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.
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.
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.
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.