Tag Archives: Anthony Bourdain

The Nasty Bits, Anthony Bourdain

<em class="BookTitle">The Nasty Bits</em>, Anthony Bourdain

Bloomsbury, 2007 reprint of 2006 original, 288 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN-978-1-59691-360-8

In my continued quest to read all of Anthony Bourdain’s written output, I am now left to digest the “collected varietal cuts, usable trim, scraps and bones” of his career so far.  Or, in more prosaic terms, a collection of various pieces written following the runaway success of Kitchen Confidential and his rise as a celebrity food writer.  The Nasty Bits brings together 36 non-fiction pieces, accompanied by a fiction novelette and an essential appendix that comments on the various pieces.  The non-fiction content is subdivided in thematic seconds meant to evoke the five basic tastes, but the real flavour here is Bourdain’s punk-rock approach to food and travel writing.

A standout piece, for instance, is “Food and Loathing in Las Vegas”, a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired piece in which Bourdain describes his first visit to the new Las Vegas food scene.  As entertaining commentary wrapped in semi-fictional homage to its source material, it’s a laugh –and prior to Bourdain’s influence, it’s not always the kind of writing you could find in food/travel magazines.  Much of The Nasty Bits is unpretentious travel writing liberally seasoned with descriptions of good food: Bourdain’s prose is seldom less than fascinating, and he’s got a knack for living interesting experiences.  They don’t all have to involve eating strange new bugs in third-world countries: In “The Love Boat”, Bourdain tries to survive on a posh cruise liner with an in-cabin kitchenette and an on-board gourmet grocer: It’s a look at high-end decadent living from a reformed line cook, and it’s about as interesting a confrontation of world-views as you can imagine.  (More importantly, Bourdain manages to cook a perfect risotto with what he’s given on-board.)

Other pieces stand out for less-charming reasons.  Bourdain’s never been shy to criticize what he sees as being wrong with food culture, and in “Woody Harrelson: A Culinary Muse” takes aim at the actor for insisting on a vegan diet and ignoring what local food culture had to offer while traveling abroad.  Such openness to world cuisine (and Asian food in general) is a hallmark of Bourdain’s writing, and several other pieces document his growing fascination with the world of gastronomic possibilities.  An interesting pair of pieces in this regard are “Notes from the Road” and “Die, Die Must Try”, presenting Bourdain’s brutal first visit to Singapore and a far friendlier follow-up.

Such growth as a person and as a writer is an essential part of The Nasty Bits, allowing us to follow Bourdain’s quick evolution as Kitchen Confidential, then his TV shows, gradually opened more possibilities for him.  From a humble cook with a troubled past to a world-traveling food writer, Bourdain has grown up in public in the six years between Kitchen Confidential and The Nasty Bits, and this evolution is reflected here in many ways, between pieces but also in the second thoughts that ends the book.  In “Sleaze Gone By”, he wears his scrappy New York formative influences like a badge of honour in recalling with some fondness the rougher pre-Giuliani neighbourhoods he used to frequent.  But significantly, the back of the book commentary takes it back: “A pretty glib, wildly over-romanticized look at the New York City of my misspent youth.” [P.285])

Some other pieces stand out because of their unusual subject matter.  In “Warning Signs”, Bourdain describes a well-known London steakhouse chain and itemizes ten reasons why the place ought to be closed down; “The Good, Old Stuff” discusses how several restaurants still serve unfashionable food straight from decades past; “Viva Mexico! Viva Ecuador” pays tribute to the hard-working immigrants toiling away in American kitchens; “When the Cooking’s Over” discusses what chefs do after their shift is done, with several examples in various cities; “The Cook’s Companion” provides an essential bibliography of great writing about the real life of restaurants; and “System D” borrows from the French to explain one of the essential traits of any competent kitchen worker.

A special mention should also be made of “A Chef’s Christmas”, which showcases Bourdain’s fiction credentials to a wider audience.  The piece itself isn’t particularly refined (it self-consciously relies on a rich deus ex snowstorm to provide a happy ending, and seems to hop in-between half a dozen characters’ viewpoint almost at random in only thirty pages.) but it’s an entertaining change of pace from the non-fiction pieces and as witty as Bourdain can be.

All of it amounts to a collection that Bourdain fans will find essential.  The Nasty Bits is not the best introduction to Bourdain’s work (For that, try Kitchen Confidential, or the No Reservation TV series), but it’s a good satisfying read.

Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain

<em class="BookTitle">Medium Raw</em>, Anthony Bourdain

Ecco, 2010, 281 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-171894-6

Anthony Bourdain will be the first to recognize the unlikelihood of his accession to the ranks of celebrity cooks.  After two unsuccessful novels published in the late nineties while he was still working in New York restaurants, Bourdain wrote the now-classic exposé Kitchen Confidential with hopes that it would be read by other local kitchen professionals.  Much to his surprise, the book rode the wave of popular interest in all things foodie, became a perennial bestseller and (with some help from a TV show) made Bourdain a foul-mouthed star.  Unlike other celebrity chefs, his place has always been that of the hard-working professional scrapping away in ordinary restaurants.  Bourdain will acknowledge that his culinary talents were average, and that his unusually good fortune leaves him just as surprised as anyone else.

That’s how we end up with Medium Raw, a collection of original essays about Bourdain’s life during the decade since Kitchen Confidential first appeared on the shelves.  Tackling a diversity of subjects from fatherhood to the quality of fast-food meat to the requirements for being a chef to the impact of the 2008 financial crisis over New York’s high-end gastronomy scene, Medium Raw is like spending an evening hearing Bourdain discuss a variety of subjects.  There’s so little structure that the book could have been a collection of magazine articles, but much of it either revolves around food or Bourdain himself.  It’s obviously a book for fans, and even those who have read Kitchen Confidential recently may feel left out if they haven’t experienced his other books and TV shows.

Equally introspective and controversial, Medium Raw spends as much time meditating upon Bourdain’s selling-out than in designating heroes and villains.  (Heroes?  Working-class cooks like the one Bourdain profiles in “My Aim is True” or iconoclastic chefs like David Chang, discussed in “The Fury”.  Villains?  Alice Waters, as described in “Go Ask Alice” and Alan Richman in “Alan Richman is a Douchebag”.  For more, there’s an entire chapter called “Heroes and Villains”.)  A crucial difference between this and Kitchen Confidential is how stepped into foodie culture Medium Raw can feel: Bourdain not only name-checks other TV chefs presuming that we can recall who they are, but acknowledges the work done by Michael Pollan and Eric Schloesser in raising food quality issues in popular media.  For anyone even casually acquainted with contemporary food writing, it feels like a part of the mainstream.

The best pieces of Medium Raw touch upon a variety of subjects and tone.  “The Sit Down” begins the book with a vaguely foreboding description of a confidential Ortolan tasting that will lead curious readers to Michael Paterniti’s incredible article “The Last Meal” (summary).  “Selling Out” describes Bourdain’s changing opinions about celebrity chefs and his own relationship to fame.  In “Meat”, Bourdain is horrified at the declining quality of hamburger meat and makes sombre predictions about the future of this all-American staple.  Bourdain’s expertise about the New York scene is obvious in “The Fear” (regarding the changing restaurant environment once the bankers lost their expense accounts in late 2008), while “Lower Education” includes a hilarious description of the psychological warfare that Bourdain is waging against McDonalds in his daughter’s social circle.

Alternately funny, profane, touching, heartfelt, analytical and descriptive, Medium Raw is a grab bag of food-related pieces that shows how Bourdain has developed not just as a celebrity, but also as a writer.  It’s fully self-aware, and generous in how it gives us (still) a glimpse in the author’s life now that he’s moved up in the world.  It may be disconnected and scattered and unequal, but it’s also a fast and pleasant read thanks to Bourdain’s engaging style.  Even those who bought it with the intent to read it later may find themselves captivated after only a few pages.

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

<em class="BookTitle">Kitchen Confidential</em>, Anthony Bourdain

Harper Perennial, updated 2007 edition of 2000 original, 334 pages, $15.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-089922-6

In some ways, a great book is like great food: You can try to break it down to its individual components, but the final result will always be measured by how you sit back and say “Wow, that was good.”

But in most other ways, great food really isn’t like a great book at all, and that’s where Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential comes in.  Riding high on America’s renewed passion for all things foodish, chef Bourdain’s memoir was published in 2000 to instant acclaim, in part because it offers a refreshingly frank look at what happens in the kitchen of average restaurants.  While Bourdain can (and does, early on) romanticizes the power of great food, much of Kitchen Confidential concerns his own rocky path through the New York restaurant scene, and the hot, frantic, unglamorous reality of a restaurant kitchen when dinnertime starts, patrons rush in and the pressure builds.

Unlike other celebrity chefs, Bourdain was never renowned as a flashy or particularly meritorious cook: The chronicles of his earliest days includes one particular achievement (graduating from CIA, which should be understood not as the spy agency, but as the “Culinary Institute of America”, a New York school for chefs) and several less-admirable traits: Heavy drug use, fast-burn living, and a generally aimless career path.  His description of what happens in failing restaurants is informed by several personal experiences.  But his flaws are not exceptional in an environment where this type of behaviour is considered normal: It takes a special kind of personality to work in a professional kitchen, and Bourdain’s description of what happens there is one of the book’s most vivid qualities.

One of the book’s standout chapters, “A day in the life”, chronicles a typical workday for Bourdain, who was then kitchen manager at a middle-class New York restaurant.  It’s a chaotically choreographed ballet of ordering, inventory management, stocking, staffing challenges and, obviously, quite a bit of cooking.  One of Kitchen Confidential’s particular themes is to highlight the distinction between chef and cook: Once the chef (sometimes famous) has determined what the restaurant offers, it’s up to the line cooks to deliver the food to the customers, and that doesn’t take creativity and bonhomie as much as it asks for reliability, consistency and the ability to perform the job in a distraction-rich environment  while resisting the pressures to deliver substandard results in the name of efficiency, time, cost or convenience.  Bourdain takes a particular pride in his regular crew of immigrant workers, lauding their work ethics in comparison to born-and-raised-Americans.

Another of Kitchen Confidential’s big success is in the candid depiction of the atmosphere of a professional kitchen: a multicultural group united by a powerful under-the-fire camaraderie, characterized by vicious put-downs meant to test a comrade’s grace under pressure more than to actually insult the recipient.  Bourdain’s depiction of kitchen language is never less than R-rated, which is part of its authenticity.  But it’s Bourdain’s various portraits of the people he has worked with that round out the look at the very different sub-culture in which he belongs.  Bourdain’s fiction credentials (he had two novels published before Kitchen Confidential) serve him well in characterizing the essential details that spice up his narrative.

The result is not just a great book, but the kind of gripping narrative that makes one sorry for short commutes and early sleep times.  It’s a tough book to abandon in mid-read, and even non-foodies won’t necessarily be put off by the wealth of culinary knowledge assumed by Bourdain.  At a time where there is a lot of material on the shelves about every single conceivable aspect of food, Kitchen Confidential still holds up a decade later.  This being said, do try to get your hands on the updated edition, which describes some of what happened to Bourdain and his acquaintances since then (he’s become a world-trotting celebrity food commentator with his own TV show) and reports on aspects of the industry since Kitchen Confidential’s original publication.  Fortunately, write Bourdain, things have generally improved: standards are higher, food is more respected, and chefs earn more respect.  Of course, this doesn’t change why you should avoid buffets, fish on Monday or well-done steak… although, as Bourdain suggests, you only live once.  Try a bit of everything.

[February 2010: Bourdain’s follow-up, A Cook’s Tour, is a different book, although it is clearly prefigured by the closing Japan-based chapters of Kitchen Confidential: As a follow-up, Bourdain decides to live a life of adventure and go eat strange meals in even-stranger places. Alcohol, drugs, adventure and exotic food follow. The book led to a TV series, but it also acts as a commentary to the TV series. It’s all good fun in the tradition of hard-partying travelogues, although people looking for more kitchen-based material won’t find it here.]