Cooks are a dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers

Kitchen ConfidentialKitchen Confidential
by Anthony Bourdain

Just as it pleased me that my Dad gave me copies of this book and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto in the same parcel, it also pleased me to read them one after the other. Aside from the titles, I’d say they have zero in common, but I very much enjoyed both books.

The book that made Bourdain famous is a highly entertaining memoir about his career in the restaurant business, from washing up as a summer job, to being a head chef far too young to maintain his success, to having drug problems and clawing his way back up to the top job.

This isn’t a straightforward memoir. Essays on various aspects of working in a busy kitchen are interspersed between recollections of specific periods in Bourdain’s life. He starts with his childhood discovery of really good food on a summer trip to France. After recounting his training and career, he skips to an essay titled “Who cooks?”, which describes general and specific traits of kitchen staff. And it’s not a pretty portrait.

“My first oyster…I remember it like I remember losing my virginity…It tasted of seawater, of brine and flesh, and somehow – of the future…I’d not only survived – I’d enjoyed…I had, somehow, become a man. I had had an adventure, tasted forbidden fruit and everything that followed in my life – the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other new sensation – would all stem from this moment.”

Bourdain takes delight in being foul-mouthed and opinionated but he does admit that his way is not the only way, his experience possibly atypical or at least out of date. The copy I read is the “insider’s edition”, with handwritten notes throughout from 2012 and an afterword from 2006. Even the preface from November 2000 (presumably added to the first paperback edition) acknowledges how much had changed in the months since the book’s release earlier that year. Not least that Bourdain had become a famous writer and had all but quit his day job.

For someone like me who is familiar with Bourdain from his various TV shows, this book feels so much in his voice that it was like he was reading it to me in my head. I imagine having dinner with him would have involved a similar mix of fun anecdotes, over-sharing and angry rants. I’m still not sure I would have entirely liked him, but he’d have been fascinating to meet and he really did love good food. He somehow displays a warmth and generosity of spirit even while ranting. And I pretty much always like a dark sense of humour.

The book originated as an essay for the New Yorker called “Don’t eat before reading this”, which purports to be a behind-the-scenes tell-all about top New York restaurant kitchens. But for me what the book morphed into is a study of how certain environments can have an incredibly negative effect on the people who work there, and in particular the effect they had on Bourdain.

“Cooks are a dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers motivated by money, the peculiar lifestyle of cooking and a grim pride…Line cooking done well is a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a high-speed collaboration resembling, at its best, ballet…You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn’t be to far off base.”

The insider’s edition notes do acknowledge that not all kitchens suffer from the machismo that Bourdain always worked in, particularly in the 21st century. He adds that cookery schools such as the one he attended have gone from being 95% male students to skewing slightly female. And they teach better skills now (when he attended, the Japanese cookery class was taught by a Chinese chef who chose instead to give a lecture about the Nanjing Massacre).

Most of all, this book is a series of wonderful stories. Sure, there’s a fun aside about Bourdain hates Baltimore, and a chapter about all the people who really shouldn’t own restaurants. But there’s also the time when he was working for the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and Frank Sinatra turned up, got drunk and spent the night singing to the remaining customers and staff. Or the time he worked for an actual mobster.

Thankfully, there are a few more Bourdain books to continue the entertainment – including a crime thriller novel starring a chef. I’m willing to bet it’s heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and that it will creak slightly but I’ll love it anyway.

First published in 2000 by Bloomsbury.

Source: present from my Dad.