I worked in a hotel kitchen once. It was every bit as awful as Simon Wroe depicts in this novel, even though the head chef in my kitchen was not even one tenth the sadist this one was. But it was also kind of wonderful, working at a very unforgiving job where any mistake you make could mean disaster and you never get to stop and think even for a minute and you never get a break or any credit but somehow this bonds you with your coworkers in a way that you can’t explain. (Sort of like working in the theatre…but don’t get me started on my history of thankless jobs that nearly kill you and pay crap.) So that’s why I started this book – nostalgia. Why I finished it, however, had nothing to do with the kitchen parts and all to do with the parts where the protagonist worked through the problems of his past.
Our protagonist, called “Monocle” by his coworkers because of his (so far) useless degree in English Literature, takes a job as commis in a gastro pub called the Swan. He’s been without a job long enough to be desperate, and sticks with the job mainly to avoid having to go home to live with his parents – even though the job starts out badly enough and then evolves into completely horrifying. The head chef, Bob, is a horrible person who enjoys treating his workers with such vile cruelty that I cannot imagine lasting in that kitchen for longer than 15 minutes. He locks one chef in the walk-in cooler regularly (causing work in the kitchen to back up so that everyone suffers), repeatedly sets up the pastry chef to fail because he likes to watch and heckle, and at one point deliberately drops molten caramel onto our protagonist’s hand. All of this is bad enough, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg – we discover that Bob is in thrall somehow to a shadowy crime boss called the Fat Man, and when one of his mutinous chefs sets him up to fail at one of the Fat Man’s dinner parties, the Fat Man expands his campaign of terror to blackmail each of them in turn – and we learn that Bob’s sadism was mere child’s play. The Fat Man is a professional.
But none of this was why I finished the book. I finished the book to see how things would work out with Monocle’s family. Throughout the novel, Monocle struggles with his feelings about his older brother’s death when they were children, and how it affected him and his parents. He has always felt like the wrong brother survived, and actually seems to believe that his father’s grief and subsequent neglect are his own fault. His parents are both wrecks – his mother works a menial, difficult job to support his father, who cannot hold a job and gambles away whatever money he can finagle. When she finally has had enough and tosses out her deadbeat husband, he turns up at Monocle’s doorstep…and Monocle is forced to watch his two worlds collide. And collide they do – by the end, the Fat Man even has enough dirt on Monocle’s father to add him in to the circle of blackmail hell. As ugly as the story was already, it gets uglier – the terror spreads from the kitchen of the Swan to the Fat Man’s private home to the street outside Monocle’s boarding house. People get stabbed, people go to jail, parents are reunited, many scores are settled and Monocle finally gets to talk to the girl. It’s not a happy ending exactly, but it is satisfying. It made me very, very happy that I no longer work in a kitchen. And that my father earned his own living and will probably never turn up destitute on my doorstep.
Fair warning – foul language, sexism, racism, and every other possible form of offensiveness happens in this restaurant’s kitchen (one chef is actually nicknamed Racist Dave, and there are regular conversations amongst the characters about who has or has not performed colorfully descibed acts of sodomy on whom). You’ll need a strong stomach for this book. Oh, and did I mention the drugs? They do some drugs. And there is a great deal of cruelty to animals, though thankfully one character finally refuses the worst of it. I have seen this book described as “funny” and “hilarious” but I wouldn’t go that far – all of its wit is the painfully funny kind, where you have to laugh or fall apart. Kind of like kitchen work itself.
I cannot even begin to think of a read-alike for this book.