Book: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Excellent mid-career memoir by a successful chef

Anthony Bourdain
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
HarperCollins, 2000
ISBN: 0-06-093491-3
302 pages

As chefs go, Anthony Bourdain is pretty famous these days. Before he got a television show, he was a successful chef, most recently as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue in New York, where he still has that job. Kitchen Confidential is mostly a memoir about how he became a successful chef. And it's quite a trip.

I had never thought much about the subculture that cooks and chefs inhabit or what their jobs must actually be like. My impressions mostly came from magazine articles and television shows in which serene chefs in spotless uniforms make some effortless gestures over an attractively-lit pot or two, after which we see the beautiful finished product. Of course that's not the reality of cooking in a restaurant, but I was surprised at just how far it is from reality.

Having read Kitchen Confidential, going out to dinner won't ever be quite the same. "Colorful" and "controversial" hardly begin to describe many of the cooks, chefs, managers, and restaurant owners that Mr Bordain introduces us to. "Insane" and "wacked out by drugs" help in some cases. Really, it's an amazing world inside many restaurants' kitchens. Describing a sous-chef he worked with for a long time, Mr Bourdain says:

    What finally made him a serious character in
    my eyes was the night he ran a knife through
    his hand while trying to hack frozen demi-
    glace out of a bucket. Squirting blood all over
    the place, he wrapped his hand in an apron
    and listened to my instructions: "Get your sorry
    ass down to Saint Vincent's, they've got a fast
    emergency room. Get yourself stitched up and
    get yourself back here in two fucking hours!
    We're gonna be busy as hell tonight and I
    need you on the line!" He returned ninety
    minutes later and managed to work, one-
    handed on the sauté station, very capably
    cranking out one hundred fifty or so à la carte
    dinners. (p. 213, emphasis in original)

Or take this section about his first job out of cooking school, at the the swanky Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center in New York:

    My job at the Room, initially, was to prepare
    and serve a lunch buffet for about a hundred or
    so members of the Rockefeller Center Luncheon
    Club -- mostly geriatric business types from the
    building who assembled in the Rainbow Grill
    every day. I had to prepare a cold buffet and two
    hot entrees, which I'd then serve and maintain
    from noon to three. This was no easy feat, as the
    buffet was comprised solely of leftovers from the
    previous night's service. I'd begin each morning
    at seven-thrity pushing a little cart with wobbly
    casters down the line, where the cooks would
    hurl hunks of roast pork, end cuts, crocks of
    cooked beans, overcooked pasta, blanched
    vegetables and remnants of sauces at me. My
    job was to find a way to make all this look edible.
    (p. 109)

Not all of the book is memoir. There's a chapter of useful advice to skilled amateur cooks. Or at least it looks like useful advice. I'm nowhere near skilled enough to make any use of it. And there's a chapter on another chef, Scott Bryan, whose work Mr Bourdain admires and who seems pretty often to provide a counter-example to many of the rules that Mr Bourdain has learned through hard experience. Describing how Mr Bryan became quite successful and then went back to learn to cook pastry, Mr Bourdain says that he would never have gone to the trouble. Having achieved that level of success he wouldn't go back to the beginning, he'd be "mugging it up on the Food Network" (p. 257). And the two chefs discuss the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. All of that is pretty prescient since I recently watched an episode of Mr Bourdain's Travel Channel show, No Reservations, about Ferran Adrià.

Don't be taken in when Mr Bourdain says, "I'm just an old-time cookie with a chip on his shoulder" (p. 265) or by his "aw-shucks" style. He is a very smart guy. His prose is clear, his observations are keen, and his stories are interesting, illuminating, and often funny. In the introduction to my paperback edition, Mr Bourdain explains that he was surprised by the book's success. He says that he set out to make it as true as possible and it turned out to be good. I don't know much about cooking, but that's good advice about writing.

Posted: Wed - July 19, 2006 at 09:01 PM   Main   Category: