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Adventures in the
Anthony Bourdain—author, chef, chain smoker, inveterate boozer, former smackhead, self-proclaimed asshole—wants you to know a few things about the folks who prepare your food. Bourdain is a Vassar dropout as well as a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He’s also a Francophile and a serious student of culinary history and literature. Yet whereas other devoted practitioners of classic French cuisine (Bourdain’s the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York) are allotted at least honorary membership to high society, in his expose/memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain proudly, vigorously aligns himself with the hoi polloi—the working-class, “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees…drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths” with whom the chef has spent his days and nights for the past quarter-century.
Culinary memoirs tend to be so predictably structured that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were making a killing with a how-to book on the genre. The sundry examples I’ve read sit in my mind like one bled-together tale that starts with a food-borne epiphany and then plods along as a first-person life lesson sprinkled with recipes and stories about eccentrics who make fabulous polenta. Even the really good ones read this way, and Confidential isn’t fully an exception. It includes tales of the youthful Bourdain being transformed by trips to France, and the chapter titled “Food Is Sex” could serve as the name for a whole section of books at Barnes & Noble.
But Bourdain, a man who realized his calling the day he witnessed his chef-boss “rear-ending” the bride whose wedding reception he was catering, isn’t going to be mistaken for Jacques Pepin in this lifetime. Nor would he ever care to be. Confidential stands apart from other culinary memoirs because it doesn’t really fetishize food. Instead, Bourdain romanticizes restaurant kitchens as miniatures of the Wild West, positing them as the empires of outcasts and true adventurers. His resume is riddled with stints at middling dives and would-be hipster joints that barely got off the ground, but Bourdain remains fascinated by the deadbeat rhythms of professional kitchen behavior. His first industry gig was as a dishwasher at a touristy seafood restaurant in Cape Cod, and in the author’s words, the kitchen staff comes off like a crew of horndog bandits:
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They had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing. They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn’t nailed down, and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers and casual visitors like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined. They carried big, bad-ass knives, which they kept honed and sharpened to a razor’s edge. They hurled dirty saute pans and pots across the kitchen and into my pot sink with casual accuracy. They spoke their own peculiar dialect, an unbelievably profane patois of countercultural jargon and local Portuguee slang, delivered with ironic inflection…
For someone who’s built a career working with his hands and mouth, Bourdain is a freakishly gifted wordsmith. He’s a macho writer who confesses to having once idolized Hunter S. Thompson, an influence clearly evident in Confidential’s blunt-force sentences and shock-value observations. The author has two published novels under his belt, and part of Confidential was published previously in the New Yorker as an essay about the food-handling habits of restaurant workers—a mildly disturbing piece that he stretches to gag-inducing limits here.
In the chapter “From Our Kitchen to Your Table,” Bourdain takes delight in affirming restaurantgoers’ suspicions about table bread (it’s most likely been handled by past diners), mussels (let’s just say that the author stays away from them), and brunch (“a dumping ground for odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights”). His revelations about restaurant hollandaise are enough to make you swear off eggs Benedict for good: “Most likely, the stuff on your eggs was made hours ago and held on station. Equally disturbing is the likelihood that the butter used in the hollandaise is melted table butter, heated, clarified, and strained to get out all the bread crumbs and cigarette butts.”
Bourdain’s gonzo language can leave you suspicious that he’s more interested in entertaining than dispensing purely accurate information (cigarette butts?). The high drama he tries to inject into every aspect of his story can grow tiring; the chapter he spends deifying his favorite hellbent sous chef is twice as long as it needs to be.
But if the writing is occasionally overheated, it’s as much a symptom of the way Bourdain lives his life as it is of any mandate to sell books. His language suits most of his experiences like good clogs, and at its best, his book gives a cold-eyed, ground-level view of the pre-Giuliani New York underbelly where he came of age. His life story is compelling because he’s only recently found real success, and instead of using his drug-addled history in service of some kind of cautionary tale, he remembers it for what it was: manic, crazed, shiftless—much like the kitchens in which he’s been employed.
The chef/author takes pride in having survived the long hours and grueling conditions that are a fact of life in his line of work. For all but a blessed handful, a commitment to a life in restaurants is a commitment to life on the fringe, and Bourdain offers lucid, frank, valuable dispatches from that world. Like most high-strung people prone to self-destructive behavior, Bourdain has never seen a flame he hasn’t fanned—he vividly writes of stabbing an annoying shop steward with a rusty meat fork to win the respect of his kitchen colleagues—but his dog-eat-dog temperament has clearly served him well in an industry where failure is so common that knowing how to fail gracefully is a bankable skill.
And even though he conveys considerable arrogance, Bourdain’s never smug about having risen above the slave-wage laborers who work under him. He’s one of them. The language he uses to write about the dope fiends, refugees, and miscreants who make his story worth reading is a crude language of love. CP