The success of reality TV shows like Top Chef and nonfiction best-sellers like Bill Buford's Heat leave no doubt that audiences are hungry for stories about the culinary arts. Now, with Monica Ali's In the Kitchen, major literary fiction gets into the act, taking readers behind the swinging doors of an upscale restaurant kitchen.
Ali says the setting for her third novel was inspired by television: "We're kind of obsessed with celebrity chefs and commercial kitchens in the U.K. ... I was intrigued to look below stairs and to find out what really goes on."
Ali spent an entire year poking around "below stairs" in five London hotel restaurants before she started writing her book. What she discovered was a fairly rigid, hierarchical environment that was stratified by race.
"The lower down the pecking order you go [in the kitchen], the darker the skin tone gets. And I found that to be universally true in the places that I went into," she says.
In the Kitchen is the story of Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42-year-old executive chef at London's Imperial Hotel who aspires to open his own restaurant.
The novel is set in motion with the death of a Ukrainian porter who's been living in the basement of the restaurant to save money. The incident forces Gabriel to consider his staff as individuals for the first time. It also leads him to question his own identity — and his profession. In one scene, Gabriel looks across the empty restaurant at the polished oak bar, noting that it was "too dark and infected with loneliness to look at for very long."
Lev Grossman, who reviewed In the Kitchen for Time magazine, says that Ali's take on the restaurant business is very British — and very different from the view that author Anthony Bourdain presented in his best-selling 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential.
"The dream of the restaurant kitchen for writers like Anthony Bourdain is very American," says Grossman. "It's a place where you come, you leave your old woes and your history behind, and you enter into this wonderful meritocracy where you can make good if you're a good cook."
But Ali's kitchen is a much sadder place.
"People fight there. They're from Liberia, they're from the Ukraine, and they don't leave that behind. Their conflicts live for them in the kitchen," says Grossman.
The setting for In the Kitchen is different from Ali's previous novels, Alentejo Blue and Brick Lane, which focused, respectively, on the mostly poor residents of a rural Portuguese town and a Bangladeshi woman whose arranged marriage takes her to the immigrant projects of London.
But even though her books are set in different places, Ali says that her fiction tends to reflect the plight of the poor, class consciousness and the fate of immigrants:
"Issues of who belongs and who doesn't belong; modernity versus traditional values; displacement, as well; cultural intersections. ... All of those things I guess will keep on running through my work in one form or another."
Ali says she's working on her fourth novel now, which she won't describe except to say it's nothing like her latest book.