30
Sep
14

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

I worked in a kitchen once. It was my first job, washing dishes at a restaurant downtown. Not an overly fancy place, but a respectable joint: fresh produce and meat delivered every few days, a group of line chefs in the kitchen and me, off in the corner, handling the dish pit.
The work sucked, but I wanted to be a chef, so I stuck it out for a year: washing dishes, working late, coming home at three in the morning. When my checks stopped matching the hours I put in and the place started closing early, I left without giving notice. It closed a few months later.

When Anthony Bourdain writes about busy kitchens, the teamwork and chaos, I sort of know where he’s coming from. I knew people who were sorta like the cast in this book: gruff, jerky line cooks. God help me, I even remember hoarding those little towels every so often: those pans were hot as hell.

Still, I wanted to like Kitchen Confidential a lot more than I did.

Throughout the book, Bourdain paints himself as a full-of-himself asshole, a jerk who loves to swear and scream at people. He knows a lot about cooking and a lot about people. And he probably knows how much of a jerk he comes off as. Forget liking the guy, it was hard for me to even stand him sometimes: a loud, mouthy guy prone to hyperbole and screaming.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad read. Part memoir, part how-to, part creative nonfiction, Kitchen Nightmares is stuffed with fun stories, useful advice and fascinating personalities. In 27 essays, he takes readers into the hectic Rainbow Room kitchen, subterranean Tokyo dives and mobbed-up restaurants. He explains what knives he uses, how to make your food taste like restaurant food (shallots!) and when to avoid eating fish. He goes from cooking school grad to a coked-out maniac to seasoned vet of the competitive cooking world.

There’s a lot of stuff here for even casual foodies. I know I’ve certainly taken a new interest in cooking with truffle oil, for example. And although it sometimes gets overwhelming with all the inside baseball terms – I’m still looking up the English names for some of the dishes Bourdain casually tosses around – it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as the kitchen scenes.

And I thought I knew a busy kitchen! When Bourdain starts going through a day in his life, the staggering amount of work him and his kitchen go through on a regular basis, it’s hard to keep up. Partly by design, I imagine, since things get a little crazy in his kitchens; by contrast, the pace he describes at his friend Scott Bryan’s place seems cozy, even though it’s a busy place, too.

But Bourdain admits, he thrives on chaos. This is a guy who pumps a soundtrack of late-70s punk into his kitchen, the frantic tempo driving his line. And if he likes it when things get disordered, maybe it’s because he has this air of disorder himself: when he tells about his early years, it’s of days and nights high out of his mind, working massive shifts and inhaling huge rails of coke.

I don’t think he was trying to glamourize these years – he later mentions how he lost more than few friends to drugs – but it’s hard not to think he’s romanticizing a little, too. He spends so much time emphasizing the highs it’s easy to miss the passing references to the lows: the trips to rehab, the old friends who won’t return his calls, the few nights a year he gets to spend alone with his wife. Cooking’s a lot of fun, but it’s a hard gig, too.

Rating: 5/10. Enjoyable in spurts, but overwhelming when read in chunks, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is an interesting book and the man’s sheer love for food, no matter it’s style, presentation or origin, shines through in every essay of his. Unfortunately, so does his overbearing, caustic attitude. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m also glad I don’t work in his kitchen for a living, too.

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