In the Kitchen
Reviewed by Patricia Volk
Arestaurant kitchen is a functional substitute for hell. Flames leap, plates fly—knives and fingers, too. They're also the default place immigrants, legal and otherwise, find work. At London's Imperial Hotel, the setting for Monica Ali's In the Kitchen , nobody speaks the same language and everybody is underpaid. Ali, acclaimed author of Brick Lane , nails the killer heat, killer fights and lethal grease buildup, all of it supervised by a “simmering culinary Heathcliff,” Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef.
Lightfoot dropped out of school at 16 to begin paying his kitchen dues, working crazy hours with crazy people while studying food chemistry and Brillat-Savarin. Along the way, he picked up scarred hands and a ravaged psyche. At 24, given his own restaurant, it went straight up his nose. Now, almost 20 years later, two wealthy Londoners have agreed to back Gabriel in a new restaurant, Lightfoot's, where he'll serve “Classic French, precisely executed. Rognons de veau dijonnaise, poussin en cocotte Bonne Femme, tripes à la mode de Caen.” In postmodern balsamic-drenched London, Gabriel is confident traditional French is poised for a comeback.
Then the naked corpse of a Ukrainian night porter is discovered in the Imperial's basement, his head in a pool of blood. There is no one to claim the body. The ripple-free effect of a human death unhinges Gabriel. He develops a voluptuous need to self-sabotage. Visual manifestations include a Dr. Strangelove arm tic, shaking limbs and violent bald-spot scratching. Gabriel cheats on his fiancée and lies to his lover. The story is told in the third person, but through Gabriel's point of view. Intimacy juggles distance: “After a certain point, he could not stop himself. His desire was a foul creature that climbed on his back and wrapped its long arms around his neck.”
Ali is brilliant at showing loss and adaptation in a polyglot culture. Her descriptions of the changing peoplescape are fresh. But inside Gabriel's head is not the most compelling place to be. A tragic nonhero, he thinks with his “one-eyed implacable foe.” It does not help that a recurring dream crumbles him, and since Gabriel doesn't understand the dream, neither does the reader. It assumes an unsustainable importance. You can play Freud or you can turn the page.
Ali is not plot-averse: she provides a mysterious death, a hotel sex-trade scam, a slave-labor scheme, missing money and a dying parent. Yet Lightfoot is a character in search of a motive. It's a tribute to Ali that we care. Here is a true bastard, ravaged and out of control. In the Kitchen has the thud and knock of life—inexplicable, impenetrable, not sewn up at all. As Gabriel's lover is fond of saying: “Tchh.” (June)
Patricia Volk is the author, most recently, of the memoir Stuffed and the novel To My Dearest Friends(both from Knopf).
Release date: 06/01/2009