Kitchen Confidential

(by Anthony Bourdain)

I’m grateful to nonfiction book club for choosing this as our February read: although I definitely like food (by which I mean: I like cooking and baking; I like going out to eat; I like trying new-to-me restaurants and new-to-me dishes), I haven’t read many food-related memoirs, and this one was definitely engaging. While this book shows its age in some ways (ashtrays in NYC restaurants are a thing of the past, I would not describe shallots as a thing you’re unlikely to find in a home kitchen, and I sure hope the machismo of professional kitchens has been toned down a bit) it was still super-interesting as a portrait of a portion of the restaurant industry at a particular place and time.

Bourdain sets out to talk about how he came up in the culinary world—what he describes as his “long and checkered career as dishwasher, prep drone, fry cook, grillardin, saucier, sous-chef and chef”—and there are lots of wild anecdotes and interesting tidbits along the way. Bourdain talks about some significant early food memories—the Vichyssoise on board the Queen Mary when his family was en route to France for summer vacation, his parents going to La Pyramide and leaving him and his kid brother in the car, and the first oyster he ever tried, during that same summer. And then we get his early restaurant experiences: he talks washing dishes and cooking at a restaurant in Provincetown and picking up the idea that “the life of the cook was a life of adventure, looting, pillaging, and rock-and-rolling through life with a carefree disregard for all conventional morality.”

Later, Bourdain talks about working at the Rainbow Room and Work Progress and Les Halles and other places both highbrow and lowbrow; he also talks about different parts of the restaurant kitchen and how they fit together. So we learn about what line cooks do (and the centrality of mise-en-place), and about runners and night porters and sous chefs; we also get some tips on what to order or not to order (skip the seafood special on a Monday: it’s probably made from fish that was purchased for the Friday and Saturday rush but then didn’t sell) and what you need in a home kitchen (one good knife is better than a bunch of crappy ones). I love images like this, from when he’s talking about his time at the Rainbow Room: “On my union-mandated fifteen-minute breaks, I would sit out on a narrow precipice, sixty-four flights up, my legs dangling over the edge, one arm wrapped around a sash, smoking weed with the dishwashers, Central Park and upper Manhattan splayed out before me.”

My favorite part of the book, though, is probably the part about Bourdain’s first trip to Tokyo. It’s such vivid travel-writing/food-writing, whether Bourdain is talking about the bus ride from the airport or the noodles he eats for breakfast or an over-the-top omakase meal or the sights of the fish market. I never watched No Reservations, Parts Unknown, or any of Bourdain’s other TV shows while he was alive, but now I feel like I should go back and watch some of them.






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