A Conversation with Monica Ali, Author of In the Kitchen
1. In the Kitchen vividly thrusts the reader into the sweaty, frenetic, almost pirate-ship-like world of the kitchen in a major urban restaurant. Did you rely upon any first-hand experience to bring the kitchen scenes to life?
I spent a year researching the novel and several years before that thinking about it and reading around it. Part of my year of intensive research was in the north of England where sections of the novel are set but most of it was in London where I spent time in restaurant kitchens and in five big hotels, always on the understanding that I would never identify them. That gave me great access and once I had entered the world of hotels I knew that a hotel would be my main setting. Hotels are like microcosms of society. You get everything from the penthouse suite at the top to the porter in the basement compacting rubbish. But it was always the kitchens that I was particularly drawn to. Those places are like UN assemblies. You get every different nationality down there, so they are a very rich source of diverse stories.
2. What inspired you to write about the life of a chef?
In the UK, and perhaps in the USA as well, we’ve become quite obsessed with chefs. And even though we see the likes of Gordon Ramsay on the television, ranting and swearing, I still felt that what we get is quite a glossy, sanitized version. I guess I wanted to look behind the scenes at what really goes on below stairs, and to ask questions about what it is that lies behind our ‘food porn’ culture. Kitchens, which are high pressure environments, are also great stages for dramatic confrontations!
3. There are several instances throughout the novel when Gabe is compared to an angel. Lena points out that his name – Gabriel – has angelic meaning and Jenny teases him about sprouting angel wings after he has made a particularly thoughtful gesture. Is Gabe a fallen angel? What are your feelings towards your protagonist?
Gabe struggles constantly with himself, and battles – as we all do on occasion – to understand why he acts the way he does, which is sometimes against his better judgment. Although he fails himself (and falls) in many ways, he makes an emotional journey through the course of the novel. At the core of this journey are faith, hope and love. In the beginning he lacks faith in anyone or anything, including himself, but he finds ultimately a faith in humanity. Despite being pushed to the edge of despair, through a process of taking responsibility and engagement with those around him he is left with a sense of hope. And by being forced to reevaluate what is truly important, he comes to consider what love, particularly in the context of family and relationships, really means.
4. How do you develop your main characters and which characters in In the Kitchen did you particularly enjoy writing about?
With Gabriel, I had an idea that I wanted to write about a man who is adrift in a modern, metropolitan, multicultural society. At first he feels he is able to navigate that environment easily, and that having no real community, no long-standing work commitments, only very loose family ties, and a limitless sense of alternative perspectives due to the many cultures by which he is surrounded, is no big deal. But as the pressures pile on him, he comes to question everything in his life, and the stories he has told about himself and to himself. At that stage he feels he is looking into something of a void.
The characters start as whispers inside my head. When the voices get loud enough, it’s time to begin the writing. I enjoyed writing the variety of characters in this novel, from the slippery restaurant manager, Gleeson, to the somewhat bullying general manager, Maddox. Gabe’s sous chef, Oona, was particularly fun to write as their miscommunications gave ample scope for comedy .
5. Gabe and his father discuss the British identity, arguing about Great Britain’s global significance and what it means to be Brit and how that status is defined. As a Londoner, what cultural changes have you observed in the country and what impact have they made?
London, as with many big cities in the West, has changed rapidly in recent times as the result of new migrations. One of the things I wanted to explore in this book, is the way in which although other people’s stories can be enriching, they can also be exhausting and overwhelming. Gabriel, at the beginning of the book, doesn’t really want to know about the backgrounds of his staff. He is too busy grappling with his own story, his life history and family secrets, and making sense of that. It is the death of the porter which, although it is a small part of the book in one way, is pivotal in changing this. It comes to haunt Gabriel and opens him up to seeing his other staff as individuals and to issues about society and responsibility.
There is too a debate running through the novel about British identity. Our politicians keep banging on about our ‘core values’. When that happens, you begin to suspect that those values have perhaps been lost somewhere along the way.
6. Gabe’s downward spiral ultimately leads him to an onion farm outside London that operates as an illegal, exploitive labor camp. Do businesses like this actually exist? Is the onion farm experience in In the Kitchen based on true events?
Yes, I did my research. All of those exploitative practices happen. The ejection of the Afghans from the farm was directly based on a newspaper report. I also know that the UK is far from being the only country in which migrant workers are exploited.
7. You explore many social issues in this novel, including the immigrant experience. Are these issues the driving force behind your writing?
No, I don’t think so. Character is always my driving force. And to tell a good story and to provide an entertaining read. Although I think the book raises some tough questions about our modern existence and society – old values versus new freedoms, for example – the novels that I love are the ones which find the light within the dark, and the comedy in the tragedy. And of course one sets out to write the book one wants to read!
8. Your first novel, Brick Lane, was recently adapted into a movie. Can you describe that process? How did you feel when you saw your story rendered in film?
I decided not to interfere in the film process. My feeling was that I should either write the script myself or stay out of the way, and since I already had another project on the go I stepped out. When it came to seeing the rough cut I was very nervous but happily the director had done a great job. The casting seemed to me to be spot on, and although film necessarily has to leave things out the movie captures the spirit of the novel.
9. Alentejo Blue, your second novel,is set in a Portuguese village. Why did you decide to make such a departure from your first book?
I spend a lot of time in Portugal and it wasn’t really a question of deciding. I just had all these characters and stories in my head. Although I have, on the surface, written three very different books, I guess at one level they have quite a lot in common. A sense of place, for instance, has been important in my work so far. Also, questions of home, displacement, cultural intersections and life on the margins. I don’t feel that I set out to write about these things but they seem to come out in any case.