I finally read one of the essential books for foodies: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Professionals in various fields that undertake writing and succeed always impress me. Bourdain is no exception.
Kitchen Confidential comprises personal reflections, culinary information and the dos and don’ts of the restaurant business. Bourdain’s personal progression from rich kid to college dropout, Culinary Institute of America (CIA) student, junkie, cokehead, alcoholic, line cook, renegade chef, and finally the chef of the venerable Les Halles in New York is an interesting story all by itself. The personal accounts are frank and straightforward. Bourdain disparages and applauds, albeit silently, his actions at every turn. The reader sees that, like Bourdain, most kitchen crews are made up of misfits who chose the hard, chaotic and demanding life of working in a restaurant instead of holding down steady, predictable jobs.
Kitchen Confidential provides tips on what kind of kitchenware to use, little tricks to improve your dinner parties, and – most importantly for me at least – what not to order in a restaurant (hollandaise sauce, it turns out, is a pit of bacteria; the fish specials are mostly the chef’s effort to unload old fish on you; if you order a steak well-done, chances are you will get the “tough, slightly skanky end of sirloin that’s been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile”). The stories paint the kitchen as a machismo hell where all talk and jokes revolve around cock and balls, an endearing term is “motherfucker,” and women have to tough it out (or preferably give it right back to you, tenfold) to prove their worth.
Bourdain also reflects on the politics and demographics of a kitchen, the importance of the sous-chef, gathering information about employees, keeping a good inventory, and dealing with distributors. Each topic is accompanied by funny and engaging anecdotes; the Bigfoot chapter, where Bourdain reflects on a West Village character who is famous among restaurant workers and suppliers alike, is full of them. Bourdain praises Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Ecuadorians at length for their efficiency in the kitchen, dedication to work and stellar work ethics; all qualities that are of great help in busy kitchens. Bourdain openly states that he’ll take a Latino over a pompous white line cook any day and explains the reasons in detail. You’ll think twice about immigration politics after reading Kitchen Confidential.Towards the end of Kitchen Confidential the reader learns about Bourdain’s trip to Tokyo, where he had the hard task of improving Les Halles Tokyo’s kitchen. In the Mission to Tokyo chapter Bourdain’s enthusiasm for all kinds of food and his reasons for choosing the rough life of a chef become apparent: love of food and all the adventures and misadventures it presents.
I was upset when I finished reading Kitchen Confidential, and now I’m hungry for more Bourdain stories. I briefly satisfied my appetite by reading his reflections on the latest Israel-Lebanon war, “Watching Beirut Die,” which he wrote for Salon.com. I enjoyed the piece and was glad to see that Bourdain’s writing skills apply to areas outside his kitchen as well. I am still, however, longing for the main dish, which I hope to have soon in the form of his new book The Nasty Bits.