Apr 2007

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

About: Chef at New York’s Les Halles and author of Bone in the Throat, Bourdain pulls no punches in this memoir of his years in the restaurant business. His fast-lane personality and glee in recounting sophomoric kitchen pranks might be unbearable were it not for two things: Bourdain is as unsparingly acerbic with himself as he is with others, and he exhibits a sincere and profound love of good food. The latter was born on a family trip to France when young Bourdain tasted his first oyster, and his love has only grown since. He has attended culinary school, fallen prey to a drug habit and even established a restaurant in Tokyo, discovering along the way that the crazy, dirty, sometimes frightening world of the restaurant kitchen sustains him. Bourdain is no presentable TV version of a chef; he talks tough and dirty. His advice to aspiring chefs: “Show up at work on time six months in a row and we’ll talk about red curry paste and lemon grass. Until then, I have four words for you: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ” He disdains vegetarians, warns against ordering food well done and cautions that restaurant brunches are a crapshoot. Gossipy chapters discuss the many restaurants where Bourdain has worked, while a single chapter on how to cook like a professional at home exhorts readers to buy a few simple gadgets, such as a metal ring for tall food. Most of the book, however, deals with Bourdain’s own maturation as a chef, and the culmination, a litany describing the many scars and oddities that he has developed on his hands, is surprisingly beautiful. He’d probably hate to hear it, but Bourdain has a tender side, and when it peeks through his rough exterior and the wall of four-letter words he constructs, it elevates this book to something more than blustery memoir.

My thoughts: I’m a still on the fence about Bourdain–not sure if I like him or loathe him. And with his recent disparaging words against the James Beard Foundation, I’m leaning toward the latter. However, I once read in an interview that his perfect meal is a bowl of phở in the streets of Saigon, so I can’t dislike the man too much.

Kitchen Confidential was definitely an insightful read. Any notions I ever had of working in a professional kitchen have been properly reassessed thanks to Bourdain’s cautionary tale—it turns out that lack of sleep and scars just aren’t really my thing.

In my favorite chapter, Bourdain divulges secrets from his world, such as don’t order fish on Mondays (it’s probably old), don’t eat mussels unless you know the chef (they live in their own piss), and never request your meat well done (duh!).

Kitchen Confidential depicts the professional kitchen as a chaotic, vulgar, and testosterone-driven wonderland, which bodes well until Bourdain presents “The Life of Bryan”—a contrary account about Chef Scott Bryan. It is after examining how Bryan runs his ship that Bourdain’s tough swagger, drug abuse, and bad-ass lifestyle seems silly and needlessly difficult.

Like I said before, I’m still on the fence about Bourdain, but we’ll see where I stand after reading his other books on food–The Search for the Perfect Meal and The Nasty Bits.

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