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)
Patricia Volk is the author, most recently, of the memoirStuffed and the novelTo My Dearest Friends(both from Knopf).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.]
The turbulent, multicultural London backdrop is the same, but the dutiful Muslim wife in transition, who drove the action of Ali's brilliant debut (Brick Lane, 2003, etc.), has been replaced by a very different kind of protagonist: a talented chef in midlife crisis. The future looks rosy for 42-year-old Gabriel Lightfoot. He has turned around a failing restaurant in an old London hotel and secured financial backing to open his own establishment, a lifelong dream. Marriage is in the cards with gorgeous girlfriend Charlie, a jazz singer. Yet the novel's first sentence signals the crack-up to come. A Ukrainian kitchen porter has been found dead in the restaurant basement. Another porter, young, rail-thin Lena from Belorusse, appears to be homeless. Gabe invites her to his place, a favor for which she matter-of-factly offers sex in return. Lena is cold and hard-unsurprising, since she was trafficked into prostitution and is on the run from her brutal pimp. Gabe is startled to realize that he does indeed want to have sex with Lena, in fact is falling for her. Charlie finds out and dumps him. A visit to his dying father in the former mill town where he was raised brings back childhood memories. Meanwhile there's a kitchen to be run. Ali does a superb job of evoking this histrionic, occasional violent workplace manned by "a United Nations task force." She hints too at the dark world of bonded labor that lies beyond the kitchen, as a major scandal involving the hotel maids threatens to erupt and Gabe plays detective. It's too much for him; he has two panic attacks before losing it completely and roaming the streets like a madman. Ali takes risks here, and not all of them pay off. Gabe's obsessionwith Lena and subsequent breakdown are not wholly convincing, and Charlie gets shortchanged as a character. Moment to moment, however, the novel is engrossing. Flawed but still impressive, the work of a fearless writer determined to challenge herself. Author tour to Chicago, Denver, New York, San Francisco, Seattle
From the Publisher
"Part Kitchen Confidential, part murder mystery, [Ali] uses a posh hotel as a window into British society."The Daily Beast
“All the ingredients for a sizzling tale are present: A sudden death that may or may not be accidental. A middle-age chef on the verge of a breakdown. Sexual obsession. An illicit affair. A nefarious plot involving human smuggling.”—Thrity Umrigar, Boston Globe
“Gabriel Lightfoot is an unforgettable protagonist, his descent into lunacy frighteningly recognizable, individual, profound.”—Pam Houston, O, the Oprah Magazine
“A wonderful writer… Evocative … terrific.”—Janice Kaplan on “Good Morning America”
“The kitchen scenes are superb…. and the dialogue crackles with authenticity…. [A] serious and intelligent take on the hidden world of Britain's illegal immigrants.”—Conan Putnam, Chicago Tribune
"What pungency in her prose, what immediacy… You cannot help admiring the power of this writer…. Unforgettable.”—Martin Rubin, Washington Times
"Ali gets the kitchen just right and Gabriel is a sympathetic and beautifully realized character."Time
"Remarkable... A meditation on free will and what it means to be a human being trying to control one's life."Columbus Dispatch
"Ali is an expert at detailing the immigrant experience in London... Ali possesses great powers of lyricism and insight."Christian Science Monitor
"Ali writes with wit and sympathy about the many twists and turns that define our lives."Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"A truly Dickensian cast of characters... Ali rewards readers, too, with .. outstanding passages... Ali's prodigious talents are often on display."Buffalo News
Read an Excerpt
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