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In the Kitchen

Murder and mayhem haunt an executive chef in the restaurant of a London hotel that has seen better days.

By Yvonne Zipp / July 3, 2009

Restaurants are one of my favorite indulgences. (Cooking is fun. Dishes, less so. And my son is not quite tall enough to inflict with that chore.) As a result, I have stayed far, far away from Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and any reality series starring Gordon Ramsay.

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But so pervasive has become the cult of the celebrity chef that even a punter can easily identify the various jobs in that scorching, knife-filled danger zone that is the commercial kitchen. Thanks to “Ratatouille” (and seriously, thank you, Pixar), so can your average 6-year-old. Monica Ali’s new novel, In the Kitchen, focuses on the midlife crisis of an executive chef named Gabe Lightfoot. Unfortunately, Gabe turns out to be a whole lot less appealing hero than a rat.

Ali, whose wonderfully memorable debut novel “Brick Lane” was a finalist for the Booker Prize, is an expert at detailing the immigrant experience in London. Gabe’s kitchen at the Imperial (a hotel whose glory days are well behind it, as the plastic flowers on the tables attest) is filled with a “United Nations task force” of Russians, North Africans, and Indians – any one of whose story turns out to be more interesting than that of their boss. And therein lies both the appeal and the problem inherent in “In the Kitchen.”

Ali is a detail-oriented writer who brings her creative scrutiny to bear on everything from the textile industry in Britain in the 1970s to the vents the grill chef de partie slices in his uniform to the heartbreaking procedure by which Liberian children were turned into soldiers. Whenever “In the Kitchen” stays focused on its title, it sizzles. “When the kitchen was busy, when knives wheeled and pans slammed, when the burners hissed and flared, when the white plates marched, when the chefs shouted orders and insults and jokes, swerving and bending, performing the modern dance of cuisine, this place was transformed.... What a place, thought Gabe, looking away at the grilled and bolted back door and barred and lightless windows. What a place: part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall.” Ali possesses great powers of lyricism and insight, neither of which have deserted her since her first book.

But Gabe’s romantic problems are, sadly, boring (even to his new lover). And, since readers know about his looming breakdown from Page 1, it takes entirely too long to hit.


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