with her sous-chef is now an irritation.

With her country in a state of transition from communism to capitalism, Elza embarks on her own change.  She decides to woo The Critic, one of the harshest, most powerful culinary columnists in Europe.  But as relationships in the kitchen sour, the food threatens to turn with them, and not even Elza’s strained composure can prevent the chaos that seems fated to engulf her.

Serving up all the heat, sensual delight and rich atmosphere of the restaurant itself, Elza’s Kitchen is a wonderful celebration of culture and cuisine.  Resisting the comfortable pattern of her old life, Elza finds that true joy – and love – can be hidden in the most surprising of places.

You see?  It sounds like fun, right?

But it’s a disappointment, and not just a disappointment.  With its stereotypical representation of Roma (called gypsies in the novel) it’s an offensive disappointment.  Did it not occur to the Bloomsbury editor that portraying Roma relentlessly as beggars, thieves, greedy opportunists and scoundrels was just a tad inappropriate?  (Maybe the Bloomsbury editor grew up reading Enid Blyton stories where the ‘gypsies’ were always fair game for negative stereotyping).

The plot is mildly engaging so I resisted the temptation to turf it, but really, it turned out to be more like another limp episode of Mystery Diners. The characterisation is feeble.  I realise that the book is supposed to be a comic fable so most of the characters are stock types, labelled not by name but by their job (i.e.  Sous-Chef, the Line-chefs, the Dishwasher, The Critic, &c) but Elza is such a driven personality, with no redeeming features, that it’s just not ever convincing that the Sous-chef is so in love with her that he persists in trying to marry her for three years.  And her jealousy when he finds love elsewhere after she’s ditched him is pathetically sexist in conception and wholly unconvincing.   And even a fable needs to be convincing.

The setting is humdrum.  The story could be taking place anywhere, really, which is appropriate for a fable, and Delibab (délibáb) is (thank you, Google Translate) a Hungarian word meaning mirage, which I found out when I went searching to see what the town might look like.  But still there’s no sense of this as a fictional place in Hungary at all.  The concrete block-housing referred to here could just as easily be the Brutalist concrete blocks in London:

She turned off the promenade about half way to the train station. She turned down a street and decided to walk away, to walk out toward those pockets of the city where development had not arrived, where development might never arrive. These places still existed outside of the Centrum.  Out on the outskirts of Delibab, or out near the Great Forest and Park where a few cottages and villas stood.  There were also the pockets of concrete block-housing that had gone up during socialism—cities unto themselves.  (p.24)

The none-too-subtle moral of this story is meant to be that a transition to capitalism means competition within the domestic market, and Elza is brought down because (as the Critic tells her) just cooking family favourites isn’t good enough.  (They don’t sound too enticing, from a diner’s PoV). No, Elza was successful because hers was the only restaurant in the middle of nowhere when everyone else with talent had left.  And because she doesn’t have that sixth sense for noticing inefficiences and there’s no loyalty in a competitive market, the restaurant fails as soon as there is competition from the dynamic young couple who abandon her employ to set up their own place.  Young Dora, whose father has thrived in the post-Soviet economy because he exploited opportunities, (i.e. he’s just like those Russian moguls you’ve heard about) knows that #BusinessStudies101 being a good cook doesn’t necessarily make Elza a good businesswoman.

But it’s not just the weak characterisation, the bland setting and the clunky moral that spoils a good idea.  It’s the writing.  The rhythm of the sentences is all wrong and the writing doesn’t flow.

Author: Marc Fitten
Title: Elza’s Kitchen
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2012, 212pp
ISBN: 9781408821329
Source: Personal library, bought at Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99

Availability: Elza’s Kitchen


  1. Wow. And the book is only 6 years old. I’m amazed it’s so stereotyped. 😟


    • Exactly. What rock has he been under, not to mention his editor!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh. Sounds awful. If that passage you quoted is representative of the style of writing throughout I’m surprised yiu could even finish this.


    • And it’s from Bloomsbury! I’ve always thought their stuff was high quality…


      • Well yes so did I but i suppose even the best publisher can make a mistake now and again


        • Yes… when I think about it, there must be a process when an editor moves from being supervised in what they do to being judged capable of working independently. Yet they are all captive to their own knowledge, experience and attitudes, as we all are. However in matters of racism (and legal liability and so on) I’d assume they’d get specific training for that. Though then again, these days when everything is outsourced, maybe not…


          • I don’t know is the short answer to your question about training. But I hope I can find out because my niece begins an MA in publishing tomorrow so I am looking forward to getting some inside knowledge on many topics :)


            • LOL And the secrets will all be divulged on the blog, I hope!


              • I might share them with just a few close blogger friends but only if you ask nicely (and supply the required quota of chocolate)


                • Hmm, tricky from Australia. Would nice pictures of chocolate suffice?


                • that’s the trouble with technology isn’t it – it lets us do all sorts of useless things but when it really matters it’s never there ….

                  Liked by 1 person

  3. You always say if there’s a translator so I googled Marc Fitten – he works at Yale, so no, he’s not a woman, and presumably neither a restaurant owner nor a Hungarian. Nor apparently a very good writer. I’m not sure I would have borrowed this as an audiobook let alone taken the time to read it. But your tastes are more catholic than mine.


    • Well, he might be of Hungarian origin, maybe the offspring of people who fled the uprising…
      Which might explain the rather clunky writing style.


  4. OK, so you’re not going to make me feel guilt about not adding this one to the TBR then, eh??!!

    (Yes, I wondered about translation too, Bill, but decided that if Lisa didn’t mention it, it wasn’t.)


    • LOL I should write mean reviews more often so you don’t feel guilty!




  6. Thanks for saving me from this one (I had it on my foodies fiction list).


  7. I think I had this one, or have this one. Not sure. I haven’t actually read it yet though.


    • Hi, Marg, good to hear from you. #WagsFinger Your Goodreads records need updating, eh?


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