Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chop Chop

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe
Penguin Group: 4/17/2014
Hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594205798  

An outrageously funny and original debut set in the fast-paced and treacherous world of a restaurant kitchen
Fresh out of the university with big dreams, our narrator is determined to escape his past and lead the literary life in London. But soon he is two months behind on rent for his depressing Camden Town bed-sit and forced to take a job doing grunt work in the kitchen of The Swan, a formerly grand restaurant that has lost its luster.
Mockingly called “Monocle” by his boisterous co-workers for a useless English lit degree, he is suddenly thrust into the unbelievably brutal, chaotic world of professional cooking and surrounded by a motley cast of co-workers for which no fancy education could have prepared him. There’s the lovably dim pastry chef Dibden, who takes all kinds of grief for his “girly” specialty; combative Ramilov, who spends a fair bit of time locked in the walk-in freezer for pissing people off; Racist Dave, about whom the less said the better; Camp Charles, the officious head waiter; and Harmony, the only woman in a world of raunchy, immature, drug- and rage-fueled men. But worst of all, there’s Bob, the sadistic head chef, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist and a taste for cruelty that surprises and terrifies even these most hardened of characters.
Once initiated and begrudgingly accepted, Monocle enters into a strange camaraderie with his fellow chefs, one based largely on the speed and ingenuity of their insults. In an atmosphere that is more akin to a zoo—or a maximum security prison—than a kitchen he feels oddly at home. But soon an altogether darker tale unfolds as Monocle and his co-workers devise a plot to overthrow Bob and Monocle’s dead-beat father (who has been kicked out of the family home) shows up at his door. Not only does his dad insist on sleeping on the floor of Monocle’s apartment; he starts hanging out at The Swan’s dissolute bar in the evenings. As the plan to oust Bob clicks into motion and the presence of his father causes Monocle to revisit lingering questions from his unhappy childhood, Chop Chop accelerates toward its blackly hilarious, thrilling, and ruthless conclusion.
My Thoughts:

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe is highly recommended for those who can appreciate a humorous (and realistic) look at the inside workings of the food industry.

Monocle, whose nickname is bestowed upon him based on his English Lit degree, is a recent graduate who is in desperate need of a job. He applies at The Swan, a London restaurant that is past its glory days, and is thrust into the world of professional chefs and the inner workings of a professional kitchen. Monocle learns to become a chef under very adverse conditions while also coming to terms with his past and his relationship with his father.

Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen (or a large-scale professional kitchen anywhere) is going to understand the cast of odd characters that populate this world and know that Wroe knows about which he writes.

I had to laugh about chopping up one onion and then reading:
“I don’t want one onion chopped,” he said. “What am I going to do with one f***ing onion? Do the whole bag.” The whole bag? It was the size of a turkey. I struggled to lift it. No one in their right mind needed so many onions. That day I realized I knew nothing about food or cooking. Also, more worryingly, nothing about people or communication. Months of fiction in that armchair, and years of studying it before that, had left me dealing with life at reading speed. Conversations passed me by while I was still formulating a response. People here dealt with one another so firmly, with no concerns for the nuances of situation.

Boy is that is the truth. You need to work fast and efficiently with little chance to finesse any situation. It is go-go-go until hours have passed and you don't have a clue where the time went.

There are so many great examples but I picked out a few more:
“Smoke?” He held out a cigarette. “You will,” he said when I refused. (Location 355)
"That was the first rule I learned at The Swan: Never challenge the person in charge. They could make your life more hellish than you could imagine. This, incidentally, is true of families as well as kitchens."  (Location 436)

I also had to say "Isn't that the truth" when Monocle realizes that his hands are going to be permanently stained from his job, but even more so that it is your feet and legs that take the brunt of the abuse. After standing for hours there is no amount of rest that can make up for the pain.

But the truisms of working in a restaurant are just a part of the story. The cast of characters is an even more enticing component of this novel. They are weird and wonderful, including: "Racist Dave," chef Ramilov,  Dibden the pastry chef, and a girl named Harmony, and the cruel head chef Bob. The story takes a dark turn and, although it is humorous, it is also gritty and not for the faint of heart.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

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