I picked up Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, last month after a fellow Goodreader gushed about it, and I’m so glad I did. I was passingly familiar with Bourdain from his guest appearances on Top Chef. He always came off as an aging rock star, with the swagger and the lived-in skin of a war veteran (and indeed, reading about his life, I’d be willing to grant him honorary veteran status just for having lived through what must have been a pretty wild ride, to make a gross understatement — the guy was, and maybe still is, a crazy bastard). Just look at the picture of him on that cover; it tells you everything you need to know. The casual arm holding with the out-thrust hips; the way he’s clearly unafraid to wear that bracelet; the loosely splayed fingers; the smirky smile as he stares directly into the camera; the confident, maybe even arrogant, tilt of his manly, deeply tanned head. And what’s that he’s holding? I have no idea*, but it looks like something a pirate captain would hold while standing on the deck of his ship after having commandeered some sort of booty, casually assessing the damage he’s just caused. Anthony Bourdain is just that kind of a guy. He’s also a hell of a storyteller.
*Seriously, can someone tell me what he’s holding? Are those giant knives? Why do they have gold handles? Is he getting ready to beat someone? My pirate theory is looking to be more and more apt.
It’s no wonder that after this book came out, Bourdain was launched into superchefdom. He’s since left the full-time chef’s life, and his position as executive chef at Les Halles in New York, for the life of a food and television personality. He’s written books (both fiction and non-fiction), hosted his own television program (No Reservations), and guest-judged on other programs, like the previously mentioned Top Chef. There’s been talk recently that Bourdain has been softening up and selling out as his fame has grown (reaction to his latest show, The Taste, was mixed, and No Reservations was recently canceled, although I heard that was because he had always refused to do product placement in the show, and the network was putting pressure on him to give in). Regardless, he certainly lives a different life now than the one he lived up until the publication of this book.
Kitchen Confidential chronicles Bourdain’s life in food from the taste of his first oyster while summering in France at five years old (a practically sexual experience, the way he tells it), through his cocaine-fueled dark days, his redemption with an unnamed chef he only calls Bigfoot, and his subsequent elevation to executive chef of one of the best restaurants in New York City. Along the way, as the title suggests, he lets us in on all the dirty secrets of kitchen life: the habits of chefs, their codes of behavior, the gross things they do, and the outrageous things that have happened to him over the years. He gives the impression that most cooks — and he always calls them cooks, outright stating that he believes cooking to be a craft and not an art — have criminal minds and damaged psyches. To Bourdain, cooks are like pirates, or rockstars. Women, drugs (so much drugs), thievery, backstabbing, illicit encounters and backroom deals . . . you’d think this was a book about some sort of underground cult, the way he talks about it. But it’s just about people who serve food. (Bourdain does admit at the end that his perspective is probably skewed, and that there are probably kitchens out there that are significantly less ribald, profane (pick your adjective) than his.)
But the best part about Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s voice. It’s fun to hear about the backstage shenanigans of the restaurant industry, sure, but it wouldn’t be half as fun without Bourdain’s wry, painfully honest confessional style. Perhaps confessional is even the wrong word here, as it implies not an insignificant amount of penance, or regret. And regret isn’t really something that Bourdain expresses. Even his mistakes — which he admits are numerous — he looks upon with a sort of affectionate pride, because they shaped him into being the chef he is. And the chef he is is above all supremely self-assured. He proudly states his dislike for the behavior of certain celebrity chefs (Emeril Lagasse* is the clear reference here, but his extreme dislike of other chefs such as Sandra Lee and Paul Deen is well documented) and vegetarians (and his absolute loathing for vegans) without fear of being judged. He spills kitchen secrets like he’s throwing candy out to small children (some tips: never buy fish on Mondays, the best food is reserved for Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday diners are scorned upon, and brunch is full of the weekend’s leftovers). My only issue with the book is that each chapter is a sort of self-contained essay, and a few of them aren’t in chronological order, which was a bit confusing. If he would have linked his chapters together in a more fluid manner, this book would have been practically perfect.
*Apparently Bourdain has since softened on the subject of Emeril. Later experiences proved Emeril to be a talented cook in Bourdain’s eyes, and the updated version of this book (which I haven’t read) has more to say about it.
Highly recommend this book to everyone. Get the audiobook if you can — I can’t imagine the story without his delivery.