A Toronto-educated, Ottawa-based journalist has given the restaurant scene a wild makeover —not by cooking elaborate dishes, mixing exotic drinks, or waiting tables with exquisite aplomb, but by brewing up a fictional rendering of chefs in grand literary style. Introduced in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness in 1899, Kurtz and Marlow are two names oozing with literary history. Francis Ford Coppola famously adopted the characters into the 1979 Hollywood blockbuster Apocalypse Now. With a tip of the hat to both those classics, David Julian Wightman has written a parody of Conrad’s story and Coppola’s movie by giving Kurtz and Marlow new culinary identities in his self-published book, Apocalypse Chow: A Remix of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (2018).
The story starts at Belly, New York’s hottest restaurant, with the usual suspects gathering after a weekend closing. Along with Wightman’s readers, the group of chefs, busboys and waiters are led down a path exploring the dark corners of the restaurant world. Charlie Marlow points out to his colleagues that Manhattan is “one of the dark places of the Earth,” but the rest of them know he has seen harsher territories in a swathe of illustrious restaurants jobs, the wildest of all being his time at Chow, a remote destination restaurant in northern Ontario. Walter Kurtz was the head chef at Chow and gained a reputation as the most talented chef in Canada. But he went rogue, and the restaurant owners wanted to part ways with the unorthodox chef. They recruited Marlow, a legendary restaurant manager in his own right, to track down and relieve the renegade chef of his duties.
Nearly the entire novella is in Marlow’s words as he tells his restaurant brethren at Belly about his venture into the hinterlands to confront Chef Kurtz. As a veteran in the field, Marlow knows “the restaurant industry can be a stifling thing, a burden we choose to carry, to varying degrees of commitment. It can turn men into monsters.” He yearns to know what drove Kurtz over the deep end and into the weeds, because firing the best chef in Canada seemed a tall order without knowing the full story. It took some time for Marlow and his crew to trek by land and river to the secluded restaurant. He tells us how “the journey felt like a tortured night at work, when the hordes are at table and the restaurant struggles to cope … the madness of an out-of-control service.” He used the time to contemplate his mission and to gain an understanding of the wayward chef by talking to others — renegade food truck owners, strung-out dishwashers, overworked kitchen staff, sycophantic food critics. Kurtz was so well known for his outstanding food, people didn’t know whether to praise him or ostracize him. Wightman’s readers are strung along to find out what will happen once Marlow tracks down this so-called visionary chef. Will Marlow be able to follow through with his mission, or will “the inestimable privilege of dining at Chow” and the enticement of delectable cuisine from a culinary genius distract him from the job he was hired to do?
Readers not familiar with the namesake works need not worry, since Apocalypse Chow is an enjoyable stand-alone read that clearly comes from a writer who knows the restaurant world. The story Marlow tells is steeped in restaurant lore. Wightman could be part of that kitchen crew sitting around the table in Belly: “Between us was the bond of the restaurant trade, a common understanding among men who’d long served.” Wightman put himself through Ryerson journalism school by bartending and waiting tables in Toronto restaurants and Marlow’s recap of his own experience is influenced by those years of service, including observations about food security, the allure of celebrity chefs, the hierarchical tensions between restaurant staff at the front and back of house, and illustrious menus comprised of the prodigious bounty of ingredients found by foraging in northern Ontario.
Marlow says that his trip to Chow “seemed to throw a kind of light on everything about me, and the industry, and the entire society we feed which in turn feeds us.” Marlow’s role can be narrowed down to one man telling his most prized story — same as Wightman, whose own story is appreciably influenced by the writing of Anthony Bourdain. In the acknowledgements Wightman expresses regret that the late author/chef who inspired him cannot read Apocalypse Chow himself, but it is easy to assume that readers drawn to Bourdain’s books will thoroughly enjoy Wightman’s retelling of the deep, dark, culinary relationship of Kurtz and Marlow.