Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"In the Kitchen"

Monica Ali's recent book In the Kitchen should be everything I want to find in a novel. Much action takes place in the rough atmosphere of an upscale London hotel's ambitious kitchen. Gabe, the central character, is the chef of that kitchen. He's also trying to organize a new and excellent restaurant -- his lifelong goal is to earn stars in the Michelin guide. Money, jealousy, love, bigotry, class-consciousness, and family, are some of the large themes of the book, and at first, the kitchen seems primed to be a vehicle for expressing them. Alas, this was not sustained.

Gabe interacts with all the diverse members of his staff, who represent all the various ethnic groups and immigrant communities one would expect as prep cooks, bus boys, dishwashers, and so forth. In the Acknowledgments section at the end of the book, Ali even mentions Kitchen Confidential by Bourdain -- and the scenes in Gabe's kitchen often made me think of the outlandish and outrageous attitudes of Bourdain's kitchen scenes. As the story unfolded, I must admit, I was more and more disappointed with the early promise that this would really be a book about life in a microcosmic restaurant kitchen and the mind of a chef. Not to be.

As his control over his kitchen, his planned restaurant, and his life deteriorate, Gabe deals with the prejudices and expectations of his lower-middle-class family who lived in a mill town. He's torn between two women, and essentially bungles his love life. (This conflict is a central theme, but I'm not going to summarize it.) When he visits home, he's uncomfortable with his sister, who has accomplished nothing; her children are losers. He reconnects slightly with his father, a former worker in the mill, who is critically ill. The mill has become a mall. Everything is just as one would expect. Too much so.

The end, when Gabe unravels completely, seems to be almost an afterthought. Ali got the character in too deep. I found the last 50 pages nearly unreadable and the resolution painfully inadequate. And I was really disappointed that the early scenes of food, cooking, kitchen life, and so on didn't turn out to be as central as I would expect of a book called In the Kitchen.

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