Former chef Simon Wroe presents the “write what you know” approach to full effect in his Costa shortlisted, debut novel Chop Chop. Having previously written for publications such as The Times and The Guardian, Wroe’s first novel proves to be a funny, dark and often touching story, bringing to light a behind-the-scenes depiction of the culinary world. This eye-opening perspective extends also to themes of family, self-actualisation and belonging and self-discovery, all of which give the worka depth that is not immediately apparent when opening the novel.
Chop Chop tells the story of an English Literature graduate, nicknamed Monocle, who discovers himself in a situation that isn’t uncommon on graduation. Having just moved from his parents’ house to find a job and make something of himself, Monocle finds himself unemployed instead and behind on his rent, with his Humanities degree of no actual use to him. However, he manages to obtain paid employment in a pub (The Swan) in Camden, London, as a lowly chef or commis. As the events unfold, Monocle is saddled with his broke, gambling-addicted father who continually borrows money from him, and is in serious debt to a twisted, greedy and manipulative gangster who consumes everything in his path.
Told in retrospect, Wroe breaks the fourth wall with Monocle engaging with the reader by giving his version of the events as he remembers them, and with input from his colleagues. The narration teases us, of course, with the question of how much of the novel is fiction, a re-telling of Wroe’s own experiences through Monocle, both now former chefs writing their first novels. The narration also presents the novel as a work-in-progress where Swan chefs make their contributions, giving their own opinions and perspectives on what Monocle is writing. Not only does this method make Chop Chop’s narration more interesting but lends itself as a device in which humour, entertainment, information and character development can be inserted in a refreshing way.
The most admirable aspect of Wroe’s writing is the time taken to create his characters and his ability to develop them. From the beginning, we are introduced to other chefs and to the brutality and harshness of Swan kitchen life. Wroe quickly establishes the atmosphere of the pub and the dynamic between its employees, from the tyrannical head chef Bob to the incompetent and heavily abused Dibden and including ,of course, the protagonist. By nicknaming nearly all of the characters, mixing a cocktail of comic personalities together, the characters remain memorable and never wasted. For example,Bob who is otherwise terrifying in the kitchen is reduced to something like a fawning dog by his wife’s presence; and she calls him “Booboo”. We often say that the people who inhabit a place is what gives the place its character. This is certainly true for the kitchen of The Swan where a hectic environment is created.
Amongst the humour, profanities, terrific characters and compelling plot are the more serious and touching moments of Monocle’s familial background, notably his relationship with his father and his need to escape from the shadow of his older brother. Monocle is unable to shake off a sense of underachievement and a mood of bitterness; by dwelling more on Monocle’s character, his sometimes poetic thoughts and sensitive outlook, Wroe develops a moving sub-plot, which also gives the reader a welcome break from the dirty jokes and swearing of the kitchen scenes.
Chop Chop is an excellent novel which fully deserves its place in the Costa Book Award shortlist for First Novel. Wroe’s account of the professional kitchen makes it seem like a hellish if rewarding place where only those with the sharpest knives survive. Collectively Wroe brings good characters, narration, plot and fine concept to this absurdly funny novel, raising Chop Chop to something more than just a barrel of laughs.
Hamzah M. Hussain