Most of us have by now seen Anthony Bourdain’s show on the Travel and Living Channel (TLC): No Reservations. He might have others too, but that’s definitely the one I remember watching the most. I’d wondered vaguely what he’d done before becoming host of yet another Food/Travel show on TLC. Turns out, he was a professional chef, mostly in New York. But certainly not your typical Escoffier. No, Kitchen Confidential is a grainy, no-holds-barred, push-your face-into-dough-until-your-eyes-pop narrative. One critic described it as Martha Stewart as done by Quentin Tarantino. Personally, I think it’d be closer to Gordon Ramsey on speed, but one can’t have everything.
Food, drugs, and New York City night-life usually make quite a tasty stew, and Kitchen Confidential is no exception. Bourdain charts his career as a chef with quite blatant honesty. Too blatant, a lot of restaurant owners and colleagues would no doubt say. He leaves no stone unturned, reveling in dishing up the dirtiest, most scum-filled and sleaze-backed anecdotes as he went from kitchen to kitchen; sometimes being a broiler prop, dishing out a few thousand meals a day; to being an over paid gard-manger, putting the finishing touches on over-priced salads with ridiculously exotic names. It begins with him working in a broiler restaurant that serves lots of lobster, shrimp, crab and the like. An experience there leaves him totally humiliated by uber-broiler man Tyrone, and determined to achieve the same level of greatness that the cook who humiliated him possessed. The hands of a cook, whereby you can pick up a blistering hot pan and switch it to another grill with one hand while fishing chips out of boiling oil with the other. So he then goes to America’s premier culinary institute, apparently. The C.I.A (Culinary Institute of America, in case you were wondering) where he oh so modestly describes his achievements. Despite his rude come-down at his previous job Bourdain hardly loses any of his cocky arrogance, expecting to be the best and generally describing himself as so.
After he graduates, him and a fellow bunch of culinary reprobates descend on New York to make it their own. And they succeed. For a while. And then fail. Quite spectacularly, in some cases. This is what makes it fun to read. I won’t give away anything here, so that you can more properly enjoy his descriptions and anecdotes of the (I’d never thought I’d use these words together) hell-raising cooks that they were. Drugs, women, and a great deal of extremely unhygienic practices dominate, and while entertaining, it does make you pause and think about where your food is coming from, and what really goes on behind those tall brown push doors. Let’s just say that creative expediency (not to mention deceit, deception and disguise) play a not insignificant role. As you dig further in though, the real meat emerges. There’s an entire chapter devoted to inside information; what not to eat when and where, depending on the food. Never eat fish on a Monday, for example. It’s usually left-over from Thursday. Hollandaise sauce is a primordial bacteria soup. And don’t even get him started on vegetarians. They’re a cross between Satan-spawn and Hezbollah. His rants are … illuminating, shall we say. But full of useful tips. As is the next chapter, which details the right kind of culinary equipment that separate the professional from the (however competent they might consider themselves) amateur. Great ideas, mostly, and well worth taking on board if you do a lot of cooking for yourself and others. Even if you don’t, it’s worth reading just to pick up tips and tricks that you can then casually sneak into conversations that tend towards food to impress young ladies who might be about. Or if you’re not as lazy as I am, when you actually cook.
The best chapter of the book is undoubtedly ‘A Day In The Life’. It really illustrates with remarkable detail and gritty, real clarity what it takes to be a professional in this world, this manic speed of soundless choreograph where perfection is standard and failure abused. As chef in his very own Les Halles, Bourdain serves up probably the best example of in-kitchen writing I’ve ever read, and one of the great pieces of culinary literature. It’s a masterpiece, a tour-de-force of wonderfully presented proportions. And it is real, bloody, hard work. Multitasking is far too inadequate a word to describe the role of a chef. Read it and you’ll see why.
There’s a lot to criticize about the book as well, though. His writing style is very much in the self-aggrandizing mode of the self-satisfied. he’s often more than a little unkind to friends and colleagues he’s had for decades, describing their superlatively amoral doings with gleeful details. In that context, it’s worthwhile remembering that this book, detailing all the restaurants he’s worked mostly failed. Still, that can be put down to the industry, not just the individual. The business has a 60% failure/turnover rate, after all, and it’s difficult to blame that only on the cooks. Failure is quite a common theme in the book, as Bourdain bounces from kitchen to kitchen. However, he acknowledges a great debt to “Bigfoot”, the one boss who taught him the importance of discipline and made sure he never relinquished it. Later on, as Bourdain becomes more accomplished, he often refers to Bigfoot’s influence and guidance in running his own kitchen.
Still, it’s the stark reality of failure, or perhaps more appropriately burning out, that gives Kitchen Confidential its USP, that strong sense of gritty reality in a world that usually seems rarefied and Olympian in the traditional French image. His cooking is authentic French cooking, by the way. The dishes are all salade fruiche au truffle noir and porlade au lait et son broinase, and so forth. But the ingredients are much the same. And so it is with Kitchen Confidential. It’s been written before, but never quite this way. It’s the same with food. In the kitchen, it’s what separates, as Bourdain himself acknowledges, the Bourdains from the Ramseys or the Kellars. However, he can take pride in the fact that he’s probably by far and away the better writer.
So in conclusion, highly recommended. I’ve read it a dozen times already, and I’ve only had it a month. Entertaining,laugh-out-loud funny, and wonderfully insightful and explicit.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org