Somebody suggested I should read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential quite a while ago and with lots of time passing it eventually made it from my amazon notepad to my home to the top of the pile of books I want to read to this page. Bourdain describes many different aspects of growing in the kitchen business. And my short verdict would be that the book is in parts an amusing read and that Bourdain is a poser rather than a good writer in the others.
The book is split into aptly named sections – Appetizer, First Course, Second Course, Third Course, Dessert and Coffee and Cigarette – which move with Bourdain’s progress in his cooking life. Their sections are a wildly mixed bunch. Some of them are remotely informative about the restaurant business. Quite a few of them are just full of anecdotes about who was influential or important for Bourdain. Most, however, seem to focus on how many different Spanish expressions for balls, dick or similar terms you need to know to be respected by your underpaid kitchen staff. And it’s about how tough and rough you need to be to survive in a ‘proper’ kitchen, dealing with your colleagues, superiors, staff, deliveries and everything.
At least in New York, that is. Perhaps restaurants there are big and expensive. And full of staff who need to be bossed around and with whole ranges of managing and mafia around them. I find it hard to relate to that. I’ve lived in northern Germany, in Coventry and in Pretoria. None of these regions is particularly exciting in its urbanity or culinarily. Not being from a severely rich or culinarily ambitious family, means that my fingers will suffice for counting all the ‘serious’ good meals I had in my life (Although I noted that my parents have moved to better food since my brother and me moved out. Unfair!). And as a little check revealed, the best of them is rated at 14 points (out of 20) by that Gault Millau guide… a tiny restaurant with eight tables or so and three people working there. So what do I know? And how can I relate to that book?
Hardly. While all the episodes about the swearwords, about hard work, about consuming enormous amounts of drugs are a good and entertaining story, it seems that the books fails to do what its title suggests: give any new and even ‘confidential’ information about how the pros cook. Should I care if the kitchen is a big playing field for verbal (and potentially other) abuse? Probably not. If the people working their consider it good for their work and they need it to make good food, let them? Should I be shocked that fish shouldn’t be eaten on Mondays? Well, my parents have suggested that forever and it looks like a fairly obvious fact. Should I cringe the next time I go for meal because some of the bread they give me might have been in the vicinity of people before? Unlikely. I’d rather think that throwing it away just because some smartass lawyers considered it a good idea would be silly.
And should I be shocked about the drug excesses? Well, I’m not sure about this one. People can do whatever they want in their spare time. I wouldn’t feel too good if people started taking drugs just to be able to cook a meal for me. Or if people would be injured as a consequence of their colleagues being drugged at work. But from the descriptions in the book, it doesn’t sound that bad. An nobody forces people to enjoy those drugs, right? So I’ve decided to not be shocked.
So, in lack of shock, what remains? In the beginning there’s a brief description how he falls in love with food. Nice one of course. And one involving eating oysters in Arcachon. Amusingly, this is an experience I almost share as we spent a holiday in Archachon as well when I was little. And it being an oyster region, we of course had oysters as well. Actually my parents were quite keen on having us eat them as somehow buying ice creams for the kids was more expensive than a dozen of oysters in the region. While this is long ago and I didn’t have many other oysters since, it didn’t put me on the path to become a cook… While oysters are curious bits of food, I failed to see why they should be so much better than other things. Perhaps I should have another try…
The other sections which ‘save’ the book are at the end. When Bourdain makes clear that his reality in the world of cooking isn’t the only one and that things can be done vastly differenty and possibly even better. This was reassuring to read, as the two hundred pages in between suggested that his inflated ego might have hovered him safely away from reality. He also describes how he goes to Japan and starts to experience the local varieties of food as well – falling in love with food once again. Which is cool.
I know that cook is not a writer. But I bought a book and not a blog. So I expect things to make sense all the way through and not sections being assembled without a clear indication where we are going. Without clear temporal references and so on. So don’t expect to much and you’ll enjoy this one if you fancy reading about some dirty words from kitchens and an odd love-hate relationship with the Froggies.
Vegetarians and ther Hezbollah-like spliter-fraction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I’ll accomodate them, I’ll rummage around for something to feed them, for a ‘vegetarian plate’, if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine. …
That says it all. Sympathetic, right, wrong, professional, arrogant… all at the same time. Enjoy your meal.
Heh, and I really liked one of the review quotes on the book cover as well. The Glasgow Herald said
Exposes Jamie Oliver for the choirboy that he is. I really liked Jamie Oliver’s TV show and like his cookbooks as well… choirboy…
Bookmark: 15-06-2000 17:50 ‘Super Quick Tripper’ tram ticket taking us from the border at Tijuana back to somewhere in San Diego where we had parked the car.
Kitchen Confidential is actually a collection of essays/articles originally written for various newspapers, which explains it’s scattergun approach.
As a professional chef, everything in this book rings true. And indeed, all the fellow chefs I’ve met over the years strongly identify with Tony Bourdain’s first-hand accounts. I remember my first day as a commis chef many years ago, my head chef pulled me aside and said: “If you want to know what this job is all about, pick up a copy of Kitchen Confidential”. All the stuff you see on TV, all the sugar-coated cookbooks, Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, all the cute Hell’s Kitchen blow-ups… it’s all media bullshit. This book is real life.
A real kitchen is furnace-hot, cramped, stressful, full of guys of all nationalities screaming and shouting the foulest and most obscene language. They ogle all the pretty girls who come into the restaurant, call all the guys faggots, abuse the floor staff for fun and wind down after a long double shift by drinking heavily and doing a few lines. Not cool, but that’s how it is.
I guess civilians will never understand the time and effort that goes into their food when they sit down in a restaurant, but Tony Bourdain tells it straight up. The book is written by a chef and, in a way, it’s for chefs. If you don’t like it, go eat at McDonalds.
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