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Test Kitchen by Neil Stewart: One chaotic and thrilling evening of service



Test Kitchen by Neil Stewart: One chaotic and thrilling evening of service

ISBN-13: ‎978-1472158253

Any reviewer who gets wound up by a novel, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, is like a person putting on armour to attack a hot fudge sundae. This is broadly a wise sentiment, and a good way to gauge whether personal biases are clouding a critic’s interpretation and opinion of a book, but nonetheless I stand here before you in full chain mail for this week’s review of Neil Stewart’s Test Kitchen, an infuriatingly brilliant novel let down in the end by its infrastructure.

The sophomore novel of the Scottish writer is set in a high-end London restaurant over one chaotic, some might say demented, evening of service on a random Tuesday in 2013. A polyphonic narrative that drifts into the minds and back stories of staff and customers alike, it unfurls with tremendous speed and energy, recreating the tense, thrilling atmosphere of the fine-dining restaurant world with aplomb.

Stewart gives the reader a whirlwind tour of a Michelin-starred restaurant, helmed by Glaswegian tour-de-force Chef Joanna, written nicely against type. From the ash tree in the middle of the diningroom, to the plush, soothing furnishings, to the quietly ordered way the pass is managed, the staff at Midgard feel as if “they’d never worked anywhere so undysfunctional”.

Central to the narrative is the restaurant’s newest waitress Marley, an Australian in her 20s who dreams of becoming an actor. In addition to these stalled hopes, she is, as the book begins, quite literally stuck, in the gap between the industrial fridges and the prep counters, in a busy kitchen gearing up for an eight-course tasting menu. Something bad has happened to Marley to leave her marooned in this liminal space, rendered immobile, our eyes and ears on the tumultuous service that unfolds.

Among the many characters we meet throughout the evening, all of them vibrantly drawn, there is a precocious 12-year-old dining with his warring parents, a nervous new sous chef, an acerbic restaurant critic, a former solider turned chef, and a handsome maître d’ with a face so beautiful “it was hard to stare for too long, before the part of your brain that scanned for flaws in beauty so you could bear to look on it went a little haywire”.

Born in Glasgow but living in London, Stewart has a masters in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. His first novel The Glasgow Coma Scale was published in 2014. He freelances as a proofreader and editorial assistant for galleries and museums, and is arts editor of the online magazine Civilian.

His meticulous detailing of the restaurant world, the painstaking work, creativity, the food, lifestyle, camaraderies and rivalries, brings to mind novels like Ross Raisin’s A Hunger and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, but the overall tone and thrust of Test Kitchen has more in common with Chelsea Summer’s madcap, murderous satire A Certain Hunger. Stewart’s blend of literary prose with the trappings of genre fiction shows a writer with great range.

This ingenuity and flair are most noticeable in the depth of the characters’ back stories, which are by turns depraved, hilarious and deeply moving. The efforts of that precocious 12-year-old to get his parents back together is an example of the latter. Elsewhere, there’s a dessert chef stalked by a one-night stand, a widow with adulterous secrets, a scientist about to be felled by an allergy, and a clan of brothers dealing with the legacy of their father’s abuse: “His wrath flowed wild, unpredictable and terrifying, and its effect had been to sabotage his own plans; for if the coldness, the aloofness, the sudden blazing furies had been a strategy for moulding his sons into equally vicious men; or more, maybe – to create and perpetuate a cycle of generational abuse – then it had failed.”

With a book with so much virtuosic storytelling, it pains me to say there is a need for a cleaner structure, a good edit, overall. The omniscient narrative, which at its best reminded me of Damon Galgut’s formidable novel The Promise, a lot of the time reeks of its effort and artifice. There are lengthy overheard conversations, Dictaphone recordings, reviews, mysterious phone calls, among other metatextual devices, all of which Marley is somehow able to tap into.

Transitions between the perspectives come with jolting shifts in time and place, forgivable in the early stages of the novel with so much else to enjoy, but less so in the final quarter where readers are expecting the writer to follow through on what he’s set up over the course of the narrative. Instead twists and revelations get swallowed up in the scaffolding, or worse, just left dangling. All of which is to say, that if Test Kitchen were itself an eight-course tasting menu, we’d all be in heaven until the desserts.

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