Synopsis: A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Themes Explored: nonfiction, culinary arts, celebrity chef, haute cuisine, food preparation, sex, drugs, rocknroll, Rockstar chef, French cuisine, Italian cuisine, methadone, cocaine, heroin, parent child relations, leadership, growing up, Culinary Institute of America, Tokyo, New York, France.
Review: Take one New York chef, add drugs, brandy and blood and mix until finished. Ever wonder what goes on in the kitchen while you wait for service? Anthony Bourdain dispels any notions of the gentleman chef or civility on the line. Most of the stories Bourdain shares occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s and he ends the book by noting that kitchen culture has changed a lot since his drug fueled misbegotten youth. Beware of chefs with long knives and noses full of coke.
Anthony Bourdain depicts the cutthroat world of restaurants and professional cooking in all its theatrical, gory glory. Kitchen Confidential took Bourdain from just another chef to the international celebrity he enjoyed right up to his death earlier this year. Young Bourdain pulls no punches when depicted his life in the bowels of the kitchens of numerous failing restaurants across New York.
Like all battle hardened generals, Bourdain details the blood-stained, sweat-sodden working life of cooking combat. His litters the book with numerous military metaphors. These illusions to military lingo include the loyal ‘crews’ or ‘brigades’ that he forms in his kitchens and his approach to cooking: like it is a full-scale military invasion, just add garlic, fresh never crushed.
During one memorable sequence, Bourdain describes reenacting the opening scenes from Apocalypse Now with his sous-chefs while enjoying a heady mix of dope, amphetamines and overwork. After, or during, the end of the dinner shift, as a finale, all the chefs would recreate the famous napalm blast by emptying half a pint of brandy over the range and setting it on fire in a dramatic whoosh. Shockingly, the restaurant eventually went bust.
Approximately ninety-nine percent of the restaurants where Bourdain worked went bankrupt. While he eventually rose up the culinary ranks and became the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a mid-range faux French joint, he spent most of his career stumbling from one failing kitchen to the next. In one ill-fated chicken joint he rubbed shoulders with the Mob, who were desperate to help their just out of jail buddy became the next Colonel Sanders. Despite the Mob guys best efforts, Billy’s the chicken joint never posed much of a threat to the Colonel. One failing restaurant belongs to some suburban dentists turned ill-fated restaurateurs, thankfully the restaurant did not feature a molar theme. This young, brash Bourdain never stood in any danger of cooking on daytime television with his name stitched on a pair of pristine whites. The raging heroin addiction probably slowed his career down by a few years.
While Bourdain clearly loves to cook and holds the industry in high regard, he also takes umbrage with a lot of the seedier parts of the job. This is not a cuddly kind hearted chef scrambling eggs on a sound stage. This guy gets pumped up on whatever the busboy managed to score downtown and then begins chopping, dicing, and cussing for twelve straight hours. The bones of the book began as an article in the New Yorker called ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This‘, where Bourdain discussed why you should never order fish on Mondays (except at specialty seafood restaurants) and why mussels are a terrible dish to order since they sit around stewing in their own juices all day. Between this book and some reports I read from the health department, I cringe about eating out ever again. Who knows what those wacky chefs get up to in the bowels of the kitchen.
Bourdain freely admits that a lot of his culinary adventures did not always lead to fabulous outcomes. There are some great accounts of chucking chateaubriand in the deep-fat fryer to give it a nice crust. Some steaks would be cooked an hour ahead of service and then re-heated by throwing a slick of sauce just before sending it out to the customer. Sometimes the blood on your plate did not come from an animal, well not the four legged kind. Bourdain and crew considered cuts incurred during service as a badge of honor and would spray as much blood as possible across each other and the kitchen in general. Some lucky customers probably had a nice side of Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Dominican, Mexican, French, and/or American blood garnishing their dinner. Vegetarians, vegans, and people who like well-done meat are considered odd and a source of ridicule. Anyone who ordered a well done steak would find themselves digging into the grisliest, rangiest piece of meat available. Since the customers requested well done meat, Bourdain and crew had no compunctions about serving the least appetizing cut.
Literary speaking, Kitchen Confidential does contain several faults in the narrative. There are a few long winded discussion about the state of the New York restaurant business in the late 1980’s. There are also some lovely discussions about the coked up, sex adventures of multiple members of Bourdain’s revolving door of associates and friends. His wife Nancy must have been a saint. Be aware, Bourdain pulls no punches and uses a lot of cuss words and vividly describes the pseudo-sexual relationships between all the line cooks during service. The main morale of the story is never trust a fat chef, they clearly do not work hard enough.
Woven between all the descriptions of personal failure, Bourdain explains why restaurants fail, why giving elegant dinner parties at home is not adequate preparation for opening a restaurant, and the need for a super organized head chef due to the extreme logistical requirements of managing restaurants. He also includes a helpful segment on what types of knives and kitchen equipment everyday chefs should invest in to make restaurant quality food at home. Plating is important people. Patterned plates look tacky, stick with solid colors. Garnishes make all the difference, Bourdain also includes list of high quality ingredients to use to elevate your entrees.
In an act of premonition, Bourdain describes in glorious, rapturous detail a trip to the restaurants of Tokyo. Les Halles operated a branch in New York, Tokyo, Miami, and Washington, D.C.. Bourdain went to Tokyo to help the executive chef master the art of French cooking. As this is his first visit to Tokyo, Bourdain describes everything in glorious detail. He dedicates several paragraphs to describing the meal of his life and walking off the beaten path to try as much Japanese cuisine as possible in one week.
During one of the more reverent parts of the book, Bourdain profiles Scott Bryan, a great chef, a food innovator, and a figure of stature among foodies, something Bourdain never aspired to achieve. In the end, Kitchen Confidential showcases the dark, lurid side of professional cooking. Though he admits that the kitchens he sharpened his knives in no longer exist due to the rise of celebrity chefs and increased interest in the cooking industry. This is a book best served cold with a nice bourbon on the side.
Kitchen Confidential, Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2007 (reprint), ISBN: 9780060899226