"Chef's House" is narrated by Edna, a woman currently separated from her husband Wes. Both are recovering alcoholics. As with "Feathers," the story is told in past tense.
Edna remembers a summer when Wes rented a furnished house in Eureka (presumably in the Pacific Northwest) from another recovering alcoholic named Chef. Wes calls Edna, from whom he was estranged at the time, and invites her to live with him during the summer. She resists at first, but his persistence and seeming sobriety impress her and she decides to give the relationship another try, even though it means leaving a relationship with a man she merely calls her "friend."
The summer was lovely, so much that Edna ends up putting her wedding ring back on, after having had it off since a particularly bad drunk spell of Wes's. They have enough money to focus on leisure rather than work, and they make the most of it, enjoying the lovely pastoral sea climate, and fishing on occasion. Wes is romantic and available, and both stay sober, with Wes going to weekly AA meetings with Chef.
Edna tells the reader about their estranged children, who "kept their distance." Their daughter lives on a type of commune and ignores them altogether. They son works as an itinerant farmer and stays in slightly better touch.
All is well until the afternoon that Chef comes over and tells them that his daughter Linda's husband disappeared on a fishing trip and so Linda needs the house. Chef is extremely sorry, but stresses that he has no choice. Wes takes the news quietly, then joins Edna in the house. She tries to comfort him but he is extremely disappointed. He used to call Chef's daughter "Fat Linda" and speaks cruelly about her, suggesting her husband disappeared to escape her.
Edna tries to convince him they can find another house, but he refuses her comfort, instead falling into an introspective state that she knows bodes poorly for his sobriety. She mentions their kids, but he dismisses them and insists they don't care for him. Edna tries to force him to consider what she gave up to join him here, insisting they need to try and stay happy, but he counters that "we were born who we are" and there is no cure for it.
She remembers, when their marriage was young, one occasion when she and the then-babies saw him working in the field. They sit silently for a while, after which Wes insists they "have to do something now and do it quick." She tries to calm him, but he won't listen, and instead closes out the window, blocking their view of ocean. She knows that their experience in Chef's house has come to an end.
Unlike "Feathers," which detailed a story where characters tried to force themselves into a happy future, "Chef's House" is concerned with characters who seek to recapture the past. The implication throughout the story is that Edna and Wes were once a happy couple, and they do seem very much in love in the pastoral setting of the story. Whatever went wrong – and it obviously has a lot to do with alcohol – has separated them but they both long to recapture that.
The first-person narration helps make the story work. Edna's language is generally quite matter-of-fact and unemotional, even when she discusses potentially emotional subjects like her estranged children. She is clearly a strong, pragmatic woman, but she nevertheless longs for a connection with Wes, who she remembers as a young, virile man working in the field. The past tense does not suggest an epiphany the way that the past tense in "Feathers" did. In that story, the narrator was clearly changed by the story he tells, and that's clear from the start. In "Chef's House," Edna gives no indication that this incident changed her life, which could suggest that these attempts to reconnect with Wes are not uncommon. Which means, of course, that they tend to fail.
The two overarching themes in the story are isolation and delusion. It's clear, though implicit, that Wes and Edna both live lonely lives, isolated from others. Consider how Edna speaks of the relationship she leaves to join Wes: she calls him only her "friend," and though he pleads with her to stay in a way that suggests he cares for her, she has kept herself distant. Likewise, she suggests that "Wes had quit his girlfriend, or she'd quit him. I didn't know, didn't care." It suggests that his relationships after her hold little weight, much as those with her "friends" are not of great import but rather functional. And of course, their isolation from their children illustrates how alone they are. She might not express the fact of their estrangement in verbose emotional language, but when she mentions the children to Wes in order to calm down his quick emotional descent following Chef's news, she is suggesting that, with proper fortitude, they could reconnect with the children. Just because they don't have Chef's house doesn't mean they have to be alone.
However, Wes has seen through the delusion that was central to their lovely experience. Again, delusion is the linchpin of this tale. Their happiness over the summer can't be separated from the conditions: the lovely pastoral landscape, the fact that they don't have to work, and that it wasn't their house. It is Chef's house. Both in terms of money and the house, they are living on borrowed time. She indicates that they have "some money," but at some point they will have to work again. And there was never a promise that they could have the house forever. These details don't temper their happiness – why should they? Nevertheless, things end, and they will again have to accept what Wes posits in their discussion at story's end – "we were born who we are." Their attempt to recapture the past is perhaps commendable, but it's also impossible. What destroyed them once was not the house they lived in, but who they are. Ultimately, they have to face this fact, and Edna notes that she "caught herself talking like [the summer] was something that had happened in the past," even though they're still in it. It too will pass, and they will again have to face who they are.
All of these brutal emotional themes are intertwined with a motif in Carver's work so pervasive that it could be considered a theme: alcoholism. The work – this story included – does not drop to moralizing and suggest that alcoholism is the root of any problems. In fact, their inability to stay together is due to who they are, and an inability to recapture the past. But the characters are certainly impeded by their addiction, and it is the cloud that hangs over their heads, both for the problems it caused in the past – Edna first removed her wedding ring once Wes threw his drunkenly into a field – and what problems it could cause again. As soon as Wes hears the news, she says to him, "Go easy, Wes." They know it's there, whether they bring it up or not. Alcoholism becomes additionally something of a metaphor for the isolation and delusion of the story, a box into which they have packed those ugly qualities, believing that maybe if they can avoid the drink, they can avoid the ugliness.