49 pages 1 hour read

Jennifer Ryan

The Kitchen Front: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan, is a 2021 historical fiction novel based on the World War II BBC radio program of the same name. It incorporates period-authentic recipes and food trivia, including the use of war rationing, into a fictional story and with an invented cast of characters.

This study guide uses the 2021 Ballantine Books hardcover edition of The Kitchen Front.

Plot Summary

The Kitchen Front follows four women, each with a different connection to food. Chapters are named for each character, so their stories are told from their own points of view, and at first, the stories develop parallel to one another. As the contest progresses, the women’s lives and stories become more intertwined.

First, each character is established. Audrey Landon is a war widow struggling to raise three children and maintain a bakery business following her husband’s presumed death; Audrey’s younger sister, Gwendoline Strickland, is a lady at a local stately home who presents wartime cooking demonstrations to other wives. Nell Brown is a kitchen maid at Gwendoline’s home, Fenley Hall, and Zelda Dupont is an evacuee and former hotel chef from London who works at the Fenley Pie Factory, owned by Sir Strickland, Gwendoline’s husband. Each woman is approached by Ambrose Hart, a BBC presenter on the radio program The Kitchen Front, to compete in a broadcasted three-part cooking competition. The winner will join him as co-presenter. Nell enters as one half of a team alongside her mentor, Fenley Hall’s head cook, Mrs. Quince.

Winning the contest means something different to each woman. Audrey hopes the opportunity will help her save her crumbling home, which she has maintained by borrowing a steep loan from her sister. Gwendoline hopes the prize will give her prestige and autonomy from her abusive husband. Mrs. Quince hopes the prize will give Nell a leg up in the world so she won’t always have to be a kitchen maid, and Zelda hopes the opportunity will elevate her status as a chef in a male-dominated workforce.

As they prepare for the first round of the competition—to make a starter—Zelda ruminates on her past in London. She fell in love with a chef named Jim Denton and became pregnant, but unable to find more work in London, she was forced to leave. Audrey and Gwendoline remember their family, but from different perspectives: Audrey was raised in a loving household while Gwendoline always felt like an outsider. To try and undermine Audrey, Gwendoline arranges for a pregnant evacuee to stay with her in her home despite knowing she can’t afford it. Gwendoline doesn’t realize that the evacuee is Zelda, their competitor. Meanwhile, Nell and Mrs. Quince turn to old recipe books for inspiration. They decide on a hare starter, and Nell goes to Fenley Farm where she meets Paolo, an Italian Prison of War (POW) conscripted into farm work. He catches a hare for her, and the two become close. Shortly before the first round of judging commences, Audrey receives a telegram stating her husband’s body has been found.

The middle of the narrative is fraught with conflict as each woman struggles with the outcome of the first round, the conditions of the war, and personal and professional obstacles. Despite her grief, Audrey wins the first round. Gwendoline comes in last place and then tries to extort Mrs. Quince into helping her in the second round. When Mrs. Quince refuses, Gwendoline seeks help from a London chef, Jim Denton, not knowing his connection to Zelda. Nell and Mrs. Quince discuss love, but Mrs. Quince becomes ill and is sent to the hospital. Meanwhile, Zelda tries to hide her pregnancy from her colleagues at work. Gwendoline feels increasingly stifled and frightened under her husband’s rule and plans to begin an affair with Jim as a way out. Nell and Paolo spend an afternoon together, but they’re caught, and Paolo is sent away. Later, Nell sees Gwendoline and Jim kissing. At the second round of the contest—the main course—Nell wins with the Italian recipe Paolo taught her. Ambrose deduces Gwendoline had help and awards her last place again. When Gwendoline returns home, Sir Strickland confronts her about Jim and threatens her life. Nell saves her, and they both flee to Audrey’s home.

Finally, the women learn to rely on one another. Gwendoline and Audrey overcome their childhood rivalry, and the four women become friends. Gwendoline, Zelda, and Nell each testify against Sir Strickland’s unscrupulous business practices so he can’t do any more harm. Nell visits Mrs. Quince at the hospital but ultimately she can’t be saved. The community gathers for her funeral, and Nell is forced to grow into herself as a woman and chef. For the final round of the contest—the dessert—Zelda wins with an extravagant croquembouche. However, Nell is awarded the title and the job on the radio show. Paolo returns to Fenley Farm, and the pair reunite. Zelda gives birth but refuses to hold her baby, planning to give it up for adoption. At the last moment, however, she changes her mind and decides to raise the child with her new friends. Together they all open a new restaurant, “The Four Friends,” featuring recipes from the contest.