A review of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

 Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Kitchen Confidential
by Anthony Bourdain
Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 0 7475 5355 6
May 2001

If you aren’t obsessed by exquisite food, amused by toilet humour and punkish slapstick, and don’t find the lives of the overworked, overpaid, talented, corrupt, and derelict cooks who turn out delicate dishes in New York’s fancy restaurants to be of interest, stop here. If, on the other hand, you have nerves of steel (think Basil in the Fawlty kitchens), a strong stomach for blood, gore, and dripping, and high tolerance of cuss words and adolescent antics (think the BBC’s Bottom, or Men Behaving Badly), along with a love of haute cuisine sans frou frou, you will enjoy Anthony Bourdain’s tell all memoir, Kitchen Confidential.

Like many memoirs, Kitchen Confidential celebrates its author, who’s own sense of self-importance, and the superior knowledge he has to impart, comes off as slightly conceited. However, this doesn’t distract from the enjoyment of reading this book, which takes the reader on a Bourdain culinary time trip from his first taste of Vichyssoise on a post-4th grade family trip to France, through his first dishwashing jobs, a succession of restaurant experiences, and back to NY where he maintains a long running stint as Executive Chef at Brasserie Les Halles, where he still works.

The book is divided along the lines of a fine meal, with Appetizer, First Course, Second Course, Third Course, Dessert, and Coffee and a Cigarette. The book does roughly follow a standard time sequence, following Bourdain as he falls in love with food while eating oysters, decides to become a chef; attends the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and begins to take on a series of jobs, under a succession of bullish, and occasionally inspiring masters. Along the way there are a lot of drugs, fast living, a trip to rock bottom, lots of cuts, bruises, alcohol, a trip to Japan, and always, food, in varying forms, from the sublime, to the awful.

In addition to the story, there are also tidbits of information which may come in handy one day. Bourdain provides lessons on the standard mise-en-place; those items which a good line cook has set up and ready for him, including sea salt, crushed peppercorns, chervil tops in ice water, caramelized apple sections, etc, recipes for good stock (“Make stock already! It’s easy! Life without stock is barely worth living, and you will never attain demi-glace without it.”), demi-glace, garnishing (“What does it take, for christsakes?”), the simple recipe for a a red snapper dish he used to cook “at a highly regarded two-star joint in New York”, how to judge when a restaurant is dying, how to make the most out of a visit to a restaurant: ‘never eat fish in a restaurant on Monday”; never order brunch, beware of chicken, bread, and well done meat, how to fit out your home kitchen, how to interpret kitchen lingo, how to buy, and wield a good knife, why you really don’t want to open a restaurant, even if all your friends are encouraging you, and 14 critical requirements if you do decide to become a chef, despite Bourdain’s multiple warnings against it.

There are sections which are less than appetising. Bordain’s description, for example, of a particular Mexican restaurant on upper Second Avenue which was “owned by a very aggressive rat population, fattened up and emboldened by the easily obtained stacks of avocados left to ripen outside the walk-in each night” left me feeling a little queasy, flashing back to a nasty case of food poisoning from a similar place, but also laughing, as I did throughout the book. There are graphic descriptions of a day in the life of a chef, including a lot of physical wounds, and blood squirting on the food, and spraying around the kitchen, an incredible amount of of drugs, dry humping, wet humping, re-using of food, dragging around heavy carcasses, scraping up food from the floor, serving food so old, it is only one step away from making someone ill, and playing dead.

There were times when the audience for this book was unclear. As a reader, I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be a young chef hopeful, a fellow head chef, and interested amateur, or just a lover of good tales. This made for a choppy delivery, with different sections not coordinating well – eg there was advice mingling with tales, mingling with recipes. But overall, this wasn’t really a handicap. Bourdain’s story is so interesting, and the writing was so crisp and fast, that the reader could have been any of these things. I have no aspirations to open a restaurant, although I have worked in one while at University, but Bourdain’s tale covers a lot of ground, including a sincere love of food, and his insane life, with its long hours, small acts of manly heroism, the occasional sublime meal, the tricks of the trade, and above all, the celebration of great characters. My favourite is the psychopath/virulent snail Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, whose bread is God given, but whose trails of starters (“the bitch”) include rotting grapes, fermenting red peppers, soggy buckets of mushroom trimmings – the gills and stems decomposing into noxious, black sludge. My own little jar of starter in the fridge is looking pretty gentile by comparison. There is also Bigfoot, “Cunning, manipulative, brilliant, mercurial, physically intimidating – even terrifying – a bully, a yenta, a sadist and a mensch”. Bigfoot is Bourdain’s mentor, teaching him best practice for the restaurant business, instilling habits that stay with Bourdain for life. There is also his best friend and sous chef Steven, Bourdaib’s evil twin, his doppelganger, his director of clandestine service, who, like most of the celebrated characters in this book is a pig, a mess, a permanent adolescent, but also charming, and individual. Bourdain’s long suffering wife Nancy, who never sees him, and never overtly complains, at least not in print, is like a quiet reality check, hinting at loyalty and love, behind the curtain. There are also a range of other eccentrics, lunatics, such as Dimitri, who, for a practical joke, is stripped, covered in blood, wrapped in Saran Wrap (cling film), and put in the freezer to scare the manager.

The best thing about Kitchen Confidential is that it is very funny. There is a section called “The Level of Discourse” which had me laughing loudly and reading out passages to my bewildered husband (after the kids were in bed): “As an artform, cooktalk is, like haiku or kabuki, defined by established rules, with a rigid, traditional framework in which one may operate. All comments must, out of historical necessity, concern involuntary rectal penetration, penis size, physical flaws, or annoying mannerisms or defects.” Bourdain then goes on to produce a detailed dictionary of terms such as “The word ‘fuck’ is used principally as a comma”, “Suck my dick’ means ‘Hang on a second’, etc. Despite the macho, testosterone-soaked bravado, Bourdain celebrates the lack of discrimination , as everyone is insulted, cussed at, and bottom smacked. The women who can survive in this environment are as well respected as the men. Bourdain asks, “Why, over the years, have my own language skills become so crude and offensive that at family Christmas I have to struggle to not say, ‘Pass the fuckin’ tuckey, cocksucker’?” He isn’t sure of the answer. Nor do I know why I was screaming with laughter during this, and many other intensely crude and seemingly gratuitious sections on food violence, mishandling, and culinary hijinks, but nonetheless, it was very enjoyable. I’ll never find myself in this sort of situation God willing, and my own experiences in a professional kitchen (in the UK) were very different! Although we did occasionally zap our potatoes under duress, steal wine glasses, and garnish the bills. If you have any interest at all in food, in restaurants, or just want to read about a profession more decadent than your own (even if you are a chef), full of black fun, you will enjoy Kitchen Confidential.