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Talent and testosterone in a toxic kitchen

Daniel Costello, Irish celebrity chef and proud holder of two Michelin stars, is headed for the high court, the victim of a patently false rape claim. At least, that’s what he tells us. His distressed wife, Julie, doesn’t know what to think, and ex-waitress, Hannah, is harbouring secrets that she is not ready to share with the world. In the nuanced and compelling Service by Sarah Gilmartin, the story is told through their alternating voices. Three versions with shifting perspectives and perceived truths, provide a fascinating portrait of the frenetic restaurant scene of Dublin’s boom time and an incisive exploration of power dynamics and toxic masculinity.

We begin with Hannah, alerted by the inevitable social media furore. Four women have made historical sexual assault allegations against Daniel, and one has persevered all the way to a jury. It’s been a decade since Hannah worked for him and her initial recollections describe the buzz of a hip Dublin restaurant ‘back when the country still thought it was rich,’ the customers a parade of the rich and famous. It was all talent and testosterone in the kitchen and boozy private parties after hours, headed by the bandana-wearing, plate throwing man himself.

‘Daniel wasn’t known for being handsy,’ she tells us, the occasional touch of his hand on her waist unremarkable, in comparison with the male customers patting her behind or making her lean across the table to retrieve the bread basket. A young and impressionable woman, by the time Hannah left Daniel’s employ, she was well on the way to becoming a ‘solitary, prickly and afraid’ adult.

As the how and why of her story unspools, Gilmartin deftly withholds and reveals details, a tactic she employs with several characters, and one that’s particularly effective in the case of Daniel, whose recollections prove problematic for any reader expecting a pantomime villain. Despite his temperamental chef act, he sees himself as a mentor, passionate and driven. Dedicated to his family, he’s devastated when his teenage son calls him a rapist.

In one poignant scene he recalls waking that morning ‘with such love in my heart. I’ve been dreaming about my boys when they were young’. When upon rising, he glimpses his reflection in the mirror, he sees nothing but ‘a marker of the useless shape of man, the emptiness behind him’.

He’s a good guy who’s been broken. A good guy being cannily represented by a female barrister, whose looks he casually rates as a seven, potentially an eight. A good guy whose recollection of his accuser and former employee consists of him remarking on her slutty appearance, he’d never wanted that class of girl serving his food. He himself is used to being pawed at by lascivious women. It’s just the way the world works.

As for his wife, Julie, debating whether to stand by her man on the courtroom steps, well at some level she instinctively knows the truth.

With the restaurant as a microcosm of early 21st century sexual politics and culture, Gilmartin gives us a brilliantly observed story of complicity, the legacy of the MeToo movement and, ultimately, transcendent courage from more than one quarter.

Service by Sarah Gilmartin is published by ONE, 273 pages.

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