Reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain was bittersweet because no matter what the ending of the book was, I already knew the ultimate ending of Bourdain’s story was not happy. The ending of his life, unlike the ending of this book, was not a look into what the future might hold for him. Instead, Bourdain’s future, sadly, stopped being something for him to look forward to when he committed suicide in 2018.
Maybe this is why I felt such sadness when I hit the end of the book. Not only were the fun stories now over, but I had to remember that Bourdain’s life is too. While reading the book, I could easily forget that he was no longer here to create more adventures for us to read about or watch on one of his many travel shows. He was alive in those pages, in his early days of cooking, in those first restaurants he worked in and learned his craft and fell in love with food in.
This was Bourdain’s first non-fiction book and broke his career wide open. I read it in sections with a lot of breaks in between, not because it was boring, but because it was full of technical restaurant and foodie jargon that was sometimes a bit overwhelming but also very interesting. I was also distracted by a couple of other books during that time because sometimes I have book ADD and because there were times while I was reading it that I was in the mood for fiction rather than non-fiction.
If you are looking for a clean, polished view of the restaurant industry then this is not the book for you. This is a book that details sordid behind-the-scenes looks at what happens in the kitchens of some of the best, and worst, restaurants in the United States. It is not clean by any means, with plenty of swear words (but not so many your head spins, with the exception of one chapter, which I skipped because it was simply a liturgy of all the horrible things chefs and their staff say to, and call, each other, complete with all the four-letter words they use), several stories of eye widening debauchery, and plenty of references to drug use by Bourdain and many others. Thankfully, Bourdain had his drug abuse under control, other than alcohol, before this book was published and maybe before it was even written.
In Kitchen Confidential Bourdain writes about the many characters he worked with in the industry over the years, including those who eventually would serve as his sous chef (assistants), as well as the ins and outs of running a fine-dining, high-end restaurant. The book isn’t all memoir, however. He also has a section for those who want to know how to cook better at home and what tools they need to do so. Equally interesting is an entire section on why he loves food and what eating it and cooking it means to him. To him food itself, not only the act of creating with it, was (is) art.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book include:
“Only one in four has a chance at making it…. And right there, I knew that if one of us was getting off dope, and staying off dope, it was going to be me. I was going to live. I was the guy.”
“Eric Ripert won’t be calling me for ideas on tomorrow’s fish special. But I’m simply not going to deceive anybody about the life as I’ve seen it.” (I like this quote because in the end Eric and he became very close friends. So close, it was Eric who found him in his hotel room after he hung himself.)
“We are, after all, citizens of the world – a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly. Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, Senor Tamale Stand Owner, Sushi-chef-san, Monsieur Bucket-head. What’s that feathered game bird, hanging on the porch, getting riper by the day, the body nearly ready to drop off? I want some.”
From his list of restaurant tips for consumers: “I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. This isn’t a hard call. They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinals or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like. Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean. Kitchens are not.”
And: “If the restaurant is clean, the cooks and the waiters well groomed, the dining room busy, everyone seems to actually care about what they’re doing — not just trying to pick up a few extra bucks between headshots and auditions for Days of Our Lives, chances are you are in for a decent meal. The owner, chef, and a bored-looking waiter sitting at the front table chatting about soccer scores? Plumber walking through the dining room with a toilet snake? Bad signs.”
I loved this part about vegans: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I’ll accommodate them, I’ll rummage around for something to feed them, for a ‘vegetarian plate’, if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.”
“Lying in bed and smoking my sixth or seventh cigarette of the morning, I’m wondering what the hell I’m going to do today. Oh yeah, I gotta write this thing. But that’s not work, really, is it? It feels somehow shifty and . . . dishonest, making a buck writing.”
The book ends with final words that choked me up, because life came at Bourdain fast after this book thanks to his wit, great writing, and talent at inspiring people to want to know more about food and culture.
“I’ll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Where Bourdain thought he’d be when all was said and done wasn’t where he ended up when it really was all said and done. When he wrote the end of that book, he thought he’d be still on the line at the restaurant, still happy being there and maybe he would have been happy if he’d never left. Maybe he wouldn’t have been consumed by loneliness, depression, and a sense of detachment from those he loved. If he’d been home more, grounded either in his work or his family, maybe . . . But who knows really.
Maybe his end still would have come the way it did, not with a bang like the kicking off of a career where he wrote about the culinary arts like in Kitchen Confidential but with a sad, heartbroken whimper not worthy of the full life he’d lived.
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