Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In the Kitchen

If you’re fascinated by independent restaurants or have ever worked in the business, you’ll enjoy Monica Ali’s new novel, In the Kitchen, an insider portrait of a fortyish executive chef whose energies are focused on trying to open his own restaurant and whose personal life is a mess. Does this sound familiar? Watch the restaurant news in the paper. The chef from the Pacific Rim restaurant on the quay is now chef of the chic new Vietnamese restaurant; the executive chef of the chain pasta place has just opened his own upscale Italian restaurant; the manager of La Boheme is accusing her husband, the owner, of assault; and the bus boy at the pierogi drive-in has just been busted for cocaine.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her stunning first novel, Brick Lane, Bangladesh-born Ali clearly knows her material. Chefs work 60-80 hours a week, endure stress in the kitchen and abuse from customers, work with people with - or have themselves - a variety of addictions, and are nomadic because stability is not the hallmark of success in this dysfunctional business. And there are also a lot of immigrants in restaurant work, as Ali knows.

Ali’s protagonist, Gabe Lightwood, fits this profile. As executive chef of the Imperial Hotel in London, he is overwhelmed with paperwork and the inadequacies of his staff, whom he defends but can’t control, and is just putting in his six months (though he promised 2 years) until he can prove to two potential backers that he can turn around a business. Ingredients are supposed to be fresh, but he catches an employee using frozen potatoes; Oona, his right-hand woman, the only woman of power on his staff, irritates him with her constant solicitous cups of tea and protective attitude toward the staff. He wants someone more efficient, faster, smoother. He is subtly racist, though he doesn't believe it.

“One thing he should do tomorrow was think of a way of getting rid of Oona. It would hardly be fair to hand her on to the next executive chef. He had nothing against her personally, and it wasn’t like she wasn’t willing to do things his way. But even when she was doing exactly what he asked of her, there was something so -what? -static about her. Even bustling around the kitchen, Oona had a way of seeming to stand stock-still.”

Although he has a girlfriend, a singer named Charlie, he is emotionally numb. He has never married, never made a commitment, though he tells himself he will marry Charlie soon. His father is dying of cancer, but he won't go home to visit until his sister bullies him. He has no friends and is lonely.

At the beginning of the novel, one of the restaurant porters, Yuri, is found dead in the basement of the hotel, where it turns out he has been living. Although the police say it was an accidental death, it is the catalyst for change in Gabriel, who is afraid he’ll be blamed and lose the backing for his own restaurant, as he sees pretty nearly everything in terms of his personal drama.

Then he meets Lena, who it seems had been living in the basement, and takes her home with him, fascinated by her ugly-attractiveness, slavish indifference to him, and history as a victim of slave-prostitute trafficking. Lena lies about almost everything, and her background isn’t quite clear to me at this point. She claims to have run away from her pimp.

Obsessed with this woman, Gabe feels compelled to lie about her to Charlie.

Gabe’s passivity can be annoying. He is not a likable hero, and we have to spend a lot of time with him, as the point-of-view is 3rd person limited. The narrative can be gloomy, but it fits the subject. Parts are slow, but parts are perfect. A little editing wouldn't have hurt.

Ali certainly knows and writes well about the hierarchy in restaurants, the immigrants who work there on the lower rungs, and the dysfunctional atmosphere, fed by the turnover.

I'm a little more than halfway through this, and am impressed.

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