Monica Ali Explores Secrets, Travails 'In The Kitchen' Author Monica Ali spent an entire year poking around "below stairs" in five London Hotel restaurants before she started writing latest novel.
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Monica Ali Explores Secrets, Travails 'In The Kitchen'

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Monica Ali Explores Secrets, Travails 'In The Kitchen'

Monica Ali Explores Secrets, Travails 'In The Kitchen'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

"Hell's Kitchen," the popular TV show hosted by Chef Gordon Ramsay, kicks off its sixth season tonight. That and other shows, such as "Top Chef," fuel a fascination with what goes on in restaurant kitchens. It's a literary genre too. There have been several non-fiction best-sellers on the subject, and now, the first major work of fiction.

It's called, appropriately, "In the Kitchen," and it's by Monica Ali. She's best known for her debut novel "Brick Lane."

From New York, here's Tom Vitale.

TOM VITALE: "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 while building his reputation at the Imperial.

Author Monica Ali says the setting for her third novel was inspired by television:

Ms. MONICA ALI (Author, "In the Kitchen"): We are kind of obsessed with celebrity chefs and commercial kitchens in the U.K., and we get Gordon Ramsay. Has he traveled across the Atlantic "Hell's Kitchen"?

(Soundbite of TV program, "Hell's Kitchen")

Mr. GORDON RAMSAY (Chef): No, no, no, stop. It's not (unintelligible) over because it's (BEEP). Andrea(ph).

Ms. ANDREA: Yes, Chef?

Mr. RAMSAY: You know it is overcooked. We can't serve that. That's not fine dining. That's not even fit for a (BEEP).

Ms. ALI: You see him on the TV, and he's sweating and swearing, and supposedly gritty, and in some ways, it is.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Hell's Kitchen")

Mr. RAMSAY: Get a grip.

Ms. ALI: And I always have the sense that it's still a sanitized, glossy version, and I was intrigued to look below stairs and find out what really goes on.

VITALE: Monica Ali says she spent an entire year poking around below stairs, as she puts it, in five London hotel restaurants before she started writing her book.

Ms. ALI: It's a pretty rigid hierarchy, and one of the things which I'm afraid didn't surprise me was the lower down the pecking order you go, the darker the skin tone gets, and I found that to be universally true in the places that I went into.

VITALE: Ali's 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 the chef, Gabriel, for the first time to consider his staff as individuals. It also leads him to question his own identity and his profession.

Ms. ALI: (Reading) Gabe looks across the empty restaurant, over the pink-tinged table linens, the leather-backed chairs, the silver that glinted here and there in the shreds of autumn sun, a 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.

VITALE: Ali's take on the restaurant business is very British, says Lev Grossman who reviewed "In the Kitchen" for Time magazine. Grossman says the book's vision is the inverse of the one set out by Anthony Bourdain nine years ago in his best-selling memoir "Kitchen Confidential."

Mr. LEV GROSSMAN (Book Reviewer, Time Magazine): The dream of the restaurant kitchen for writers like Anthony Bourdain is very American. 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. Ali's scenes of kitchen is a much sadder place than that.

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.

VITALE: The setting for "In the Kitchen" is different from Ali's last novel, "Alentejo Blue," about the mostly poor residents of a rural Portuguese town, and that book was again different from her 2003 debut, "Brick Lane," about a Bangladeshi woman whose arranged marriage takes her to the immigrant projects of London.

"Brick Lane" was hailed by critics. The novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was adapted for the screen.

(Soundbite of film, "Brick Lane")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) You can spread your soul over a paddy field. You can feel the earth beneath your toes and know that this is the place, the place that it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks?

VITALE: Many assume that "Brick Lane" is autobiographical. It's not. Monica Ali is the daughter of a Bangladeshi father and an English mother. She grew up in a North England mill town and studied economics and politics at university. Her books, she says, reflect those interests: the plight of the poor, class consciousness and the fate of immigrants.

Ms. ALI: 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. I write about what I'm interested in, I guess, in whatever shape and form that takes.

VITALE: The 41-year-old novelist says she's tired of people expecting her to rewrite "Brick Lane."

Ms. ALI: I'm a fiction writer. I mean, the job is to imagine. You do your research, and I do my research until I'm up to my neck in it, and there's a good reason for doing research, which is, you know, to procrastinate, to put off, and there's an even better one, which is that it gives you the courage to make things up, which is what the job is.

VITALE: Monica 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."

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

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