What hath Anthony Bourdain wrought? In the wake of all the imitators it spawned, it can be hard to remember just how bracing Kitchen Confidential was when it was published back in 2000. There had always been famous cooks — Julia Child, Graham Kerr — but Bourdain somehow managed to simultaneously deglamorize the kitchen and make it sexy and dangerous. From Top Chef to Hell’s Kitchen to Ratatouille, the not-so-humble chef (mostly bad-tempered, mostly male) has emerged as a cultural icon. Names like Keller, Robuchon, Senderens, and Achtaz, once known only to the cognoscenti, are now common currency, and even the layman can tell a sous-chef from a saucier.
One of the kitchen’s dirty secrets that Bourdain was intent on exposing was how much of the unseen labor necessary for preparing fine food was done by people of color, often underpaid, often illegal. It’s a setting that would have held obvious attractions for Monica Ali. In her two prior novels, the superb Booker-nominated Brick Lane and the less sure-footed Alejento Blue, Ali has been a messenger of multiculturalism, drawing back the veil on the subtleties of life in an increasingly diverse world with elegance and empathy. And, indeed, her new novel, In the Kitchen, is at its very best in its deft handling of a large and ethnically varied cast, as she guides them through the “part prison, part lunatic asylum, part community hall” that is the kitchen of London’s Imperial Hotel.
When we meet Gabriel Lightfoot, the 42-year-old chef is planning his escape from the Imperial, to an eponymous restaurant that will feature “Classic French food executed with the kind of rigor he would bring to bear.” That Gabe is rigorously incapable of rigor — he hasn’t gotten around to proposing to Charlie, his longtime girlfriend, or firing Oona, his irritating sous-chef — is one of Ali’s sly conceits, and this bit of cognitive dissonance will eventually lead him to a full-blown breakdown, a harrowing and memorable sequence that takes him from the streets of London to the onion fields of the countryside, and contains some of Ali’s finest writing to date.
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, which seemed to hold not stars but the weak reflected lights of the never-ending earth. If Oona were here, she would pray for him. He would pray for himself if he knew how.
The wheels begin to come off the wagon when a night porter, a Ukrainian immigrant named Yuri, is found dead, and Gabriel is haunted by nightmares of his corpse. Ali handles the nightmares with considerable skill, rendering them vivid and free of contrivance, not always the case with literary dreams. But Gabe has more corporeal problems — his father is dying from cancer, his investors are jittery, there’s an inquest into Yuri’s death, and some seriously shady dealings appear to be taking place within the halls of the Imperial. But these all pale against the dilemma of Lena, a surly waif with some mysterious connection to Yuri. Gabe takes Lena in, and his destructive descent into erotic obsession begins.
Readers of Ali’s prior novels will be unsurprised to learn there is much lovely writing throughout In the Kitchen. Ali is adept at the surgical depiction of minor characters — as when one of Gabe’s investors is described as looking “like a children’s entertainer, down on his luck after a false accusation.” This makes the overwriting that persists all the more disappointing. Rather than selecting the telling detail (or two), scene after scene is set with a surplus of writerly plumage:
They hatched from the cinema at Marble Arch, rubbing their arms and stretching their necks, shaking off the shell of wakeful slumber that had encased them during the film. They drifted north, arm in arm, along Edgeware Road. The light was dying. Neon signs flickered into life, Beirut, Al-Ahram, Al-Dar, Café du Liban. Office workers began the route march home. The matinee was over, and the evening show yet to begin.
The lovely image of just-hatched moveigoers is deflated by an example of the too-frequent lists that overstuff this book. In a similar vein, Ali can, in her devotion to detail, deploy page after page of arcana about (to cite just one example) fabric weaving, which is impressive but so technical that it illuminates little more than the author’s capacity for absorbing obscure information. When every virtuoso detail is made important, nothing can be, and few sustain in memory. There’s richness to be enjoyed for sure, but like a steady diet of foie gras, it becomes too filling over the novel’s 448 pages.
Worse, however, is Ali’s tendency to allow the narrative to collapse in pedantic dialogues — there are more than a half-dozen exchanges between a variety of characters on how Britain is not what it was, each blaming someone else. These are reminiscent of Spike Lee’s famous montage on racism in Do the Right Thing, and not much more subtle (though less entertaining). They are also unnecessary because Ali effectively dramatizes these complaints throughout her novel. No doubt too many people really do talk in such clichés, in thrall to their prejudices, and perhaps rendering such banality is part of Ali’s commitment to verisimilitude — but each time she turns to them, the narrative deflates like a trainee’s soufflé.
“The significance of Yuri’s death,” according to Nikolai, a member of Gabe’s kitchen and resident philosopher/shrink, “is that it is insignificant. That is why it is so troubling. That is why you dream.” And that is why Ali writes, determined to rescue these shades from obscurity, and the heart of In the Kitchen is a sustained challenge to our received notions about labor — how it is coerced, rewarded, deployed, and how we lull ourselves into inaction with notions that the problem is intractable. And so, every individual tragedy becomes insignificant, and the Monica Alis, who take us into their kitchens, their farms, their factories, become ever more essential, their stories worth attending regardless of any dramatic trespasses.