The Cook, his Wife and the Waitress – Service by Sarah Gilmartin

I won’t be the first to write a tagline reminiscent of the ace 1989 Peter Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, for this book. They have little in common other than a cook and a wife, but I couldn’t resist, sorry!

A more apt comparison would be with Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter – about a young woman coming to New York and getting a waiting job in a high class restaurant, but I haven’t read that. Rebecca reviewed it for Shiny here though and loved it. I have, however, seen the American TV series they made of that novel and there are many parallels between Tess there, and Hannah in Gilmartin’s second novel.

The setting is a top-end restaurant in Dublin, ‘T’, later renamed after its Head Chef Daniel Costello, who has worked his way up from a disadvantaged childhood to two Michelin stars. Hannah went for a job there, being surprised to be taken on as a waitress; she only intended to work the summer until going up to Trinity as a student. Hers is the first voice we hear from.

I suppose it is fair to say that when I went there for a job, I had an idea that I was not uneasy on the eye. But it wasn’t something I thought about all that much. And then after that summer, when I no longer worked there, which is to say when I was fired, I did not want to think about it at all.

Daniel rather takes to Hannah, educating her palate between services, but also being a bit handy… we know from the start that something happened later with someone there. Around a year later, several former employees bring accusations of sexual assault. Daniel declares he is innocent, but is forced to close the restaurant temporarily. Hannah isn’t one of them, but Mel, who had been the lead waitress, is one of his accusers: Daniel’s lawyers plan to destroy her reputation.

The third voice is Julie, Daniel’s wife, who is persuaded to stick by him, but now they are in separate bedrooms. She suffers angrily, as friends and family melt away. She always knew that she was second in his life, that the restaurant comes first, but now he’s made her by association an object of scorn or pity. Now he is at home all day, trying to bond more with his sons, which isn’t working either, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. To say the atmosphere in their house is tense is understatement. In that respect, I was reminded of the 2016 TV miniseries National Treasure which starred Robbie Coltrane as a similarly accused comedian and quiz show host.

Gilmartin is clever in the way that she structures the novel, mixing before and after scenes and the three voices. Hannah tells us all about learning the trade, and about some of the awful customers, including gropers, and the amounts they tip. She also shares the behind the scenes life of the restaurant; the long hours, the family meal before service, the after closing drinks, the camaraderie that builds between staff (which reminded me a little of that between the staff of the indie cinema in Camilla Grudova’s Children of Paradise). Meanwhile, Daniel’s voice initially gives us his view of what makes a great chef…

A great chef knows exactly what everyone in his kitchen is doing at any given time. He can sense disorder the moment he walks into the building. The wrong angle of a knife, an over-reduced sauce, a service on the cusp of chaos. One feels these things before one sees them, one anticipates the mistakes. Never leave the ants to their own devices. If there are faults in the kitchen, a great chef blames no one but himself.

Of course, this is not always possible. I have been known, on occasion, to shout, curse, to lose my temper, fling the odd pan across the pass. There have been casualties. […] And I regret some of them. I am not a monster. […]

This is the problem with young chefs today–too much limelight, not enough accountability. […] the labour that goes into every plate, how the margin for error is so infinitesimal that if one condones mistakes or insolence, things fall apart.

Getting all sides of life in the restaurant was fascinating. These scenes become less frequent once Daniel’s trial approaches though and I missed them, but the emphasis has shifted towards the court process. We suffer with Julia, forced to sit in the gallery in support of Daniel every day, when that is the last thing she wants. Gilmartin has written three fully realised main characters, all of whom we can sympathise with at various times as events get more complex, the balance she achieves between them in the novel is superb. The supporting cast are well-crafted too, from Mel to the obsequious Colin, the front of house manager. If you enjoy character-driven fiction, you will love this perfectly-paced novel as I did. Highly recommended – and I need to go back to her debut, Dinner Party, now.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Pushkin One hardback, 256 pages. (May 2023).

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4 thoughts on “The Cook, his Wife and the Waitress – Service by Sarah Gilmartin

  1. madamebibilophile says:

    This does sound really well done. And I’d forgotten about National Treasure! I think I meant to watch it at the time but missed it, I might see if I can hunt it down somewhere.

  2. Laura says:

    I read Rebecca’s review of this and it does sound great. I love the idea of seeing the behind the scenes life of the restaurant.

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