It’s always interesting to go to a restaurant where they let you watch all the action in the kitchen. You see all the chopping, all the frying, and the whole process of your food being prepared. Yet I can only count a handful of times when I’ve been privy to such a thing, since most of the time the kitchen is hidden from the view of the diner, for more than a few good reasons. Anybody who has spent even a little bit of time in one can tell you that a restaurant kitchen can be a rough place where people yell and get burned and sliced while trying to do their work. And as we’ve seen on TV shows like Iron Chef and anything involving Gordon Ramsay, the kitchen sometimes resembles a war zone.
The kitchen and all its drama have found a home on television, but what about great kitchen novels? We have George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, but besides that, the great books about the people and places that make your food tend to be nonfiction. Bill Buford’s Heat and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential are great examples that read much like novels, but as it stands, Orwell has long been the reigning king of kitchen novels.
“A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.” Orwell wrote that about his experiences working in Parisian kitchens as a plongeur, the guy who does all the dirty work. Simon Wroe, in his debut novel Chop Chop, gets hired for a somewhat similar position. A writer with an education living in a seedy part of London, Wroe’s narrator searches for a job — any job — as he tells himself he’s going to write that novel he know he has in him. He finally gets an offer from The Swan, a gastropub with a kitchen full of characters who think the place could be so much more. They need someone like Orwell’s plongeur, so he’s called in for an interview. He has no kitchen experience, knows nothing of the restaurant save for the fact that it shares a name with a Baudelaire poem (although the chef interviewing him doesn’t seem to be familiar with it), and would rather be writing.
But he takes the job, quickly earning the nickname “Monocle” because of his degree in English literature, and tries to fit into his new role despite his lack of experience. As the book quickly progresses, Wroe starts to give us more and more of Monocle’s backstory, eventually introducing us to his loser father, and the tale that unfolds about their past becomes more of a focus. But it is the kitchen that gives Chop Chop its bite. There’s a whole other story there, but The Swan’s kitchen, full of “haggard faces at the back of the gate inquiring about an ad in the classifieds or a boardinghouse window, oddballs who had come from nowhere and would go to nowhere,” is what makes Chop Chop a great kitchen novel. From describing the battle-scarred hands of a chef to the overall rhythm that goes into making every plate of food, Wroe (who has worked as a chef in London) makes this ugly world delicious.