What’s It About?
Monocle (not his real name) is an out of work wannabe writer slumming it in London. Unable to afford rent, food or a decent novel, he decides to take-on menial work at a gastro-pub called The Swan. It’s a decision that turns out to be both the best and worst of his life.
Should I read it?
Absolutely yes! What’s interesting is that while the book is chock-full of swearing and some outright disgusting moments involving food, Wroe perfectly captures both the nail-biting tension and the romance of working in a kitchen. It’s also bloody funny. It’s not perfect novel (read the commentary to find out why) but it’s immensely entertaining.
This time I’m going for two representative paragraphs (I know, controversial!)
Whatever you say about Bob (and many things have been said), he was a master of cruelty. The man had an appreciation for a wide variety of punishments—spoons left on the burner until they were white-hot pressed into flesh, dish cloths soaked and twisted for whipping—though his favorites were the ones that messed with the mind, the psychological tortures. He would let a finished plate fall from his fingers and smash on the floor if he didn’t like one aspect of the ensemble and sometimes for no reason at all, except presumably to teach us that life was as arbitrary as it was cruel. The fridge was quite a custom of Bob’s. By forcing the other chefs to cover for HE WHO HAD SINNED, also known as Ramilov, it skewed the emotions and allegiances of the entire brigade. When the prisoner finally emerged, shivering and blinking into the fluorescent light, sympathy was in short supply. The sentence proved the crime. The lobsters were a new touch, but that was Bob: the man had an exquisite grasp of suffering; he was an innovator of pain. It was a rare genius that unleashed the lobsters before looking for the victim.
These men—the hopeless, slack-jawed cases are always men—form the backbone of the catering industry, though you will never see them on television or grinning from the cover of a cookbook. They are not champions of local produce or heroes of a certain gastronomic movement. They do not believe strongly in freshly ground black pepper or artisan bread. They are guided only by their indifference toward cooking and their antipathy toward everything else. Every year or so they will move to another town or city to “make a new start,” telling anyone who will listen that this time will be different, that they have always wanted to live in _____ and never liked _____ anyway. You may see this type of chef smoking outside a cheap but still overpriced restaurant in, say, Victoria on any given day. A broken individual, leaning against the wall with ugly, lightless eyes and a miserable face that long ago stopped wondering where it all went wrong.
Recently I’ve read a number of very serious and very earnest novels. Whether it involves the death of a four year old or a coup d’état on a fictional Caribbean island or a woman suffering from dementia, there’s been very few laughs.
Thank God for Chop Chop then.
Simon Wroe’s début novel is funny and thrilling and has the best opening chapter I’ve read all year. Chop Chop draws from Wroe’s experiences working in a kitchen and as a result the novel is populated with a bunch of larger than life characters who, at the same time, feel exactly like the sort of people you’d expect to be involved in food preparation. We’ve got Racist Dave who more than lives up to his name, and Ramilov with his zombie-like hands and Bob the cruel head Chef and the Fat Man whose sadistic antics fuel the second, much darker half of the novel. We also have our narrator, Monocle, whose literary aspirations means he thinks he’s far too good to be chopping carrots in a kitchen.
As the story is told from Monocle’s perspective, there is this lovely faux literary quality to the prose. This is hilariously juxtaposed with a good smattering of coarse, racist, sexist language and chorus-like interruptions from Racist Dave and Ramilov who are apparently reading drafts of each chapter as Monocle finishes them.
For all the fun and games, the second half of the novel is dark and tense. The Fat Man is a mafioso type who holds sway over the kitchen staff of The Swan and especially the head Chef Bob. While his machinations are foreshadowed by Monocle earlier in the novel, the scenes that take place in the Fat Man’s kitchen involving live animals (I’ll say no more) are grotesque and confronting.
Chop Chop‘s not perfect though, Wroe’s attempt to inject a serious element to the novel with the introduction of Monocle’s father falls flat. Their strained relationship stems from the death of Monocle’s sportier and more popular brother. This results in exchanges of the “you wished I’d died instead of him” variety. It’s all a bit on the nose, a false note in an otherwise cliché free novel.
The other weakness is the treatment of woman. From the outset it’s clear that the sexism and racism spouted by the characters – mostly Racist Dave – are not a reflection of the author’s worldview but instead mimic what’s actually said in a kitchen. I’m fine with that. However, it’s annoying that the one woman who works with the men, Harmony, is not only characterised as an ice-queen (because how else could she deal with such a toxic environment) but is also a figure of love and lust for Monocle. This is partly addressed by Monocle (and Wroe); he’s uncomfortable that he treats Harmony like the Platonic ideal of a woman. It doesn’t change his attitude toward her and it’s a shame that we only get a glimpse of Harmony the person toward the end of the novel.
In spite of its imperfections, I still loved this book. And it’s not just because this is my first sip of water in a desert of tragedy and tears. Chop Chop is an incredibly entertaining novel that for all its psychological torture of the kitchen staff and icky moments involving poultry and pus, still highlights the creativity and passion that goes into the making of fine food.