Wednesday 9 April 2014

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

I'll admit to being a little wary when I spotted the pigs' trotters pulsating from the lurid cover of Simon Wroe's debut novel Chop Chop. I wasn't the only one - it was Penguin Bloggers' Night and some of the vegetarians round the book table were looking positively puce. Surely those trotters must be a harbinger of literary violence, a visual warning to the squeamish about the dangers contained within?

Then Simon read an extract and I realised Chop Chop is a darkly funny, insightful tale of life in a professional kitchen, a sort of Kitchen Confidential infused with humour and transplanted from New York City to Camden Town. True, it's fiction and the protagonist isn't a masochistic alpha male but an introverted young lad from 'a place where learner drivers come to reverse park'. But Chop Chop still dishes the dirt behind-the-scenes with some brutally eye-watering revelations.

The lowest of the low in the hierarchy of a north London restaurant, Monocle (his kitchen nickname) is commis chef at The Swan. He's a resting author so there's no way he wants the job, but he needs it to pay the rent on his grimy lodgings.

Monocle is escaping an unhappy home life, consisting of a feckless father, a careworn mother and an older brother-shaped chasm. Early on, it becomes obvious he's not alone, all the other chefs from psychotic Ramilov to Racist Dave are fleeing from something as well. The Swan's kitchen is a wonderful melting-pot of losers, including the particularly tall Dibden:
That small sad head of his looked further away than ever, pushed out of the top of his body like toothpaste from a tube.
What they've all escaped to is far from an ideal sanctuary. The kitchen is ruled by a despotic head chef whose favourite pastime is devising new tortures, from 'The Mark of Bob' on the back of the hand to lobsters at loose in the walk-in fridge. No sane person would want to work here, but these chefs share a common love of self-destruction and are already existing on the edge. They suffer to prove they're alive and their world is so insulated that, with one or two exceptions, the waiting staff and even the diners are unimportant. Only the grotesque 'Fat Man' stands apart, a being so powerful in Camden and with such legendary appetites, he is even feared by Bob.

As Monocle's story unfolds, it is in turns bleak, funny, vicious and ultimately poignant. Of a university relationship which failed before it ever really got off the ground, he says he was
not hurt by the presence of the firing squad, but by the sight of one soldier among them who had not bothered to shave

Simon Wroe has recreated an intensely macho world, a savagely enjoyable trawl through the underbelly of a professional kitchen. It's like asking for snow in the Sahara to wish it might have included at least one well-rounded female, neither love interest nor mother but a woman allowed to be as funny as the men. This aside, there's really no need to fear the trotters. Chop Chop is a debut novel to relish; fast-paced and absorbing, full of wit and larger-than-life characters, all wrapped up in a fresh and self-deprecating new voice.

Thanks to Penguin for my review copy. Images courtesy of Amazon.

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