If you’ve ever wondered what life in the kitchen of a grand old London hotel might be like, Monica Ali’s painstakingly detailed new novel, In the Kitchen, is the book for you. In describing the intricate hierarchy that prevails in the restaurant of the Imperial Hotel, the complex choreography it takes to pull off an evening’s dinner service, and the intensity of the personal interactions that underlie the professional ones, Ali reveals a dining establishment’s inner workings with a thoroughness that’s revelatory and disturbing. Do you really want to know what it takes to cater your evenings out?
At the same time, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away. From the suspenseful opening pages, Ali makes it clear that there’s much more going on here than just food preparation. Her setting is a front for a more pressing enterprise—an investigation into the plight of immigrants in Great Britain, the degree to which employment shapes our lives, and the question of free will. These inquiries animate the life story of Imperial executive chef Gabe Lightfoot, who, at age forty-two, stands achingly close to the realization of a long-held dream: to open his own place, a French bistro that he’ll run with no-nonsense precision. Before he can, however, his plans—and his sanityerode, starting with the discovery of a dead man in the kitchen’s basement and ending with his father’s capitulation to colon cancer. “When he looked back,” the novel begins, “he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart.”
The Ukrainian in question was a hotel worker who lacked legal papers, which were probably stolen by human traffickers; he became, in essence, a slave. This fact opens Gabe’s eyes to the daily reality of most of his staff. There’s Benny, the Liberian chef de partie, who works a double shift and studies accounting; Suleiman, the Indian chef de partie, whose father, back in Chennai, has his son’s life planned out for him; Nikolai, the Russian commis (a former obstetrician, who, in investigating the high incidence of birth defects in his hometown, “found some interesting things about the chemicals dumped by the factory. . . . For this I was branded a spy”); and Lena, the ghostly Belarusian porter who was trafficked as a prostitute and with whom Gabe falls in love—even betraying his gorgeous, devoted fiancée to pursue her.
By the time Gabe realizes that his love for Lena is doomed, his life has unraveled, and he can only marvel at his condition, wondering whether he’s chosen his own fate or his actions have been predestined. Only after he embraces a Hobbesian point of view—“It was all random and utterly inevitable. Gabriel saw it both ways, and between these two ways of seeing, he felt not the slightest contradiction”—is he able to begin sorting out a new life for himself.