No more than when driving, in the book world you should always expect the unexpected. Coming back to work from the Bank Holiday weekend, I discovered sitting on my desk, as though it owned the joint, a big white jiffy bag which contained a smaller bag of American type biscuits and a cookery book. Now new cookery books are not a genre I normally give a lot of time to, but bribery and corruption will always work in this neck of the woods, so I gave it a lot more attention than I would have normally. Then I emailed the author Móna Wise.
Getting in touch with Móna Wise is a bit like taking your life in your own hands. Within minutes she was on the phone and within hours, she was walking in the door, albeit with another bag of biscuits – boy does she know how to twist the proverbial arm – and a smile that would light up the darkest hour. Game, set, and match! By then it was also obvious that The Chef & I was so much more than a cookery book, and that the recipes were something of an afterthought.
Móna Wise (née Dempsey ) hails from Claregalway where she now lives. At age 19 she went to the US for a prolonged holiday and stayed there for 15 years. During that period she married, adopted two children, opened and ran a restaurant before moving to Switzerland where she spent an unhappy year before finally returning to Claregalway where she added two foster children to the family.
Not exactly an ordinary life, but neither could it be called an extraordinary life. Finding herself at something of a loose end and encouraged by her mother, Móna signed up for the new four year creative writing diploma offered by NUI Galway. As the course developed she began to find her own creative voice and discovered that her relatively ordinary human experience wasn’t so ordinary after all and so she put pen to paper and wrote the memoir that along with her husband’s recipes was to become The Chef & I: A Nourishing Memoir.
A thorny path of love
Wise begins her acknowledgments with the sentence “The Chef & I is written proof of the love I hold for my husband Ron, aka “the Chef” and for all things food and family oriented.” This to a large extent is true but it is only part of the story. She describes her idyllic childhood and her difficulty in adapting to third level education. Initially finding work in McSwiggans and Busker Brownes she was eventually persuaded by her mother to go and visit her aunt in the States and this is where the real story begins. After a stint in the States she lands a job in a brewery where on her first day looking for her boss she finds herself in the kitchen and then: “Off in the distance, there he stood. Denim dungarees and Chez Piggy T-shirt with pony-tailed hair tucked neatly under his beret, and a smile that still melts my heart. My handsome Chef.”
For herself, it was love at first sight, but for him she did not exist. The story follows the fairly normal thorny path most love affairs follow but the death of her father in December 1999 proves to be the true catalyst that brings her family even closer together and the love between herself and her “Chef” on to a new level.
Driven by a remarkable energy, the narration is marked by a searing honesty that is as refreshing as it is positive. The heartbreak of not being able to have children of her own is offset by the incredible joy that greets the arrival of the first adopted child. The opening of their own spanking new restaurant is offset by the financial difficulties it incurred, and the alienation suffered during the year in Switzerland is balanced by the spiritual feeling of going home that surrounded her return to Claregalway.
As for the recipes, herself – the acid test - delighted in the basil olive oil, the tomato and Kyong Korean sauces, the blue cheese and the bacon honey dressings. She agrees with “Honey” that the salad to feed the multitude should not be served with the paté, to which I am somewhat partial, and which apparently is part of my undoing. She adds that the recipe for the barbecue spare ribs, especially those that can be ordered from Salthill’s renowned butcher Ger Loughnane, is to die for.
The Chef & I is a remarkable testimony to the achievement of two people who married “for love and not for money”, and in these days of negativity and recession is a richly rewarding and positive read.