Chop Chop: A Novel

Paperback | March 31, 2015

bySimon Wroe

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Kirkus Review
“Arch comedy . . . Dave Eggers channels Anthony Bourdain.”

An outrageously funny and original debut set in the fast-paced and treacherous world of a restaurant kitchen

Fresh out of university with big dreams, our narrator is determined to escape his past and lead the literary life in London. But soon he is two months behind on rent and forced to take a menial job in the kitchen of The Swan, a gastro-pub with haute cuisine aspirations.

Mockingly called “Monocle” by his co-workers for a useless English lit degree, he is thrust into a brutal, chaotic world full of motley characters. There’s the lovably dim pastry chef Dibden; combative Ramilov, who spends a fair bit of time locked in the walk-in fridge for pissing people off; Racist Dave, about whom the less said the better; Camp Charles, the officious head waiter; and Harmony, the only woman in a workplace of raunchy, immature, angry, drug-fueled men. Worst of all is the head chef, Bob, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist and an alarming taste for cruelty.

But Monocle’s past is never far away and soon an altogether darker tale unfolds. As the chefs’ dreams of overthrowing Bob become a reality, Monocle’s dead-beat father shows up at his door, asking for help. With The Swan struggling to stay afloat and Monocle’s father dredging up lingering questions from an unhappy childhood, Chop Chop accelerates toward its blackly hilarious, thrilling, and ruthless conclusion.

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From the Publisher

Kirkus Review“Arch comedy . . . Dave Eggers channels Anthony Bourdain.”An outrageously funny and original debut set in the fast-paced and treacherous world of a restaurant kitchenFresh out of university with big dreams, our narrator is determined to escape his past and lead the literary life in London. But soon he is two months behind ...

SIMON WROE is a freelance journalist and former chef. He writes about food for Prospect magazine, art and culture for The Economist, and has contributed articles and features to a wide range of publications—including Private Eye, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and The Evening Standard. He is thirty-one years o...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8.27 × 5.47 × 0.74 inPublished:March 31, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143127004

ISBN - 13:9780143127000

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Praise for Simon Wroe’s Chop ChopACKNOWLEDGMENTSHEADSThey arrive in pairs most weeks, blushing like schoolgirls in the kitchen heat.Their eyes follow you around the room.Their tongues loll rudely from their mouths.Their snouts are rough from rooting.When you hold one and feel the hair and fat and clammy skin of it you wonder how different a person’s head would feel dead in your hands. Sometimes when you pick one up from the peach paper your fingers get stuck in its nostrils, like a bowling ball. Sometimes you can still feel old boogers up there. A strange feeling, that this head must have been alive once, because only a living thing could produce something as useless as snot.I’ve heard in fancy places they lather the snouts up and give them a gentleman’s shave with a cutthroat razor. Most kitchens use a blowtorch and burn the hair. It gives off a dark smell, which maybe the fancy places won’t stand for. We throw ours onto the burners and turn them with tongs until their eyes melt. Then we wrap them in a cloth and carry them over to the sink and wash the char off. We do it gently, like an apology. Ramilov, in one of his letters, says that’s what all cooking is: a smart apology for a savage act.Before the heads are brined and boiled, before they are torn apart at the jaws and the flesh is picked away from the gluey, shaking skin, we cut off the pigs’ ears. A respite, I like to think, from the easy listening radio and the catcalls of the chefs. With those long rubbery ears gone the heads look naked and sort of comical, like two old men at the end of the pier who lost their toupees when the wind picked up.I can’t stop looking at how they were killed. I don’t want to look. It makes me sick to my stomach. It makes me think I might not be cut out for this after all. A deep, yawning cleaver gash in the middle of each forehead, pushing the animal’s tongue through its teeth with the force.One chop. Sharp and swift.One for each of them. Chop chop.I suppose it’s something I’ll get used to in time.Now into the pot with you, piggy.Into the brine, swine.PART ITOSTART1. PELUCHERamilov was in the fridge and he would stay there until he knew better.“I want everyone to know,” said Bob, dragging one fat sausage finger across the room, “that people will be punished for their lifestyle choices here.”“You can’t ban love, chef,” Ramilov said from inside the walk-in.“I fucking can,” said Bob.And in that moment I personally believed, yes, Bob could ban love, he could do anything he pleased. Because when he said it, standing at the pass with a clutch of checks in his sweaty fist, in a pause between the demands for ravioli or onglet or potted prawns right fucking now and the constant haranguing and the whole “Generalissimo Bob marshaling the troops” act, Bob was the most powerful thing in the world. He was a giant, a blue whale, a Leviathan. On his colossal flanks we were mere flies. Bob was king of the universe. Thou shalt have no other god but Bob.I say was, because even kings can topple. Even gods fade away. And as surely as one falls, another rises in its place.—“Get to the point, Monocle. We don’t want your fucking life story.”This was Racist Dave’s warning, or literary suggestion, when he heard I intended to write about what happened to us: how we suffered under Bob, how we were drawn past him into that cruel and shadowy world, how we made the mistakes we did. Dave said he didn’t trust me to “make a beeline for the blood and gash,” that I yakked on too much. It is true that I am different from my fellow chefs, one who is not afraid to employ words like Leviathan if the situation demands it. Apparently Dave considers this a stain on my character, for he has appointed himself as a sort of editor to me. I didn’t mind showing him the drafts, I said, but let me handle the grammar. Dave said he didn’t care about that stuff anyway. He just wanted to make sure I didn’t get carried away with things, a continuation of a long-standing kitchen policy toward me. For many months, my mouth was barely open before the rebukes started flying: You speak like an arsehole, it has been observed. Stop babbling or I will stab you in the face—that was another one. Monocle is always so fucking proper. Well, pardon me if that is a crime.“Monocle” was Dave’s idea after Bob, with unconcealed glee, informed the kitchen of my English lit degree.“Fucking university,” said Dave. “That explains it.”Dave was proud of the nickname without good reason. Students do not wear monocles. I suggested he was thinking of a mortarboard. He suggested he was thinking of unspeakable acts with my mother. A rude man, Racist Dave, and an obtuse one. Whatever its origin, Dave used the nickname a lot, often several times in the same sentence, and with his sponsorship “Monocle” soon passed into the kitchen’s common parlance. Only Ramilov was reluctant to use it. He was angling for either “An Unsuitable Boy” or “An Extraordinary Cunt.” He was unhappy about a chiffonade of mint I had done that had bits of stalk in it. Ramilov was also unhappy about how much I talked, which he said, quote, was unbecoming in so shit a chef. And he was unhappy, like they all were, about my speed.“If you were moving any slower,” he said, “you would be going backward through time.”In his recent correspondence, Ramilov seconds Dave’s support for the project I have undertaken. He too wants a little light on the dark heart. Often he asks that I tell this story with “the greater truth in mind” and reminds me of a promise I made under some duress. I have not forgotten it. But how can we ever hope to explain what we did without retracing our steps back to Bob? Without Bob there would be no Fat Man, perhaps no Ramilov either. Bob brought us all together. Without his tremendous cruelty, what would I be? He made me grow up fast. He forged my resolve. Here, in these early memories of The Swan, I can see all the markers for our decline and resurrection, our past and future trials; all the creases of character and thought that brought us to a single moment in time.—Ramilov was in the walk-in now because of a peluche, or the lack of a peluche. Bob had a grouse on order for 38 and it was customary, essential even, for there to be a peluche of watercress, or failing that some sprig of dressed greenery at the very least, in a salad bowl on the pass in front of Bob but not wilting under the lights when all else was plated up and ready to go. Bob called for it late and sometimes he did not call for it at all, but it was Ramilov’s duty to know when a peluche was required and to have it standing by, and it was Ramilov’s fault if it were not.“Peluche!” came the cry for the grouse on 38 as the jus was sliding round the plate and the steam was rising into the hot lamps. No answer. No “Oui, chef!” Not a sniff.“Peluche!” Again the cry. But only silence in reply. Everyone in the kitchen looked over to Ramilov’s section because all cresses and leaves and salad gubbins were his responsibility, all cold starters and some of the hot ones too, but Ramilov had vanished.Service hung in midair. The crashing and twisting and shouting and rushing and searing and flicking, the whole carnival, seemed to freeze. Every man there—and the quiet dark-eyed girl in the corner too—drew in his breath. The burners and ceiling vents and clamor of the KPs all faded into the background. Boorish laughter and snatches of conversation carried from the tables, it was so deathly still. Voices of people who were not chefs could be heard in the kitchen, and that is the worst sound in the world.“Maybe he’s in dry store, chef,” offered Dave.“Or the yard, chef,” suggested Dibden.But Ramilov was not in the dry store or the yard. Nor was he in the wine cellar or the downstairs office, and the game of Where’s Ramilov? only ended at the bar, where Bob found him talking to the waitress with the button nose, halfway through his joke about how to dance to elevator Muzak. Bob was displeased, you could say, and expressed his displeasure to Ramilov in language that made the waitress’s little nose turn white. Ramilov maintained that dinner services would come and go while this thing he had with what’s-her-name here would last forever. He clicked his fingers and smiled at the girl.“Really, though,” he said. “What is your name?”Alas, he did not hear her reply. Bob had hooked a finger into his collar and was yanking him back through into the kitchen outlining his intentions to injure him severely and telling him he was in for it now, by god. Ramilov was protesting all the while and even when the walk-in door was shut and the lock was turned you could still hear him arguing dimly about free will and the tortuous odyssey of the heart, though the words were mostly lost to everyone but himself.Dave had sent the grouse to 38 before Bob could come back and make him plate it again out of spite, and Dibden had jumped from desserts over to Ramilov’s section and was banging out plates to keep on top of the checks piling up on the grabber above the pass. From time to time he glanced anxiously at the fridge where Ramilov was trapped. It was not so pleasant being locked in there, 4 degrees Celsius in the pitch dark, trying not to knock over anyone’s mise or you’d be in more trouble when you got out and might have to go straight back in again. Bob liked to call it his isolation tank or, if he was in a straight penal mood, the cooler. In the six weeks Ramilov had been in the kitchen he had made that fridge his own.“I should be charging that cunt rent,” Bob muttered, returning to the pass to make his announcement about lifestyle choices being punished.Dibden was starting to look increasingly nervous. Those dolorous features, always suggestive of struggle, darkened as the pressure grew. His long hands were fumbling and his movements were becoming leathery and he was saying “Sugar . . . sugar . . .” under his breath like a nervous twitch. Dibden was of the opinion that cuss words made Mary Magdalene cry and it was wrong to make any woman cry, especially a woman as nice as Mary Magdalene.“What is it, chef?” Bob had noticed his unrest and was glowering at him from the pass.“I’m out . . . I’m out of lemon halves, chef,” he replied.The lemons were in the fridge with wicked Uncle Ramilov.“Monocle,” Bob said, “stick your massive face into that walk-in and ask him to pass out some lemons. Don’t talk to the cunt or you’ll be in there with him.”“Yes, chef.”I didn’t know how to ask Ramilov for lemons without talking to him so I knocked on the door and kept my mouth shut.“I know,” said the voice of Ramilov. “Lemons.”I unlocked the door and opened it a fraction and a sinewy hand poked out with four lemons in it. Truly, it was the ugliest hand you ever saw. The kind of hand that comes up out of a grave at the end of a zombie film to claw dumbly at the sky. Every scar and welt and burn on it stood out against the whiteness of the skin. It was a crazed stump of hair and damaged tissue. Next to those smooth lemons it looked ridiculous. I held my cloth out like a hammock and the ugly hand dropped the lemons into it.“Treats for fatty,” Ramilov said in a sinister whisper only I was close enough to hear.The hand disappeared. Ramilov was referring to Bob, of course. Bob was not just a giant in his power over us; he was an actual giant. Six foot four and as wide as a cheese trolley side-on, with blubber tight all around him like his body had started to melt and then decided halfway through to cool and set instead. Bob had worked hard on that fat, gorging himself on anything that he could get his hands on, his sausage fingers never far from a tasty morsel on an outgoing plate, always slick with the saliva from his greasy, slobbering mouth. His face was permanently red, as complexions of his standing and blood pressure often are. It looked like the swollen heart of an ox.“Check on! Two chaka, one bass, one rav! Mains away!”“Oui, chef!”Bob turned and rigged the new check on the grabber in front of Dave, who was on sauce. With heavy-lidded eyes Dave studied the run of checks. The effort for him was in the reading, not the cooking.“Five minutes on those two chaka, yeah?” he asked the quiet dark-eyed girl in his northern drone.“Yeah,” she said briskly, pulling two plates off a shelf above her head and dropping breaded cubes of pig’s head terrine into the deep fat fryer.“Coming up on that rav same time, yeah, Dibden?”“Yeah.” Dibden was rooting around in the service fridge. “Where does Ramilov keep everything in here? There’s no order.”“Four and a half,” said Dave. He banged a skillet on a burner.The machinery was whirring again. Dibden huffed and puffed about Ramilov’s setup, it wasn’t human, no one could work like this, where was the remoulade anyway, why didn’t he keep the gribiche out.“Because it will spoil, you prick,” Ramilov said from the walk-in.—It was just past eight on a Wednesday evening in late November. A reasonable time to lock Ramilov in the fridge. Several days of piercing winds and slushy rain, the kind of weather that turns Camden Town into a very low and uncaring sort of neighborhood, had put people off going out. The dining room of The Swan was half full; upstairs was shut. No office parties tonight. Forty on the books. A handful of walk-ins at most. But at some point in the next hour the dessert checks would start coming in from the early tables while the late tables were still ordering starters and mains, and Dibden, doing the splits between Ramilov’s section and his own, would find himself greatly inconvenienced. “To sink like a sack of shit” is the correct terminology for this phenomenon, as Racist Dave often reminds me. Everyone was praying that Bob would change his mind about Ramilov and release him before the evening turned unpleasant.“Fuck!” shouted Ramilov. “Something just bit me in here.”Bob grinned evilly from the pass.“You found my little Christmas present, chef.”“Booboo?”“Guess again.”“What is that?” shouted Ramilov.“I let the lobsters out,” said Bob. “And I took the bands off their claws.”He chuckled at the thought of Ramilov locked in a box with the lobsters angry and liberated, snapping at his ankles in the dark.“If you damage any of them, chef, it’s coming out of your wages.”Ramilov’s response was brief but heartfelt.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.Aside from Dibden, who bore The Mark of Bob upon his hand and who, despite that, still defended him when the insults were swarming over pints in O’Reillys, there was not one man or quiet dark-eyed girl or kitchen porter in the place who did not hate Chef Bob. No one fought with him as Ramilov did, but I knew how they felt even if they never told a soul, because I am the commis. In the kitchen the commis is everywhere. Like a fly, he sees things that no one else sees, things he is not supposed to see. It is his job to buzz this way and that, from fridge to section to dry store to pass to wine cellar, fetching and prepping and chopping things the other chefs do not have time to fetch and prep and chop. I am the one beside the chef whom Bob is bollocking, topping up his herb bundles. I am the one sweeping the yard, unnoticed, when plots are being hatched over cigarette breaks. I am the one in the dry store trying to pull a fifteen-kilo sack of flour over your weeping body. I am the third who walks always beside you.You are the one with the puckered arsehole—I can hear Racist Dave now—fucking hurry up and tell the story.The bass was on the pass. The two charcuterie boards were up. Dibden, who had found the ravioli, scooped them from the chauffant of swirling jade water and slid them into a pan of butter browning with fried sage, tossing gently.“Where’s that fucking rav?”“Ten seconds, chef,” he shouted, still tossing.“If you toss that again, Dibden,” said Bob, “I’ll toss you.”Dibden stopped tossing and swiveled round with the pan to plate up, straight into Shahram the KP, hunched over the pot bin looking for washing up.“Backpleez!” Shahram cried in fear and pain.“Sugar!” Dibden shouted, managing to steady the pan. “Say ‘Backs,’ Sharon! Always say ‘Backs’!”“Fucking chaud behind, yeah, Sharon?” said Dave.“Backpleez,” said Shahram again. He was terrified, dancing nervously from one leg to the other like he needed to piss, eyes goggling out of his skull, face twisted with incomprehension. Shahram’s English was very respectable as far as it went—chauffant, moulis, ramekin, gastro, small spoons, more black pans, potato, backpleez, fucking chaud—only it did not go so far. He knew what a chinois was but not a chair.Camp Charles, the maître d’, stuck his head around the door.“Table of eight just entered, chef.”This prompted roars of disapproval from the chefs, who had figured on a quiet service, a quick clean down and an early night. Curses were extended in the direction of Camp Charles.“Out of my kitchen, gaylord,” said Bob.Camp Charles gasped in mock indignation.“So forceful,” he mouthed. In the dining room he was charm itself, infinitely accommodating, always discreet. Away from the front of house he spoke entirely in sexual suggestion. Everything out of diners’ earshot sounded like the purest filth. He could make the word plate sound so nasty you wouldn’t have one in the house, let alone eat off it. “Give me two beef, darling,” he would deadpan from the other side of the pass. “Where’s my meat, you bitch?”Now the ticket machine squawked.“Ça marche desserts! Two pear, two claf, one ganache! On and away!”“Oui, chef,” Dibden answered forlornly. It had started sooner than expected.“What’s the matter, chef?” sneered Bob.“Nothing, chef!”“Monocle! More plate wipes!”“Parsnip puree top up! In my tall!”“Drop chips for an onglet!”“Little shit!” Ramilov cried in pain from the fridge.The ticket machine exploded into a fit of squawks, refusing to be silent.“The big ’un from Wigan,” said Dave.“Ça marche! One chaka, one fish board, three rav, two bass, one onglet, one eel, ONE LOBSTER! All together, on and away!”“Oui, chef!”“Monocle,” said Dave, “ask Ramilov for a lobster. Now.”I knocked on the fridge door.“I know,” said the voice of Ramilov. “Lobster.”I cracked open the door and the sinewy zombie hand emerged again. Its index finger was extended, a little accusingly, I thought, in my direction. A large midnight-blue lobster was hanging from the second knuckle by a pincer.“Take this one,” Ramilov said in a tired voice.The lobster had a good grip. As I struggled to pry it free, Ramilov called me many dark and impossible things. Then the door was shut and he was heard no more. Ramilov should have blamed Bob for his misfortune, or the lobster at a push, but who is it that gets the blame? The commis receives a lot of grief that is not deserved.“Coming up on the big ’un in seven!” Dave shouted.“Oui!”Dibden was sweating now, heating sugar for a caramelized pear dish in one pan while he poured clafoutis batter into two floured ramekins and slid them into the combi oven. He pushed aside Dave’s confit Jerusalem artichokes.“Desserts on top,” he said. “That’s the rule.”“Such a pastry boy,” said Dave.Dibden ignored him and leaned across his section for the unsalted butter. He threw a few cubes into the pan of sugar and shook it, then turned again and grabbed three pears from his service fridge, quartered and cored them and chucked them into the pan with the caramel. One piece fell on the floor.“Do another one, chef.” Bob was watching from the pass, a wolf outside a pig’s house.Dibden rushed back to his service fridge, scrabbled for another pear, cut one quarter out of it and cored it sloppily, then threw it into the pan with the others. Now he was behind. He spun back to Ramilov’s section, searching madly for the smoked eel mix, couldn’t find it, cried out, then saw it, tore the plastic wrap from the top of it, grabbed two spoons and a clean plate from the rack beside him and began quenelling furiously, scraping the edge of one spoon into the hollow of the other, molding the mixture into a smooth oval. His hands were starting to shake. The kitchen watched him silently. Bob’s eyes were hungry and sly.“Your pears,” said Dave.Dibden ran to the stove and caught the caramel as it started to smoke, strained a glug of brandy into it and shook again, then swung over to the combi, tried to fit the pan on top but couldn’t because of Dave’s artichokes, muttered something under his breath and slammed them in below. Someone on the big table told a joke and there was a sudden burst of laughter, trailed by other subsidiary jokes and eddies of laughter. You couldn’t hear what the jokes were in the kitchen, and you couldn’t see the kitchen from where the table was, but the merriment seemed somehow, indisputably, directed at Dibden and his current misfortune.“Dibden,” said Bob, “that’s not the plate for the eel.”Dibden looked about wildly.“What is the plate for the eel, chef?”“You should know that, chef,” said Bob.Please, everyone was thinking, please let Ramilov out.“The square one,” said Dave.Dibden scraped the eel mix off the round plate and back into the container and started quenelling again. His hands shook so bad the mix was flying off the spoons, spilling all over the worktop.“Three minutes on the big ’un.”Dibden remembered something and dropped the spoons and ducked back into the service fridge and pulled out a gastro of ravioli.“How many rav was it?” he asked weakly.“Three,” said Dave. “In three minutes.”Dibden peeled nine raviolis from the gastro and ran over to the chauffant, where he dropped them into a waiting spaghetti basket. The scuzzy water swallowed. In the fifth circle of hell, sighs of the sullen frothed the vile broth. Then he slid back to Ramilov’s section and started quenelling again.“Don’t forget that ganache, Dibden,” said Bob. “I want everything looking fucking soigné.”Even a much-maligned commis such as myself could see by the way Dibden was comporting himself that things were going to end badly for all concerned. I was praying for Ramilov to be released. But you could not beg Bob; he was not a merciful man. You would have been handing the ax to the executioner, so to speak. Sometimes my hatred for Bob burned so fierce I feared he would see the flame and decide to stub me out once and for all. But Bob was so big and I was so small it seemed he did not notice me, and so I kept on with my bowing and scraping and burning and plotting, waiting for my moment, dreaming of a way that we, the chefs, might end him.“Check on! One rav, one pigeon, THREE EEL! That’s four rav and four eel all day! And there’s another dessert check on and away!”“Having fun, chef?” Bob asked Dibden.“Oui, chef,” replied Dibden, who was not.“How long on these first fucking desserts?”“Two . . . Four minutes, chef.”“Four minutes?” Bob snarled. “You all right over there, chef?”“Yes, chef.”“You look like you’re going down.”“No, chef,” said Dibden. You could never admit you were going down.“D’you want I defrost the Russian?”“If you want, chef,” said Dibden, desperate.Bob sighed and made a flick at some crumbs on the pass. He toyed with the idea, letting the kitchen squirm.“All right,” he said at last. “Let the cunt out.”I went straight over to the walk-in, unlocking it as fast as I could. Ramilov had been unnaturally quiet since the lobster. He was only in chef’s whites in there—perhaps the cold had got to him. It was hard to know exactly how long he had been inside; time in the kitchen was like time nowhere else; no law governed its leaps and crawls. For a moment I thought I would find him curled up in the corner, a poor lump with lobsters feeding on his eyes. I opened the door, just a wedge at first. There was only darkness. No sound. No sign of life. Had Bob finally done it? Had he made good on his promise and killed Ramilov? I pulled the door open farther and the light clicked on and Ramilov pushed past me and out into the bright swelter of the kitchen looking almost all right, as almost all right as he ever looked, his arms outstretched like a homecoming hero, triumphant.“Hello, bitches,” he said. “Did you miss me?”2. TRIALHow did I end up here, chopping carrots on the back bench and daydreaming about destroying Bob? Ramilov and Racist Dave have often asked what a person like me was doing in a place like this, though perhaps in words less civil. This job, you should know, was not something I ever wanted. I took it when I was two months behind on the rent and the landlady cursed me in Portuguese whenever we passed on the steps. Filho da puta, pentelho, good for nahting, polícia will know. Dear Mrs. Molina, a study in black and gray. Stately, though prone to a quiver about the jaw when money was mentioned. Sweet Mrs. Molina, who had absorbed the colors and textures of the city until her look was solid concrete and her face like the back of a bus. A slight, short-sighted woman, you would never have expected the foul things that came out of her mouth in reference to your humble narrator. Aggressive in her cleaning too. Forever spraying that funereal air freshener. Squirting it through the keyhole of my room while I dozed, as if I were some monstrous bug. Gregor Samsa choking on the stench of roses.It was not much of a setup, yet I had become sort of attached to this grimy Regency town house, its rubbish-strewn grilles out front protecting a rubbish-strewn basement, its scuffed gray door declaring NO JUNK MAIL OR FLYERS, the sooty shadows above. My bolt-hole lodgings, partitioned along one side to accommodate a minute communal bathroom, bore the pleasant wear and tear of previous tenants. Scuffs, burns, a bad stain on the carpet where someone might have sacrificed a goat. Perfect for the downtrodden creative. Freckled mirror, chipped sink—all mod cons. Well-appointed view of strip between church and betting shop. Fragrant landlady seeks discreet and respectful professionals. No junk males or fly-by-nights.Before The Swan, I would sit in an ancient armchair that smelled of hand lotion and read novels from the charity shop downstairs. Or I would watch, through the peeling sash window, the sleepless criminal bustle at the shabbier end of Camden Road. The chewed-up faces and hands cupped for change, the weathered ski jackets with bulging pockets, the stiff, brisk, kneeless walk. Use so-and-so’s mobile, tell him I want three, two white, tell him yourself, I’ve got no credit, hurry up. The waiting, the fading into the background until they were no longer there, only to reemerge implausibly in a later act, like the crew of a Shakespearean shipwreck.So often was I peering out of that window, observing the tireless tide of barter and exchange, I had begun to name these lurking, fading characters. There was Rosemary Baby, a tiny woman with the face of a very young girl and a hoarse, emaciated voice that rose, singsong, over the hubbub of the street. She had parted me from five valuable pounds on my first day—a labyrinthine sob story about catching a bus to hospital and a stolen handbag, please mister serious mister honest to god mister—and cackled now whenever she saw me. That well-dressed gentleman strolling leisurely through the crowds, hands behind his back, I knew as This Charming Man: the embodiment of good manners when he asked you for money, the devil himself when you refused. On the corner of a side street, a man I thought of as The Last Lehman Brother sometimes slept in a blood-red Porsche.The person who most obsessed and terrified me, however, was a gnarled Rastafarian with one dead white eye who conducted his business from outside the betting shop. I called him One-Eyed Bruce. Oh, I had considered showier nicknames (Cyclops Dread?) but the last thing anyone wants is a mythology they can’t live up to. Best Burger opposite the Tube, for instance, whose grisly patties had me memorizing the Portuguese Lord’s Prayer in Mrs. Molina’s latrina. Such names are breeding grounds for disappointment, among other things.Sometimes Bruce’s solitary working eye, roving this way and that in search of customers or Babylon, would light upon me watching from the window above and he would crook a long, skeleton finger up and shout, loud enough for the whole street to hear, “I see you, pussyclot! Come down, pussyclot!”On these occasions I would duck back out of sight, draw the curtains from a kneeling position and turn my attention to other matters. My reflection, for instance, which loomed back at me, wide-angled, morose, insistent without ever being so good as to tell me what it insisted. A face like this was how mirrors got broken. Peering into the tarnished oval over the little washbasin I would look for stray hairs growing between my eyebrows that I could tweeze or blackheads on my nose I could squeeze, and wonder, with no small allowance of self-pity, why One-Eyed Bruce had found it in his heart to hate me so. Why, with all this choice, all this competition, was it me he chose to torment?Why too had I chosen Camden Town? Scene of a million teenage rebellions, where the anticonformist slogans are printed on sweatshop T-shirts, where punks eat in fast-food chains and the Rastas have only mixed herbs in their pockets. All these bold statements diluted. The iconoclasts posing for pictures. A muted, contrary, theme-park place. Yes, Camden Town was next to the zoo with good reason. It was a parade of denied impulses, of things reduced to type, of lions that could not remember how to hunt. It upset me to see it. Yet here I was at the center of it. What was I denying? What petty rebellion was I staging?But I was not familiar with London and its neighborhoods when I arrived, a competent degree from a mid-table university to my name, a great career as a writer no doubt just around the corner. Camden Town was the only place I could remember. This was my excuse. I recalled a place of cheap food and sanitized vice, a place whose risks were minimal despite its claims to the contrary. The side of Camden away from the market, however, the side where Mrs. Molina’s lodgings stood, was different. Its sleaze was real. Faces of young girls loomed out of doorways at me, calling to me sadly as I scurried past. No time, I would tell them, proud of how polite, how charming, I had been. No time for gratification, my dear. Not all of us are burdened by such needs. Some of us have loftier concerns, like the book I would soon begin to write. Besides, I had no money.—Money, or the lack of it, was how I ended up at The Swan. For a while there is a pleasure in economy—stealing toilet paper and ketchup packets from pubs, traveling the city on foot, obsessively tracking down the cheapest portion of chips, the most basic cup of coffee—but it soon becomes miserable trying to resist every tickling urge. By evening you are exhausted. You lie on your bed like a man with smallpox, aware of all the spots of want and desire about your body, listening to the cries of the city outside your window as other people realize those desires, unable to move because the slightest motion will inflame those itches a hundred times over. . . . It is a horrible condition. Not a pure form of poverty, but certainly its suburbs. Otherwise I believe I might have frittered away the rest of my existence in that overstuffed armchair. Given time the human creature can get used to just about anything, and my natural laziness had allowed me to adapt quickly. Even the pentelho and threats of polícia and pussyclot had started to take on a reassuring familiarity. But I needed money, needed it to avoid going home, so I put on my secondhand overcoat and went looking for a job.What would I do? I was not against work. That was not my position at all. I considered work a very fine and noble endeavor. I just didn’t want to do it myself. And under no circumstances would I do a McJob, because that’s where he always said I’d end up. I toyed briefly with the idea of being a street cleaner. They earned good money, apparently. I could sweep the city and watch the people and let my mind wander. But a council gig would take an age to process: my scant savings were already gone and the hock money for my hi-fi was running out quicker than I had expected. Moreover, I could hear his mocking voice as my mother relayed the news that his youngest was sweeping the streets. A cleaner? In a pinny or mopping turds? I did not care too much for hospitality either. My poor brother had taken the sociable genes. But I reckoned, up against it, that I could stomach a few months behind a bar.So I papered the public houses of Camden with my brief but thoughtful CV (three weeks as a script prompt for a university production of Julius Caesar; hobbies include walking and “being in nature”), and I waited. The Swan was the only place to reply, which made me immediately suspicious of it as an establishment. Why would anyone want to hire me? I had no bar experience, no kitchen experience, no waitering experience, no silver service training. I could not pull a pint. I could not serve a roast potato. I had a dissertation about modernist discourses between the individual and the city that a tutor had said was a good attempt. I had an A-level in medieval history and a hole in my trousers I couldn’t afford to get patched. Any business that needed me had it pretty rough. In truth, I was already a little disappointed in The Swan before I got the job.—The Swan is on a street immediately parallel with Camden High Street that gets none of its big sister’s traffic. Unless you have business on that street, or you take a wrong turn, you would never visit it. The market in Camden attracts the crowds of Italian tourists with Day-Glo backpacks, the teenage drug dealers and indie stragglers; the high street draws in the local shoppers and the area’s more discerning bums. The Swan’s street attracts a different type of pedestrian. The people you find on this street are guests at the boardinghouses at its far end, semirespectable places with names like The Star of Alexandria or Regency Court. You might see the odd door-to-door salesman in blazer and brown shoes still pounding the pavement, a foot-sore dinosaur in a digital age. Or you might spot a vagrant looking for a quiet place to shit or shoot up. With a favorable wind, this last kind might stumble upon an alleyway between a car park and a shabby terraced house halfway up to Mornington Crescent. When it is not being used as a toilet, this is the trade entrance to The Swan.Here I arrived one morning in October, my hiking boots swinging by my side in a plastic bag, unsure what the hell I was doing. On the phone the man had told me to bring sensible footwear and knives if I had them. I didn’t. My landlady did not permit me to use her kitchen because I was a pentelho good for nahting, but I wouldn’t have even if I could. I was quite busy enough with all my street watching and novel reading and blackhead squeezing without worrying myself with cooking. Furthermore, some of Camden’s kebab shops are very well regarded.There was no answer to my knocking at the back gate in the alley. I found it was open, and wandering through into the yard I saw trays of stew and sauce and carcasses of mysterious meat covering every inch of a wooden picnic table. Deliveries of vegetables were stacked as tall as a man on the ground. Huge stockpots steamed like restive volcanoes. In front of me, sounds of music and conversation carried from an open doorway covered by a chain screen. I stuck my hand through this portal and stepped inside.It was a small room packed to the gunwales with food and equipment and containers and cutlery of every imaginable kind and shape. Alien species of sieve and colander hung from the hooks in the ceiling next to gigantic ladles and slotted spoons and what looked like instruments of medieval torture. There were strange metal trays wrapped so many times in plastic wrap that the contents were opaque. On a long buckled shelf that ran the length of the left-hand wall, cookbooks and recipe cards sat beside a hi-fi of such age and decrepitude it seemed unkind to use it. A sign next to a large, glowing switch said, IF THIS IS OFF THEN WE ARE ALL FUCKED. A pair of stainless steel work surfaces stretched away from me, with stainless steel fridges beneath them, and where they ended another began, running across the top of them to form a giant π symbol. Behind that, at the far end of the room, a line of metal stoves pumped out a wall of heat I could feel from where I stood.Two men were standing side by side in front of these stoves, prodding at pans on the burners and then turning to their work sections to chop and weigh and mix.“I went to that Gourmet Burger the other day,” one man was telling the other in flat northern tones. “All right, but what’s gourmet about it? I still say you can’t beat a Nando’s.”“Nando’s?” said the other man, stooping to read the measuring scales on account of his gangliness. “It’s not chicken.”“Of course it is,” said the first chef. “What is it, then? It’s not fucking Poulet de Bresse, but it is chicken.”“Hello,” I said. “I’m here about the job.”Both chefs looked up in unison. Their eyes were ringed with shadows, their faces gray and hollowed. I thought I saw, just possibly, the tiniest hint of amusement somewhere in their features, a dark and unknown joke slowly tickling them.“You need to see the chef,” said the northerner hereafter known as Racist Dave. “Have a look in the bar.”The taller man, who would later introduce himself as Dibden, nodded in sympathy or agreement.They did not stop working, but their eyes followed me past the walk-in fridge and out of the room. The bar and restaurant area was at the end of a narrow corridor. To the left was a small box room stacked with rice and flour and pulses, the dry store. To the right were stairs leading to the cellar. Down there, I would soon learn, was the office where Bob reviewed the closed-circuit television system to see if his chefs were stealing from him; also the alcohol reserves, and the enormous chest freezers for storing meat and occasionally less reputable items.The main room was a handsome old-fashioned saloon bar with frosted windows, dark chocolate wood and a sad, lingering smell of old beer and spilled coffee. Small taxidermied animals—a pheasant, an otter, a mangy-looking fox—sat around the room on high plinths. Above the till was a silver statue of a swan that looked expensive. In the middle of this room, his great bulk balanced ridiculously on a stool at the bar, Bob, my future tormentor, surveyed a sheaf of bills. He looked glum. His head, part bald, part shaved, stuck out of him like a bollard. Gravity had gathered the fat on his face into folds around his jowls and throat but left his cheeks and nose sheer. Eyes fell fast from that face, but they got a soft landing. His own eyes were large and liquid-dark, feminine. He regarded me unhappily as I explained why I was there.“There’s no bar work going,” he said, “but I need more bodies in the kitchen. People keep leaving.”He looked at me as if daring me to say something about it. I remained silent.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews"[A]rch comedy... Dave Eggers channels Anthony Bourdain."The New York Times Book Review“At its best, food is a sensory pleasure that also fosters less tangible joys. At its worst, to paraphrase one of the many vivid characters in Simon Wroe’s first novel, Chop Chop, watching someone eat is like watching a body convert food into waste before your eyes. The character phrases it less delicately, but many of the book’s funniest moments—and they are plentiful—are also its most unprintable. That’s as it should be. Wroe depicts the literal underworld of a restaurant kitchen with wit, vigor, and gleeful, necessary profanity… Wroe adroitly contrasts the refinement of food with the coarseness of the cook, the cruelty of a leader with the miserable acceptance from his underlings, and Monocle’s highbrow diction with some truly undignified subject matter. His voice provides the second-greatest pleasure of the book after the sheer crackling energy of the setting. Monocle doesn’t revel in the mayhem but he delivers his account of it, often hilariously, with warped dignity of a man who resolutely remains his insecure, grandiloquent self, though being himself has never done him much good”St. Louis Post-Dispatch"For evidence of Simon Wroe’s talent, look no further than the first sentence of his first novel, Chop Chop: “They arrive in pairs most weeks, blushing like schoolgirls in the kitchen heat.” Perfectly constructed, both beautiful and brutal (Wroe is describing pigs’ heads arriving in a restaurant kitchen), written with great economy. Funny and dark and accurate. Teasing the reader to keep reading. All 276 pages of Chop Chop are this good... Indeed, Wroe’s kitchen scenes and their chefs jump off the page, crackling, alive...Chop Chop has what Monocle attributes to Tolstoy and what all good writing aspires to: 'It’s exactly the right side of conspiratorial: everyone feels included and everyone feels unique.'"Bookpage"Simon Wroe is a former chef, so it’s no surprise that he set his debut novel in a kitchen. What is surprising about Chop Chop, though, is how little Wroe lets this fiendish little book get bogged down in the details of its setting. It’s very much about the chaotic life of a kitchen, but this darkly comic narrative covers so much more, and the result is addictively entertaining... Everything is amplified in this cramped, sweaty little space, but Wroe still leaves plenty of room for the unexpected, the uncomfortable and the uncommonly funny. Chop Chop might be fiction, but the truth of the author’s experience shines through. The result is a compelling debut from a mischievous new voice."Entertainment Weekly"Kitchen Nightmares has nothing on the horrors of the Swan, the fancy London restaurant in Wroe's darkly comic novel. In the eyes of our unnamed narrator, a student-turned-novice chef, the Swan's kitchen is a torture chamber — but also a sanctuary for its staff of oddballs, who thrive on filthy potshots. (''You've got the fattest arse I've ever seen. We should get your arse in a pan and render it.'') Plot isn't Wroe's strongest suit; the story hinges on a shadowy, underdeveloped villain known only as the Fat Man and his cultlike dinner club. But brightly drawn characters and delectable writing (a frazzled chef's head is said to look ''farther away than ever, pushed out of the top of his body like toothpaste from a tube'') make this debut a first course worth savoring. Grade: B+"The Rumpus“Darkly comical and full of surprising moments of fierce emotion. Wroe is an uninhibited writer who doesn’t shy away from the grotesque or the rainbow of vocabulary used in the heat of a dinner service.”The Independent (UK)“Savagery and violence are at the heart of Chop Chop; in the kitchen, in Monocle's past, and in the relationships between the characters, but, as in a perfectly baked molten chocolate cake, there's also a rich, gooey pool of dark comedy hiding beneath the surface. Despite straying into the realm of sabotage, blackmail and secret dinner parties serving stomach-churning illegal fare, Wroe's novel makes for fresh, appetizing reading.”Daily Mail (UK)“Brace yourself for this lively, amusing and alarmingly informative novel ... the horribly plausible cast and foul-mouthed mania of the kitchen--described by a former chef who knows what he's writing about--give this book its energy and best laughs.”Flavorwire"[I]t is the kitchen that gives Chop Chop its bite. There’s a whole other story there, but The Swan’s kitchen, full of “haggard faces at the back of the gate inquiring about an ad in the classifieds or a boardinghouse window, oddballs who had come from nowhere and would go to nowhere,” is what makes Chop Chop a great kitchen novel. From describing the battle-scarred hands of a chef to the overall rhythm that goes into making every plate of food, Wroe (who has worked as a chef in London) makes this ugly world delicious."Fiction Writers Review"In Chop Chop (The Penguin Press, 2014), a foodie’s nightmare and a biting parody of a restaurant kitchen commanded by a sadist, Simon Wroe exposes the underbelly of a kitchen beast. The secrets George Orwell revealed in Down and Out in London and Paris (remember, the more food is handled in preparation the more it costs) pale in comparison to the practices in the Camdentown kitchen of The Swan. The author, a former chef, certainly has (forgive me) the chops to tell this story. Wroe knows his way around the batterie de cuisine as well as the literary canon, and shows off both bodies of knowledge here... Readers with a taste for kitchen confidential tales served up raw will enjoy this novel with its side order of domestic drama and literary allusions ranging from Mary Poppins to Macbeth... Compliments to Chef Wroe, but dear reader, beware. Bring your iron-clad stomach and prepare for a meal bloody as steak tartare. This smart, snide take down of culinary and literary pretension may be hazardous to your appetite for dining out. Consume at your own risk."Publishers Weekly“Wroe’s imaginative metaphors and gritty kitchen colloquialisms are the key ingredients in a story that will appeal to anyone with a taste for the morbid and the whimsical.”Library Journal“A kitchen confessional that makes Anthony Bourdain’s and Bill Buford’s memoirs pale in comparison. Foodies will like this insider account of the London gastro scene, while others will appreciate a ripping good yarn.”Bookpage“Addictively entertaining...Everything is amplified in this cramped, sweaty little space, but Wroe still leaves plenty of room for the unexpected, the uncomfortable and the uncommonly funny…A compelling debut from a mischievous new voice.”Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story“A brutally funny look at the world of professional cooking. Sometimes the truth is so strange it needs to be sautéed in a pan of fiction.”Anya Von Bremzen, author Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing“Furiously funny, fast, surreal, brutal—Chop Chop puts a Dickensian supercharge into the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a restaurant kitchen. The heat and the profanity feel painfully real; the prose, masterfully stylized, definitely the stuff of fiction. The vividly drawn characters stay with you for a long time. If Chop Chop were a dish, I’d keep craving more.”Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love“If like me, you’ve ever made your living from restaurant work, you’ll recognize The Swan with a comical shiver. Chop Chop captures the combustible mix of sadism, gallows humor, machismo, and surprising perfectionism that powers many a professional kitchen. And it’s all served up to us in great fun.”