Book Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman - not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen - though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”
My husband picked Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential up from our local library sale last fall, and it has been sitting on our shelf since, just waiting for one of us to pick it up. After news broke of Bourdain’s suicide, I decided it was time to read it. I really enjoy food memoirs and food fiction (see Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, Louise Miller’s The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, and all of Amy Reichert’s books). But Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is the first memoir I have read by a true chef in a restaurant. And the stories Bourdain shares are absolutely insane, but from the little I do know about the restaurant industry, his stories are not completely outside normal behavior. Granted most of his career as a chef was in the 1980s and 1990s, so I am sure things have changed a lot in the last 20 years or so. But even still, Bourdain describes life as a chef and restaurant life in such a real and entertaining way.
My favorite essay in Kitchen Confidential is "A Day in the Life". As you probably can tell from the title, "A Day in the Life" is a typical day in Bourdain’s life as executive chef at Les Halles in Manhattan. He wakes up around 6am and immediately starts smoking, thinking what he can use from the food already at the restaurant and what he needs to order more of. On his way into the restaurant, he mentally prepares the specials and runs over the regular menu, making sure everything is in order. He usually is the first person to arrive at Les Halles and today is no different. As he and his staff prepare and work the lunch shift, his garde-manger Omar informs him that there are no more tomatoes. Then Bourdain gets on the phone and chews out the supplier who dropped the ball. It actually turns out a different supplier delivered their order to another restaurant, so once they get that fixed, things are back on track. After the lunch crowd, Bourdain heads to the market with his boss. After the market, he runs through inventory and begins to prep for the dinner crowd. As soon as 6pm rolls around, the kitchen is in constant motion making dinners for customers. After 280 dinners in one night, Bourdain goes through the final walk-through of the pantry and refrigerators, in order to prep for the next day. After thinking about the paperwork he must go through tomorrow, he decides to finish his night at a bar before heading home. My biggest takeaway from this chapter was how crazy the job of an executive chef really is without even factoring in the actual cooking part of the job. Bourdain has to manage his kitchen staff and make sure everyone is happy and doing their jobs, while also ordering all the food, calling in equipment repairs, and making his bosses happy. The list just goes on and on.
I was fascinated by the number of restaurants Bourdain worked at. During his twenties, he went through a rough patch where all the restaurants he worked at seemed to fail after only a few months of him working there. Most of these restaurants were already in poor shape by the time Bourdain joined the staff, but I think partly he kept moving around because of his lifestyle of drugs and sex. Even through all the drugs, he was always dedicated to the job and making good food. Eventually he found his place as the Executive Chef at Les Halles, and even after leaving to film his different shows, he still was considered a part of the Les Halles family.
Part of what I loved about Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s insistence on recognizing the whole kitchen staff. He does not hold back in his feelings toward Emeril Lagasse and other Food Network chefs who never acknowledge the line cooks, dishwashers, runners, and other kitchen staff. He is extremely harsh in his criticism of celebrity chefs, which is ironic considering Kitchen Confidential made him a celebrity chef. But at least in the book, Bourdain repeatedly praises his kitchen staff and cannot rave enough about the Latino employees, who rarely move up in the kitchen, but show up day in and day out and consistently do a good job. I love Bourdain’s line about line cooks:
“Line cooking - the real business of preparing the food you eat - is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way.”
Bourdain doesn’t believe in a lot of creativity and excessive froufrou meals, but rather just great food. I loved the essay on Bourdain’s friend Scott Bryan, the chef at Veritas. The two men could not have had more different backgrounds, but both stand by tried and true menu items. Bourdain describes Scott’s cooking: “It’s food, first and foremost, to be eaten, not looked at - though his presentations are inspired.” When so many restaurants try to outdo themselves with outrageous fusions and foams, it is so refreshing to eat exceptionally good food with ingredients the average person knows.
I’ve always known who Anthony Bourdain was, but I had never really sat down and watched any of his shows. Now having read Kitchen Confidential and watched several episodes of Parts Unknown on Netflix, I have a newfound respect for him. He always wanted to be a chef and make good food for people. He stumbled upon his celebrity by accident and used his fame to share the cultures and foods of other countries. I read a tweet following Bourdain’s death, encouraging everyone to go find that hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the side of the town you normally don’t go and try a new cuisine. I love that; I don’t normally branch out in the foods I eat, but after this, I feel like I need to find little-known restaurants and discover a new culture.
I thoroughly enjoyed Kitchen Confidential and recommend it to anyone who is interested in food and restaurants. I give it 4.5 stars.
What food memoirs do you recommend? What is your favorite Anthony Bourdain memory?