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The wedding cake had gone to hell. The two blown-sugar doves atop the giant confection had shattered to pieces, frosting had drooped down the precisely piped sides, and Michel Richard knew it was all his fault. His drive toward perfection—to please yet another wealthy, influential Southern California client—had forced the pastry chef to fall way behind schedule, and his hasty delivery and handling of the cake had caused the irreparable damage.
The chef’s face-saving grace turned out to be two Dobermans, who were roaming the estate where the reception was held. In a flash of impish inspiration, Richard directed the pooches toward his fallen tower. “I pushed their faces into the cake, encouraging them to eat faster,” writes Richard, who then turned to the wedding coordinator. “‘Madame! Madame! The dogs eat my beautiful wedding cake.’”
Richard’s ’80s-era story—first related in the 2005 Bloomsbury collection Don’t Try This at Home—may be the most devious kitchen tale ever committed to print. In fact, pound for pound, Richard’s tale of cold-blooded, ass-covering deception at a blue-blood reception makes Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential posturing seem juvenile (which much of it is).
Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to invite Bourdain, Richard, and José Andrés to try to top the wedding-cake tale? To my shock, they all agree, in principle, to share their war stories at the Blue Duck Tavern. Once we settle in, I tell the trio that the Doberman story will serve as the starting point for a game of one-upmanship, in which the chefs must eclipse Richard’s yarn and then tell progressively more outrageous tales, the darker the better. Bourdain immediately balks at the challenge.
“No one’s going to top that story,” complains Bourdain, claiming Richard’s tale is “legend” among chefs. “That’s the ideal. There are more shameful, there are more disgusting, but that’s genius and funny.”
As Bourdain continues to pontificate and Andrés turns stone silent (as he would for the rest of the game), a French-accented voice speaks up at the other end of the table. It’s Richard, and he’s launched into a story about his days as a French army cook. A general apparently had cut the kitchen staff’s leave privileges.
“The general,” says Richard, “was not a very nice man. One day, we grabbed the cat. We killed the cat. We marinated the cat, five days, six days. The general would be looking for his cat. He was eating his cat!”
The table goes silent for a moment, stunned. Then all at once, we burst into laughter, and I begin taunting Bourdain. “It can be topped!” I shout over the din. And just for good measure, I rub Bourdain’s nose in the story shock-count: Richard 2, Bourdain 0. Without missing a beat, Bourdain launches into a golden oldie from his days working at a nightclub.
“I had a pastry chef, a lonely guy, who used to like it when bread dough was rising,” Bourdain says. “In the poofing stage, it has a hot internal temperature, and he used to jerk off into his Parker rolls.”
I ask if the demented dude actually sent out his gooey rolls, and Bourdain gives me a stupid, dead-eye stare, as if I had just asked whether dwarfs could make it in the NBA. “I found out about this after the fact,” Bourdain clarifies.
On a roll himself, Bourdain reaches back to his dishwashing/garde–manger days in Provincetown, Mass., at the so-called “Dreadnaught,” which hosted jazz bands back in the early ’70s. “You have to understand that they break every 45 minutes, but they’d always want their dinner in the middle of the rush,” Bourdain says about the musicians. “We’re pounding out seafood platters for like 300 people, and these nitwits come in…[Bourdain switches to a comic stoner voice] ‘I need my seafood, man.’”
After two days of the kitchen telling the jazzcats to “fuck off,” the musicians “walk across the street to the other restaurant where our owner is hanging out,” Bourdain continues. “They interrupt him in the middle of his dinner…and complain about how the kitchen over at the other restaurant is depriving them of their seafood. ‘I can’t make my music without my mussels, man.’ So the next night, they come in and say, ‘I’m ready for my mussels.’ The chef goes, ‘No problem.’ He throws mussels in the pot, throws in a little marinara sauce, unzips [his pants and pisses in the pot], steams them open, and sends them out….They come in, ‘Oh, the mussels were excellent.’”
If Bourdain is interested in telling tales only from the Disco Era—“No act committed or described in the previous conversation occurred post 1975,” he says at one point—Richard feels no such need to protect his image. He relates a more contemporary tale, from the early ’90s, about a catered outdoor event for nearly 400 people. Tuna was on the menu. “At the end,” Richard remembers, “we didn’t have any more tuna, and we had 40 or 50 guests who were waiting for the food. Now, I didn’t do it, but a guy went back to the garbage, took the leftovers, and put it on a plate.”
“In the garbage! In the garbage! In the garbage!” Richard repeats, still incredulous over the refuse raid.
The incident reminds me of a scene from Bill Buford’s book Heat, in which the writer–turned–kitchen slave gets dressed down by Mario Batali for throwing away celery leaves. Bourdain, of course, cries foul over the comparison. “That’s a different thing,” he says. “Chefs often…reach into the garbage, pull out stuff that you’ve discarded, and hold it up to you and say, ‘This is perfectly good food. You should have used it.’ You don’t actually cook from out of the garbage.”
Nor do you usually add dishwashing soap to food, but that’s what Bourdain once did—on purpose—at an “unnamed West Village establishment.” “Some customer had given me a hard time and sent something back twice,” Bourdain recalls. “I felt that they were being unfair, and I sprinkled a little dish soap into their [food]. I figured it would give them the shits.
“So the next morning, I’m lying in bed,” he continues. “The phone rings, and it’s my chef, who wasn’t there that night. He was saying, ‘Tony, did you put something in someone’s food last night?’ I said, ‘No, of course not, Chef!’ My voice is getting all squeaky because he sounded all worried…I said, ‘I would never do something like that!’ [The chef said,] ‘He died, man! He really died!’
“After I shat myself and broke into a flop sweat, he said, ‘Just kidding,’” Bourdain adds and pauses for dramatic effect. “‘But don’t do that again.’ My co-worker ratted me out, by the way.”—Tim Carman
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