Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain, was originally published in 2000.
In the preface, Anthony Bourdain makes no apologies for his rough manner, or for his “blustery” words, or for the fact the pages of this book are “laced with testosterone”. That’s the way chefs act, he claims. Chefs are people who work behind closed doors, who became chefs because they don’t know how to behave in public.
For those reasons, he finds the concept of celebrity chefs annoying. Anthony Bourdain is a celebrity chef. “I suck,” he writes.
But, he insists, he loves the restaurant business. He loves the black and white of it. There are things you must do, and things you absolutely must not do.
The 310-page book begins with his introduction to the love of fine food (it was an act of rebellion against his parents during a family vacation in France) and his entrance into the restaurant life (it was a dishwashing job when he needed money that turned into a line cook position).
Anthony Bourdain writes of his experiences as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, where one instructor was so tough that he caused a veteran of the Vietnam War to run away in terror.
The book offers advice for ordering in a restaurant. Never order fish on Monday. Never order mussels unless you know the chef. Never, ever order Hollandaise sauce. Yes, the bread on your table is probably from the bread other tables didn’t eat, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
He argues that a great chef is a craftsman, not an artist.
He offers tips for cooking like a professional chef. (One tip is: Lots of butter.)
He tells stories of the ups and downs of his career – lots and lots and lots of stories about dictatorial head chefs, of cooks (including himself) high on drugs, of failing restaurants run by “knuckleheads”, and, in a chapter named Apocalypse Now, of machine guns assembled for sale in the back a certain waterfront restaurant. One of the reviews on the back cover compares Chef Bourdain’s style to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and I think that’s a perfect comparison. Anthony Bourdain makes a professional kitchen sound like an outlaw motorcycle gang.
He devotes an entire chapter to A Day in the Life of his job as the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles. The food is French, the employees speak English and Spanish, and the pace is hectic.
There’s a chapter on how to curse in Spanish, and how to properly insult your coworkers. (This was, by far, my least favorite chapter. I’m not convinced that creating a hostile work environment is necessary to build strength, no matter how stressful a job may be.)
He tells you that all of this is absolutely true. Then he shows that it’s not.
There is a lot going on in this book – maybe too much. I’m not sure who the intended audience is supposed to be. There is advice for people who eat at restaurants, and for people who want work in a restaurant. There are stories for people who want to start a career, for people presently in the career, and for people who want to remember the good old days. Kitchen Confidential is part memoir, part travelogue, part cookbook, and part exposé.
I loved Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservations, back when I watched TV. So, when I was choosing a book for this Category, I immediately thought of Anthony Bourdain. I really do enjoy his writing. Unfortunately, for me, what worked in a one-hour TV show was too much in a 301-page book.