REVIEW: Chop Chop, Simon Wroe

02-Simon Wroe 2

CAMDEN NEW JOURNAL 3/4/14

YEAH, I’d eat a cat, I think,” says Simon Wroe. “People do. If it was cooked competently by a chef who knew what they were doing, why not?”

I warned him, as an old colleague, he’d lose half the room right there, but if you are to stomach the darker elements of his debut novel, Chop Chop – a sort of study into the furious law of the restaurant kitchen – this is all petite potatoes.

He is no insensitive carnigobbler napping kittens for the pot but it’s only fair that you are prepared for his book’s haywire ending. To say much more would be a ruinous spoiler to an always-engaging novel.

Simon spent three years on the Camden New Journal, graduating on the job from a reporter scolded by a coroner for the barmy idea of trying to sit back and tape a courtroom inquest into an award-winning feature writer with a talent for the unusual and absurd. We were lucky to have him.

But before he reached our offices, this gentle dreamer had toiled in gastropub and restaurant kitchens for real, chopping onions while masochistically marvelling at those screaming in his face to hurry up.

This unseen world behind the perfect dauphinoise on your plate seared such memories that Chop Chop is a “part memoir” for the 31-year-old, satisfying the need to tell what can really go on behind the kitchen door, a journalist still at work.

His richly drawn observations explain a regimental world where the macho compete to make artisan food and bullies punish underperforming staff by locking them inside walk-in fridges. He has apparently seen for himself, although not experienced, this chilly sanction.

“When I left university, I wanted some discipline in my life,” he says. “It might sound masochistic, kinky, but I had almost had enough of words after all the literary criticism in my degree.

“I wanted a job where I was shouted at, where I had to be there at seven every morning. At times it was like a construction site but you were cutting carrots instead of mixing cement.”

Ask him whether this all sounds a little bit patronising, an author’s son from a private school dropping into a sweatbox, his defence is that he did his time for real, dutiful long hours with scars as proof.

“I was punched in the kitchen,” he says with a matter-of-fact coolness. “It was the way the chef hurried people along. I was burned a couple of times, on the arm. Sometimes they drop a hot spoon in your pocket.”

He added: “There would be people pretending to shag you with a carrot, men shouting, and it can be a room without light where you start being unable to tell whether it’s dark or light outside.

“I was called things like the professor because I was the only one who had been to university.”

This at once made me feel like the real workplace bully, having started to call him by his unusual middle name which begins with a Q when he was here.

Simon laughs: “It was afterwards that I thought there was a similarity between cheffing and journalism; that rush to a deadline where if somebody messes up you can’t be like ‘oh well, it doesn’t really matter’ because people need to be served.

“I can understand why people shout in kitchens. As I moved up, I shouted too.”

If somebody deliberately burned me with a hot spoon at work, I’d be calling the police – but not apparently in the highly charged kitchendrome, an environment that Simon seems confused as to whether to champion or condemn.

“What people experience in a restaurant when they eat is often detached from what people expect is going on in the kitchen. But how many chefs do you see at employment tribunals?” he says.

“It’s almost the point. There is a whole group of people who want to do this work – and that’s what makes it fascinating in a way.

“The chefs find they have so much power in the kitchen that they can almost ask their staff to do anything and they will do it. People have this idea of how a good restaurant works, that there is Nigella and Jamie Oliver providing little delicacies in a rustic kitchen, when the reality is completely different.”

This idea of asking people to do anything, pushing them to breaking point, helps form a chiller story in the second half, once the quasi-journalism of the scene-setting first gives way.

Simon, who grew up with his family in Gospel Oak – his mother is the highly regarded writer and historian Ann Wroe – won’t reveal the places where he worked for obvious reasons.

We must not take clues from the fact it is set in Camden Town and namechecks the streets we know best.

“There were a couple in north London,” he said. “But The Swan [in the book] is a sort of composite of them all.”

OK. But what about a dog, would you eat a dog?

“I do draw the line somewhere, at the Vietnamese way of eating chicken foetuses before they hatch, cracking open the shells with the teeth. That would be too far for me.”

Chop Chop. By Simon Wroe. Penguin £12.99.
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