In the Kitchen
Murder and mayhem haunt an executive chef in the restaurant of a London hotel that has seen better days.
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The catalyst for Gabe’s meltdown is the suspicious death of Yuri, a Russian night porter, in the basement of the Imperial Hotel, where the porter had (unbeknownst to Gabe) been living. Months away from opening his own restaurant, Gabe instead finds himself haunted nightly by Yuri and unwilling to accept the official verdict of accidental death.Skip to next paragraph
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But he’s not focused enough to turn himself into a toque-crowned Sherlock Holmes, so he mostly just worries vaguely about it and a host of other problems, including his dad’s terminal diagnosis of cancer and the young woman he found searching Yuri’s room. Lena is a former sex slave on the run from her abusive pimp, and Gabe takes her in, he thinks, out of the goodness of his heart.
However, he also takes her up on her coldly delivered offer of sex, despite Charlie, the jazz singer he plans to marry, someday. (Charlie, full of self-deprecating humor and charisma, gets rather short shrift as a character.) The restaurant manager may also be running a human trafficking ring out of the Imperial, but again, Gabe can’t quite seem to concentrate enough to find out for sure.
Ali has set up enough drama to fuel a Dickens novel, but instead the book is deeply internalized from Gabe’s point of view. While dreaming of cooking French cuisine “with rigor,” he lies to Lena, to Charlie, to his boss, and to himself, and slackly debates the nature of Britishness and the possibility of free will with everyone from his dad to the British minister of Parliament who is putting up part of the money for Gabe’s restaurant.
“What’s interesting, Gabriel, is the way in which the idea of Britishness is or has become essentially about a neutral, value-free identity,” the MP opines glibly. “It’s a nonidentity, if you like. A vacuum.”
Gabe’s dad would agree with that analysis, and it saddens him deeply. Ted, a Yorkshire millworker who believes being British used to mean something, sounds downright prophetic about the current recession, worrying over a nation of tradesmen being turned into a nation of consumers. “ ‘There’s no industry anymore,’ said Ted. ‘We don’t produce anything. You can’t build a pyramid upside down, it’ll fall over, you’ve to get the foundation right.’ ”
Gabe’s foundations clearly are crumbling, and the climax finds him running through the streets of London and ending up in an onion field. “Gabriel stood on the bridge and looked down at the slick black water. The bloated city fizzed all around. He opened his mouth and let out a low moan. He looked up at the sky that seemed to hold not stars but the weak reflected lights of the never-ending earth.... He would pray for himself if he knew how.”
The novel contains many such powerful passages, interspersed with the occasional dead spot. “In the Kitchen” has its flaws, but those are intertwined with Ali’s terrific writing. It’s like an overly ambitious special whose flavors don’t quite jell. You’d come back to the restaurant, but next time, you’d order something else. And it still beats fast food any day
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.