The success of reality TV shows like Top Chef and nonfiction best-sellers like Bill Buford's Heat leave no doubt that audiences are hungry for stories about the culinary arts. Now, with Monica Ali's In the Kitchen, major literary fiction gets into the act, taking readers behind the swinging doors of an upscale restaurant kitchen.
Ali says the setting for her third novel was inspired by television: "We're kind of obsessed with celebrity chefs and commercial kitchens in the U.K. ... I was intrigued to look below stairs and to find out what really goes on."
Ali spent an entire year poking around "below stairs" in five London hotel restaurants before she started writing her book. What she discovered was a fairly rigid, hierarchical environment that was stratified by race.
"The lower down the pecking order you go [in the kitchen], the darker the skin tone gets. And I found that to be universally true in the places that I went into," she says.
In the Kitchen is the story of Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42-year-old executive chef at London's Imperial Hotel who aspires to open his own restaurant.
The novel is set in motion with the death of a Ukrainian porter who's been living in the basement of the restaurant to save money. The incident forces Gabriel to consider his staff as individuals for the first time. It also leads him to question his own identity — and his profession. In one scene, Gabriel looks across the empty restaurant at the polished oak bar, noting that it was "too dark and infected with loneliness to look at for very long."
Lev Grossman, who reviewed In the Kitchen for Time magazine, says that Ali's take on the restaurant business is very British — and very different from the view that author Anthony Bourdain presented in his best-selling 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential.
"The dream of the restaurant kitchen for writers like Anthony Bourdain is very American," says Grossman. "It's a place where you come, you leave your old woes and your history behind, and you enter into this wonderful meritocracy where you can make good if you're a good cook."
But Ali's kitchen is a much sadder place.
"People fight there. They're from Liberia, they're from the Ukraine, and they don't leave that behind. Their conflicts live for them in the kitchen," says Grossman.
The setting for In the Kitchen is different from Ali's previous novels, Alentejo Blue and Brick Lane, which focused, respectively, on the mostly poor residents of a rural Portuguese town and a Bangladeshi woman whose arranged marriage takes her to the immigrant projects of London.
But even though her books are set in different places, Ali says that her fiction tends to reflect the plight of the poor, class consciousness and the fate of immigrants:
"Issues of who belongs and who doesn't belong; modernity versus traditional values; displacement, as well; cultural intersections. ... All of those things I guess will keep on running through my work in one form or another."
Ali says she's working on her fourth novel now, which she won't describe except to say it's nothing like her latest book.
In The Kitchen By Monica Ali Hardcover, 448 pages Scribner List Price: $26.99
When he looked back, he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart. He could not say that it was the cause, could not say, even, that it was a cause, because the events that followed seemed to be both inevitable and entirely random, and although he could piece together a narrative sequence and take a kind of comfort in that, he had changed sufficiently by then to realize that it was only a story he could tell, and that stories were not, on the whole, to be trusted. Nevertheless, he fixed the beginning at the day of the Ukrainian's death, when it was the following day on which, if a life can be said to have a turning point, his own began to spin.
On that morning in late October, Gleeson, the restaurant manager, sat down with Gabriel for their regular meeting. He had mislaid, so it seemed, his oily professional charm.
"You do realize it's on your patch," said Gleeson. "You realize that, yes?"
It was the first time that Gabe had seen him slip out of character. And the night porter certainly was on Gabe's "patch." What, in that case, was worrying Gleeson? In this business, until you could see all the angles, it was better to keep your mouth shut. Gabe tapped the neck of the crystal vase that sat on the table between them. "Plastic flowers," he said, "are for Happy Eaters and funeral parlors."
Gleeson scratched his scalp and fleetingly examined his fingernails. "Yes or no, Chef? Yes or no?" His eyes were pale blue and disreputably alert. His hair, by contrast, he wore with a sharp side part and a fervid rectitude, as if all his phony honor depended on it.
Gabe looked across the empty restaurant, over the pink-tinged table linens and leather-backed chairs, the silver that glinted here and there in the shreds of autumn sun, the chandelier, ugly as a bejeweled dowager, the polished oak bar that, without a single elbow propped on it, was too dark and infected with loneliness to look at for very long. In the circumstances, he decided, it was unwise to concede anything at all. "The food and beverage meeting, three months ago, at least. You agreed, no more plastic flowers."
"They're silk," said Gleeson smartly. "Silk, please. I have never had plastic in my restaurant."
"Now that I think about it," said Gabe, "there were some other things . . ."
"Chef." Gleeson laced his fingers together. "You are a straight talker. I am a straight talker. Let's not beat around the bush." He tilted his head and sieved the words through a smile. It was how he greeted diners, gliding in with hands clasped and head cocked. "A dead body on the premises. This is hardly the time to be discussing pepper pots." His tone was both ingratiating and contemptuous, the one reserved for the pretheater crowd, tourists, and anyone — easily identified by the way they kept looking around — who had been saving up.
"For God's sake, Stanley. They took him away."
"Really?" said Gleeson. "Really? They took him away? Well. That settles everything. How stupid of me to waste your time." He got up. "I'm telling you, Chef . . . listen . . ." He stared at Gabe and then shook his head. "Shit." He adjusted his cuff links and stalked off, muttering, quivering like a cat's tail.
Gabe went back to his office and pulled out the banqueting file. He shuffled the papers and found the sheet he wanted. Sirovsky Product Launch. Under the "Menu" heading, Oona had written "Canapés: spring rolls, smoked salmon, quiche squares, guacamole, vol-au-vents (prawn), mini-choc mousses." Her handwriting was maddeningly childish. To look at it made you think of her sucking the end of her pencil. He put a thick black line through the list. He checked the per-head budget, staff resource, and comments sections. "Let's put out all the flags on this one." Mr. Maddox was taking a special interest. Put out all the flags. What did that mean? Caviar and truffle oil? Stuff the profit and loss? Gabe sighed. Whatever it meant, it wasn't quiche squares and prawn vol-au-vents.
The office was a white stud-walled cubicle in the corner of the kitchen, with a surfeit of air-conditioning ducts and a window over the battlefield. Apart from Gabe's desk and chair, the filing cabinet, and a stand for the printer, there was room for one other plastic seat squeezed in between desk and door. Sometimes, if he was busy completing order forms or logging time sheets, Gabe let his phone ring until it beeped and played the message. You have reached the office of Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef of the Imperial Hotel, London. Please leave your name and number after the tone, and he will call you back as soon as possible. To listen to it you'd think the office was something else, that he was someone else, altogether.
Looking up, he saw Suleiman working steadily at his mise-en-place, chopping shallots and, with a clean sweep of the broad knife blade, loading them into a plastic box. Victor came around from the larder section carrying a baguette. He stood behind Suleiman, clamped the bread between his thighs, and holding on to Suleiman's shoulders, aimed the baguette at his buttocks. In every kitchen there had to be one. There had to be a clown. Suleiman put down his knife. He grabbed the baguette and tried to stuff it down Victor's throat.
Even yesterday, after Benny had gone down to the catacombs to look for rat poison and returned with the news; after Gabe had seen Yuri for himself, after the police had arrived, after Mr. Maddox had come down personally to announce that the restaurant would be closed and to speak to everyone about their responsibilities for the day; even after all that, Victor had to be the clown. He sidled up to Gabe, smiling and winking, a red flush to his schoolboy cheeks, as if a death were a small and welcome distraction like catching an eyeful of cleavage or the flash of a stocking top. "So, he was naked, old Yuri." Victor tittered and then made the sign of the cross. "I think he was waiting for his girlfriend. You think so, Chef, eh, do you think?"
Naturally, the first thing Gabe had done was call the general manager, but he got through to Maddox's deputy instead. Mr. James insisted on seeing for himself, arriving with a clipboard shielding his chest. He disappeared into the basement, and Gabe thought, this could go on forever. How many sightings of a dead body were required before it became an established fact? No one said it was the Loch Ness Monster down there. He smiled to himself. The next moment he was swept by a watery surge of panic. What if Yuri was not dead? Benny had told him with a calm and unquestionable certainty that Yuri was dead. But what if he was still alive? There was a pool of blood around his head, and he didn't look like a living thing because his legs, his chest, were blue, but who wouldn't be cold, stretched out naked and bleeding on theicy catacomb floor? Gabe should have checked for a pulse, he should have put something soft beneath Yuri's head, at the very least, he should have called for an ambulance. I should have sent you a doctor, Yuri, not Mr. James with his bloody Montblanc fountain pen and his executive leather pad.
The deputy manager was taking his time. Gabe stood in the kitchen with his chefs. The trainees, gathered around an open dustbin brimming with peelings, chewed their tongues or scratched their noses or pimples. Damian, the youngest, a straggly seventeen, trailed his hand in the bin as though contemplating diving in and hiding his sorry carcass under the rotting mound. Stand up straight, thought Gabriel. At another time he might have said it out loud. It occurred to him that Damian was the only other English person who worked in the kitchen. Don't let the side down, lad. It was a ridiculous thought. The kind of thing his father might say. Gabriel looked at Damian until Damian could not help looking back. Gabe smiled and nodded, as though to provide some kind of stiffening for those rubbery seventeen-year-old bones. The boy began flapping his hand inside the bin, and the tic in his right eye started up. Jesus Christ, thought Gabe, and walked around to the sauce section to get the boy out of his sight.
Excerpted from In the Kitchen: A Novel, by Monica Ali. Copyright 2009 by Monica Ali. Reprinted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.