Feeling the Heat in the Kitchen

Monica Ali, author of the bestseller Brick Lane, talks about cooking up her sprawling new novel about a London chef’s emotional downward spiral.

Rick Eglinton / Newscom

No character has been closer to writer Monica Ali’s heart than executive chef Gabriel Lightfoot, the central figure of her sprawling new novel, In the Kitchen. Not even Nazneen, the Bangladeshi heroine of Ali’s celebrated 2003 debut, Brick Lane, generated the fondness that the British author felt for Lightfoot as she created his wrenching “emotional journey”—from self-assured lord of the kitchen in a landmark London hotel to a doubt-racked wreck adrift in a deep, dark sea of ennui.

Lightfoot’s unraveling became much more than just a fictional character’s odyssey for Ali. One panic attack for Lightfoot. Several panic attacks for Ali, something she had never experienced before.

“Gabriel has such struggles,” Ali says in Seattle. “He wants to be a good man, yet he is reluctant to engage with others. He faces questions that we’re all struggling with and he is forced to confront them in dramatic ways. I was with him all along the way.”

Lightfoot’s unraveling became much more than just a fictional character’s odyssey for Ali. His downward spiral—through shattered relationships, a return to a long-lost smoking habit, weeks without sleep—carried her along until the inevitable breakdown. One panic attack for Lightfoot. Several panic attacks for Ali, something she had never experienced before. That might seem like a sick author joke, something about a writer identifying too closely with her character, although Ali was not laughing. The panic attacks were real, scary and recurrent for Ali—so recurrent that she finally had to consult a physician.

“What was the cure for that?” she is asked in an interview. “Was there some medication you could take?”

“I don’t want to go into that any further,” Ali says abruptly, although she does offer one final comment before closing off discussion of her panic attacks: “I would hope I am done with that.”

The 41-year-old writer has been on the book-tour road for two months, with stops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, distant places where she is still amazed and thrilled to have readers. Seattle is her final destination before a well-deserved vacation, and the married mother of two children is exhausted, eager to get home to London and none too interested in answering questions that veer away from the expected. Ali, as a result, is warm and charming one moment, prickly the next.

She seems surprised to be asked whether writing a 436-page literary novel might be a risky move in this Twitter age of nano-attention spans. (“Lots of people like big novels,” Ali counters, “although that is not the reason I wrote this one that long. That’s just what I needed to tell this story.”) She also seems surprised by a suggestion that there might be dangers in having the new novel’s central character, Chef Lightfoot, become more off-putting and even repugnant as the novel enfolds, including cheating on his longtime jazz-singer girlfriend with an all-but-mute young waif from Eastern Europe who had been forced into prostitution until she starts sharing the 42-year-old chef’s apartment and bed (“Gabriel may be off-putting to you,” Ali parries, “but I’ve heard from readers who have had the opposite reaction to him.”).

The character of Lightfoot came to her before any other element of In the Kitchen and she knows all the work that followed. She spent a year researching in five London hotel kitchens (“research gives me the confidence to make things up”). She also did many interviews in England’s north country where Lightfoot grew up and his father and sister live (and where Ali herself grew up after her English mother and Bangladeshi father emigrated to Great Britain when she was 3). Ali spent two years completing the novel, confident she would again produce the sort of sweeping and entertaining story that had so enthralled her as an adolescent discovering such favorite 19th-century writers as Dickens and Tolstoy.

In the Kitchen does offer a wide-ranging look at the multicultural stew that is early 21st-century Britain, from the impromptu U.N. of workers under Lightfoot’s leadership to the dying mill towns outside London to the exploitive underground economy where many emigrants are abused in virtual slavery. In the Kitchen is a London counterpoint to Richard Price’s New York City in his recent Lush Life, which also used the restaurant business as a lens to examine societal upheaval. Both novels employ a violent death to spur action—a street shakedown turned murder in Lush Life, the accidental death of a kitchen staffer who had been secretly living in a space below his workplace in In the Kitchen. But Ali’s plotting and pacing of her new novel are leisurely, many of the emigrant characters are cardboard-thin, much dialogue meanders. The novel too often reads like the book equivalent of a lengthy multi-course dinner of hotel banquet fare.

Ali’s publishers around the world are surely hoping that In the Kitchen will rekindle some of the bestseller magic of Brick Lane, especially after the sales disappointment of her followup ( Alentejo Blue) that was set in Portugal, where Ali and family spend three months a year.

Other authors, especially American literary authors, may feel threatened by the bottom-line emphasis of embattled publishers these days, but Ali insists sales are not a concern of hers: “I’m awfully serious about what I do and I am not interested in what bandwagon I can jump on. Sales make no difference to me. I do what I want to do—not what I think people might want me to do. It’s great if you have a book like Brick Lane. But it was lucky—I certainly didn’t expect it to be like that all the time. You can’t predict how your books will do. You can only do work you like, or be miserable all your life.... To get paid to write what I do—I could never have imagined that. It’s a bloody luxury.”

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John Douglas Marshall is the author of Reconciliation Road , an award-winning memoir, and co-author of Volcano: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens , a New York Times’ bestseller. He was the longtime book critic of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.