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.]