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Monica Ali, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, has written a follow-up to Brick Lane that further establishes her as one of England’s most compelling and original voices.
Gabriel Lightfoot, an enterprising man from a northern English mill town, is making good in London. As executive chef at the once-splendid Imperial Hotel, he aims to run a tight kitchen. Though he’s under constant challenge from the ...
Monica Ali, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, has written a follow-up to Brick Lane that further establishes her as one of England’s most compelling and original voices.
Gabriel Lightfoot, an enterprising man from a northern English mill town, is making good in London. As executive chef at the once-splendid Imperial Hotel, he aims to run a tight kitchen. Though he’s under constant challenge from the competing demands of an exuberantly multinational staff, a gimlet-eyed hotel management, and business partners with whom he is secretly planning a move to a restaurant of his own, all Gabe’s hard work looks set to pay off.
Until, that is, a worker is found dead in the kitchen’s basement. It is a small death, a lonely death—but it is enough to disturb the tenuous balance of Gabe’s life.
Enter Lena, an eerily attractive young woman with mysterious ties to the dead man. Under her spell, Gabe makes a decision, the consequences of which strip him naked and change the course of the life he knows—and the future he thought he wanted.
With prose that "crackles with verve and vivacity" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and "a truly Dickensian cast of characters" (The Buffalo News), Ali’s "portrait of a middle-aged Holden Caulfield wandering the streets" (The Plain Dealer) is a sheer pleasure to read.
Reviewed byPatricia 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 istold 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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the immigrant world of East End London in Brick Lane, shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, Ali moves into the culinary world of a once posh London hotel restaurant, again capturing the multicultural layers of modern London. Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef for the Imperial Hotel, dreams of owning his own restaurant but must first contend with the UN task force that is his kitchen crew. His life becomes even more complicated when the body of a Hungarian porter is found dead in a storeroom. Still, restaurant troubles are nothing when compared with his personal life. His girlfriend is pressuring him about marriage, unaware that he's sleeping with a Russian kitchen girl, and his ever-difficult father is dying of cancer. Gabe's two stories entwine, the pressure mounts, and, finally, he loses his bearings. With sometimes sly humor, Ali deftly sheds light on the irony of struggling in a land with abundant opportunities. For all fiction readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/09.]
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, 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. --Mark Sarvas
Mark Sarvas' debut novel, Harry, Revised, has been sold in a dozen countries around the world. He is host of the literary blog The Elegant Variation and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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 the icy 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.
The chefs de partie, Benny, Suleiman, and Victor, lined up against the worktop with their arms folded across their chests, as if staging a wildcat strike. Beyond them, Ivan was still working, cooking off lamb shanks that would later be braised. Ivan was the grill man. His station, at the front of the kitchen, close to the pass, encompassed a huge salamander, a triple-burner char grill, four-ring hob, and double griddle. He kept them at full blaze. Around his forehead he wore a bandanna that soaked up some — though by no means all — of the sweat. He took pride in the amount of blood he managed to wipe from his fingers onto his apron. He worked split shifts, lunch and dinner six days a week, and apart from the crew who came in at five in the morning to grill sausages and fry eggs for the buffet breakfast, no one was allowed to venture into Ivan's domain. Gabriel liked to rotate his chefs between the sections, Benny on cold starters and desserts one month, Suleiman the next, but Ivan was implacable. "Nobody else knowing about steaks like me, Chef. Don't put me chopping rabbit leaves." He had a cauliflower ear, sharp Slavic cheekbones, and an even sharper accent, the consonants jangling together like loose change. Gabe had decided straightaway to move him but he had not done it yet.
Filling suddenly with impatience, Gabe walked toward the basement door. He slowed and finally halted by the chill cabinet of soft drinks and dairy desserts. If Yuri wasn't really dead, then the deputy manager would be giving first aid and questioning him closely, doing all the things that Gabriel should have done, before going upstairs to report to Mr. Maddox about all the things that Gabriel had failed to do. Gabe was aghast at the enormity of his managerial lapse. He was here not because he wanted to be but only to prove himself. Show us, said the would-be backers for his own restaurant, manage a kitchen on that scale, and we'll put up the money; work there for a year and turn that place around. They'd get word, of course. Everyone in this whole stinking business would know. And what would he say to Mr. Maddox? How would he explain? To report, say, a side of salmon as missing, suspected stolen, only to have it turn up in the wrong storeroom, that would be bad enough, but to report the death of an employee and to have the employee turn up alive, if not exactly well, that was ineptitude of an altogether different order. Damn that Benny and his idiotic certainty. What made him an expert on death? Gabe touched the crown of his head where a little wormhole of baldness had recently appeared. Damn that Yuri as well. He leaned against the chill cabinet, grimacing and swallowing, as if worry were something that had to be kept low down, somewhere in the intestinal tract.
When the deputy manager came through the door, Gabe scanned him quickly for signs. Mr. James's fingers trembled as he punched numbers into his mobile phone, and his face was unnaturally white, as if he too had bled out on the concrete floor. Thank God, thought Gabriel, preparing to act with authority. He tried to feel sorry for cursing Yuri but all he could feel was relief.
The ambulance and two policemen, a local foot patrol, arrived simultaneously. The paramedics pronounced the porter dead, but for a while all else was confusion. The foot patrol radioed a sergeant, who in turn called in the Homicide Assessment Team. By the time Maddox got in from his meeting, there were half a dozen coppers in his kitchen.
"What the hell is going on?" he said, as if he held Gabriel personally responsible.
"Get that back door locked," said the sergeant. "The fire exit, too. I've just found someone trying to slip off."
One of the plainclothes guys — Gabriel had quickly lost track of who was who — rapped a work surface with a slotted spoon. "Everyone needs to stay put. We'll be talking to you all individually. And I'm not interested in your papers. I'm not here for that."
Mr. James did his best to look authoritative, drawing himself up to full height. "Every one of our employees has a national insurance number. I can vouch for it personally. That is a fact."
The policeman ignored him. "How you got here is no concern of mine. We're here to do a job. Those of you worrying about your papers can stop right now. Because we are not worried about you. Clear? We just want to know what you know. Everyone clear on that?"
"What the bloody hell is going on?" said Maddox.
There was no chatter in the kitchen now, only a row of watchful faces. One of the policemen emerged from the basement and asked Maddox and Gabriel to step into Gabe's office. "Parks," he said. "I'm the senior investigating officer on this case."
"Case?" said Maddox. "What case?"
Parks smiled thinly. "Duty officer — that's the sergeant there — didn't like the look of it. Soon as someone calls it sus, you're dealing with a crime scene, incident log's up and running."
"Did he fall, or was he pushed?" said Maddox, simmering. "Do me a favor."
"Matter of fact," said Parks, "I agree with you. Looks like your chap fell. Tell you what's caused the confusion. There's castoff on the floor and a spot on the wall as well."
"Meaning?" said Gabe.
Parks yawned. "Apart from the blood pooled by the head, there's some splashes around the place — like you might get if someone had been hit on the back of the head, for instance."
"You're not saying — " began Maddox.
"I'm not. The CSM's taken a sample. Crime scene manager. We do like our acronyms."
"And the splashes?" said Gabe.
"Bit of a boozer, was he? Few empties down there. Probably what's happened is he slipped over, cut his head, got up and staggered around a bit, then fell back down. I don't blame the duty officer for calling it, but when I can get a BPA expert down there — should be someone on his way now..." He checked his watch. "Blood pattern analysis. When I get my BPA guy down there, hundred to one that's what he'll say."
"So all this is a formality," said Maddox.
"No sign of robbery or anything like that. His things don't seem to have been disturbed. Of course, we'll be thorough. Once you set the ball rolling, you see, you've got to work it through to the end."
"Can we open again tomorrow?" said Maddox.
The detective stuck his hands in his pants pockets. He looked, Gabriel thought, somehow disappointing in his brown chinos and oatmeal sport jacket. "Don't see why not," said Parks. "Should have the body out of there soon. The CSM's got to bag the head and hands, and then it can go for the postmortem. That area will stay cordoned off for the time being."
"The postmortem's the end of it?" said the general manager.
"The coroner will give his initial findings — injuries consistent with a fall, that kind of thing, open an inquest, and adjourn it awaiting the final police report."
"And the postmortem results you get back when?"
"Unless the BPA throws up any surprises, it won't go through on a rush job. We can get it done in forty-eight hours if there's cause; otherwise, it's more like five or six days. Ah, looks like my blood man's arrived. I take it you've called environmental health?"
"Oh, yes," said Mr. Maddox grimly. "We've called in the council. We've called in health and safety. We've not called in the navy yet, but we've called everyone else."
Copyright © 2009 by Monica Ali
This reading group guide for In the Kitchen includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Monica Ali. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Amid the fading glory of the Imperial Hotel, embattled Executive Chef Gabriel Lightfoot tries to maintain his culinary integrity in the hotel's restaurant, while managing an unruly but talented group of immigrant cooks. He must please the management of the hotel, recently purchased by an international conglomerate.
When the dead body of a Ukrainian porter is discovered in the restaurant cellar, the tenuous balance in Gabe's life begins to slip. Adding to his stress, Gabe's plan to open his own restaurant with two wealthy investors is hitting a critical stage, his father is diagnosed with cancer, and his girlfriend starts talking about a new level in their relationship. Meanwhile, Gabe convinces himself that Gleeson, the restaurant's shifty floor manager, is using hotel property to conduct some sort of nefarious business.
With all this on his mind, Gabe encounters a young immigrant named Lena, a girl mysteriously tied to the death of the porter, and he makes a decision, the consequences of which irrevocably change the course of the life he knows — and the future he thought he wanted.
Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the title of this novel. Is the kitchen the most significant setting in this novel? Why do you think the author chose "In the Kitchen"? With the group, brainstorm other title possibilities.
2. Gabe believes that his girlfriend Charlie is his perfect mate and envisions a happy, married life with her. What, then, accounts for his relationship with Lena? What attracts Gabe to Lena? Does he ever truly love her? On some subconscious level, do you think his actions were an attempt to sabotage his future with Charlie?
3. Gabe is haunted by a reoccurring nightmare of discovering Yuri's body in the catacombs and he is plagued by his inability to interpret the meaning. Is he ever able to decipher these visions? How would you explain the various settings and symbols that haunt him?
4. Gabe and Nikolai debate the existence of free will. Gabe argues that "How we behave is up to us," but Nikolai believes that everything is predetermined by one's particular circumstances (galley page 293). With whom do you agree?
5. Gabe can't seem to remember or define what changed his relationship with his father when he was a boy. By the end of the book, does Gabe know? Does their relationship transform over the course of the novel? In what way?
6. Discuss Gabe's relationship with his sister Jenny. In what ways does she act a foil to his character? What qualities do the two characters share?
7. What does Fairweather reveal to Gabe about the state of the economy, politics, and social class and race in England? How do their views differ? How have Gabe's experiences in various kitchens, working with people representing a vast array of different cultural backgrounds, shaped his opinions and values?
8. Both Jenny and Charlie tell Gabe that he is selfish. Do you agree? Why is it so important to Gabe to discover how other people view him? What motivates Gabe to give Lena his money?
9. What are the major turning points in Gabe's ultimate downfall? Why was Yuri's death the catalyst for Gabe's personal unraveling? Considering his mother's bipolar disorder, do you think his breakdown is at all symptomatic of a neurological issue? Is Gabe's collapse a result of his upbringing, his personality, or events beyond his control?
10. By the novel's conclusion, do you think that Gabe has recovered from his anxieties and self-destructive tendencies? What impact did his father's death make? What role did Jenny play in Gabe's recovery? If the story were to continue, what do you think would happen between Gabe and Charlie?
Enhance Your Book Club
Gabe wants his own restaurant to feature classic yet simple French fare. Choose one or a few of the recipes that he mentions and prepare the food for your meeting. For help with the recipes, visit: http://www.letscookfrench.com/selections/sel_classique.cfm
If you were to open your own restaurant, what type of cuisine would you serve? Share your fantasy plans - including the menu, the name of the restaurant, the location, the décor, and the type of clientele you would hope to have - with the group.
Read Monica Ali's previous works, Brick Lane and Alentejo Blue. How are they different from In the Kitchen? In what ways are they similar?
A Conversation with Monica Ali
1. In the Kitchen vividly thrusts the reader into the sweaty, frenetic, almost pirate-ship-like world of the kitchen in a major urban restaurant. Did you rely upon any first-hand experience to bring the kitchen scenes to life?
I spent a year researching the novel and several years before that thinking about it and reading around it. Part of my year of intensive research was in the north of England where sections of the novel are set but most of it was in London where I spent time in restaurant kitchens and in five big hotels, always on the understanding that I would never identify them. That gave me great access and once I had entered the world of hotels I knew that a hotel would be my main setting. Hotels are like microcosms of society. You get everything from the penthouse suite at the top to the porter in the basement compacting rubbish. But it was always the kitchens that I was particularly drawn to. Those places are like UN assemblies. You get every different nationality down there, so they are a very rich source of diverse stories.
2. What inspired you to write about the life of a chef?
In the UK, and perhaps in the USA as well, we've become quite obsessed with chefs. And even though we see the likes of Gordon Ramsay on the television, ranting and swearing, I still felt that what we get is quite a glossy, sanitized version. I guess I wanted to look behind the scenes at what really goes on below stairs, and to ask questions about what it is that lies behind our 'food porn' culture. Kitchens, which are high pressure environments, are also great stages for dramatic confrontations!
3. There are several instances throughout the novel when Gabe is compared to an angel. Lena points out that his name - Gabriel - has angelic meaning and Jenny teases him about sprouting angel wings after he has made a particularly thoughtful gesture. Is Gabe a fallen angel? What are your feelings towards your protagonist?
Gabe struggles constantly with himself, and battles - as we all do on occasion - to understand why he acts the way he does, which is sometimes against his better judgment. Although he fails himself (and falls) in many ways, he makes an emotional journey through the course of the novel. At the core of this journey are faith, hope and love. In the beginning he lacks faith in anyone or anything, including himself, but he finds ultimately a faith in humanity. Despite being pushed to the edge of despair, through a process of taking responsibility and engagement with those around him he is left with a sense of hope. And by being forced to reevaluate what is truly important, he comes to consider what love, particularly in the context of family and relationships, really means.
4. How do you develop your main characters and which characters in In the Kitchen did you particularly enjoy writing about?
With Gabriel, I had an idea that I wanted to write about a man who is adrift in a modern, metropolitan, multicultural society. At first he feels he is able to navigate that environment easily, and that having no real community, no long-standing work commitments, only very loose family ties, and a limitless sense of alternative perspectives due to the many cultures by which he is surrounded, is no big deal. But as the pressures pile on him, he comes to question everything in his life, and the stories he has told about himself and to himself. At that stage he feels he is looking into something of a void.
The characters start as whispers inside my head. When the voices get loud enough, it's time to begin the writing. I enjoyed writing the variety of characters in this novel, from the slippery restaurant manager, Gleeson, to the somewhat bullying general manager, Maddox. Gabe's sous chef, Oona, was particularly fun to write as their miscommunications gave ample scope for comedy .
5. Gabe and his father discuss the British identity, arguing about Great Britain's global significance and what it means to be Brit and how that status is defined. As a Londoner, what cultural changes have you observed in the country and what impact have they made?
London, as with many big cities in the West, has changed rapidly in recent times as the result of new migrations. One of the things I wanted to explore in this book, is the way in which although other people's stories can be enriching, they can also be exhausting and overwhelming. Gabriel, at the beginning of the book, doesn't really want to know about the backgrounds of his staff. He is too busy grappling with his own story, his life history and family secrets, and making sense of that. It is the death of the porter which, although it is a small part of the book in one way, is pivotal in changing this. It comes to haunt Gabriel and opens him up to seeing his other staff as individuals and to issues about society and responsibility.
There is too a debate running through the novel about British identity. Our politicians keep banging on about our 'core values.' When that happens, you begin to suspect that those values have perhaps been lost somewhere along the way.
6. Gabe's downward spiral ultimately leads him to an onion farm outside London that operates as an illegal, exploitive labor camp. Do businesses like this actually exist? Is the onion farm experience in In the Kitchen based on true events?
Yes, I did my research. All of those exploitative practices happen. The ejection of the Afghans from the farm was directly based on a newspaper report. I also know that the UK is far from being the only country in which migrant workers are exploited.
7. You explore many social issues in this novel, including the immigrant experience. Are these issues the driving force behind your writing?
No, I don't think so. Character is always my driving force. And to tell a good story and to provide an entertaining read. Although I think the book raises some tough questions about our modern existence and society - old values versus new freedoms, for example - the novels that I love are the ones which find the light within the dark, and the comedy in the tragedy. And of course one sets out to write the book one wants to read!
8. Your first novel, Brick Lane, was recently adapted into a movie. Can you describe that process? How did you feel when you saw your story rendered in film?
I decided not to interfere in the film process. My feeling was that I should either write the script myself or stay out of the way, and since I already had another project on the go I stepped out. When it came to seeing the rough cut I was very nervous but happily the director had done a great job. The casting seemed to me to be spot on, and although film necessarily has to leave things out the movie captures the spirit of the novel.
9. Alentejo Blue, your second novel, is set in a Portuguese village. Why did you decide to make such a departure from your first book?
I spend a lot of time in Portugal and it wasn't really a question of deciding. I just had all these characters and stories in my head. Although I have, on the surface, written three very different books, I guess at one level they have quite a lot in common. A sense of place, for instance, has been important in my work so far. Also, questions of home, displacement, cultural intersections and life on the margins. I don't feel that I set out to write about these things but they seem to come out in any case.
Posted May 17, 2009
Set in London, this book is about Chef Gabe Lightfoot, and his very stressful life. Plagued with girlfriend troubles (all his own fault), work troubles, and family issues, his life is spiraling out of control. On top of it all, he makes some startling discoveries about his childhood, and himself.
I was really torn on this book whether to give it three stars or four. I ended up going with the four stars since the writing is so good. The plot itself, while interesting, got a little too contrived for me with the political and philosophical discussions of a few of the characters. At times I felt as if the author was using the book as her own personal agenda, rather than just letting the story unfold.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 26, 2011
Posted June 18, 2010
Gabriel Lightfoot is a 42-year-old executive chef putting in his time trying to revive the less than stellar restaurant at the Imperial Hotel in London, while waiting for the financing to finally make his dream of opening his own restaurant come true. The book begins with an interesting premise, but the more I learned about Gabriel's life both in and out of the kitchen, the less I cared what happened to him. His life seems "not quite good enough' in all aspects...and then the body of one of his kitchen staff is discovered - an accidental death or not? Just when it should have become more interesting, it got bogged down. Reminiscent of a meal that wasn't good enough to even finish."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 14, 2010
There were some good parts to this story. I did not care much for the descriptions of cooking science and weaving. The author must have felt compelled to keep that in the book after doing the research. The most interesting were the host of immigrants working in the kitchen, and the peripheral issues of human trafficking and virtual slavery.
It is really hard to fathom the relationship between Gabriel and Lena. Why is he so fascinated with her, and why does he believe that there is a possibility that she could possibly be interested in him romantically. I thought the lack of any description of their sex acts beyond the very early foreplay by Gabriel made it impossible to understand this attraction by Gabriel. If the author would have described their interplay during sex, it would have given this aspect of the book much more substance.
I did not much care for the end of the book, the last 70 pages or so. It seemed like there had been not enough earlier that would have predicted it. It should have been a more gradual process to lead to that behavior from the main character.
Posted May 8, 2010
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I really hated this book. I did not like the characters or the writing or the plot. Neither the main character nor the peripheral ones were interesting. And I wanted to throw myself on a loom with all the weaving description.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 24, 2009
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Undoubtedly realistic novel set in the kitchen of an upscale dining establishment in today's London. The characters are classic--no doubt their types can be found in any number of commercial kitchens in any major city of any western country. This felt as real to me as some of the chef memoirs of recent years and as funny. I liked the book even better than her breakout success Brick Lane. Author Ali has enormous talents and deserves great success.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2009
In "Brick Lane", Monica Ali showed great promise of a talented writer with formidable narrative skill. The novel was short-listed for the Booker prize. In her new novel "In the Kitchen", her second novel and third book ("Alentejo Blue", a collection of stories, was her second book), Monica Ali has proven that she is quite capable of writing a follow up worthy of praise.
The novel starts rather slowly, but the pace gains speed and the narration gains momentum, as the novel progresses. The second half of the novel is extraordinary, with many bewitching passages, and here the reader gets glimpses of an astonishing and magical writer.
This book could be considered as three stories weaved into a lively novel, or three strands of a story braided as if to create a lovely plait. Gabriel Lightfoot, the protagonist, is executive chef at London's Imperial Hotel. The first story is Gabriel's relationship with his long time girlfriend, Charlie, an attractive, red-haired singer at a club. The second story is Gabriel's affair and fascination with a beautiful and rather mysterious woman from Belarus, an escaped sex slave named Lena. The third story is Gabriel's relationship with his father, who has been diagnosed with cancer. And all three stories revolve around the central incident of the novel: a porter - an illegal immigrant from Ukraine, is found murdered in the basement of the Imperial Hotel.
Through realistic descriptions of a busy kitchen of a fancy restaurant, and uncontrived, smooth flowing dialogues, vivid descriptions, gripping passages, and the magic of her pen, Monica Ali has created an absorbing and entertaining novel. And I think "In the Kitchen" will enhance her reputation as one of the important English writers, and a master of English prose.
Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ
Posted January 4, 2010
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Posted December 21, 2009
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Posted July 15, 2011
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Posted March 11, 2010
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Posted June 21, 2009
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