Friday, May 13, 2011

Kitchen Confidential


Wow, is this book saucy! By that, I don't mean the one description of a great sounding chicken wing sauce, I mean the vulgar language, insults, rants, profanity, sexuality, blood, gore, drugs, dead pigs, rotten get the idea. Nobody under the age of say, 21, should be reading this, IMO.

Bordain uses his words like a chef uses his knife, to cut through all the bullsh** glamorized ideas that the food network cooking shows have given us (his insults on Emril & Rachel Ray are frequent and slightly funny). The world of the cook is not fun, easy, and thirty's 18 hours, smelly, hot, sweaty, and well, working class! The book takes us into the culinary underbelly (as described by the cover of the book), and it kind of a frightening journey to tell you the truth.

In the preface, Bourdain states he only wrote this book for those in the industry, and truthfully thought nobody other than a handful of unemployed chefs/cooks with time to waste would read it...apparently it turned into a best seller? I can vouch for that; I would even buy it! Me, the guy who got mad over 70 cents worth of overdue library is that good.

This quasi-autobiography starts with a young Anthony travelling through France. He was a bratty kid, only eating hamburgers and french fries, shunning anything French. He was always a rebellious kid, which is what starts his food journey. It begins when the fam takes a day trip on an oyster fishing boat. Fresh oysters were offered up by the pirate like captain and nobody wanted to eat them (too weird, too slimy, etc). Anthony finally steps up and eats one, being the rebel of course. He loved it. From that point on he pushed the limits on all food, eating the strangest frenchest things on the menu.

Years later, on a summer break from college, he reluctantly takes a dishwashing job. It was that, or be evicted by his roommates. The restaurant he worked for was filled with crooked, drugged up, crude talking guys. Terrible sounding to me, but, paradise for Anthony.

It is incredible the outrageous stuff that went on in that kitchen was considered ok, even normal. There were lots of drugs, inter-employee 'relationships' (in the dry goods room!), bad food handling, gambling, stealing, just arrogant crass behaviour! And, the competitive atmosphere within the restaurant and with other restaurants down the street was mind boggling. The psychological assaults the cooks played on one other left me surprised that there were not any knife wielding incidents. The scary part - I think Bourdain toned down the stories. Your typical story teller enhances tales (ie makes stuff up). I think Anthony left much of the worst of it out. So, even as shocking as some of these stories are, I think there are worse ones left out.

The book is divided up like a fine meal. There is the autobiographical story of Anthony's career which makes up the entree - the real meat of the story. I say meat because any chef regards vegetarians as the bane of their existence, or at least Anthony does. There is also a side dish of stories about eccentric people Tony has worked with or worked for. This includes many junkies, megalomaniacs, and even the mafia. There are also small tidbits, appetizers and desserts, intermixed in the book. Mostly they are about how a restaurant actually works. You might get the impression these parts would have a textbook feel? Really, how interesting is it to describe what a porter does or how to order stock. But, instead of dry terminology and definitions Anthony gives us some tasteless examples of the criminal behaviour that he expects from porters (such as stealing food and booze). Some of the most effective parts of the book are these small dishes, effective in that they make you want to vomit. Like, why not to eat seafood on Monday. Or, why Sunday brunch should be called something like, 'stuff that should be going out in the trash but let's make a seafood fritatta out of it to save money'.

What I found this book did was bring me right into the noisy, hot, cuss filled kitchen and realize how much I've taken for granted being that diner who comes in for a relaxing meal on a Saturday night. But, other than make me feel guilty, Bourdain also does a great job of making the book relevant to anyone working in a cruddy job. Just like other jobs most of the time is spent in the drudgery of repetition ('the same dish 150 times a day' can easily be compared to 'the same data input into the computer 150 times a day'). Also the camaraderie of being on the same team, taking on the ever present enemy, be it the customer or the boss! The high point of this industry seems to be the personal satisfaction that comes with making a great dish (or 150 of them in a night). Anthony repeats many times that he often left work feeling satisfied deep down.

I do have to warn you, other than the three thousand foul words found in the book, that this is one of those books you are going to be quoting (hence, annoying others) for years to come. Most likely anytime you go out to eat you'll want to share some of your new found knowledge on the workings of the kitchen. Or, at least what NOT to order! Oh, and you'll probably never let anyone send anything back again, unless you like eating spit...or completely ruining the rest of the night for a few lowly cooks.

Overall, this was a book I didn't want to put down. It was a book I wished would go on forever. One of the best books I've read in years! I found the stories and writing just...entertaining on many different levels. The actual words Bourdain uses are all over the place, for eg. where is the last time you saw 'underbelly' used in a sentence? It's funny, which I like. It is also full of 'stuff' (words, phrases, life experiences) that I have never run across or for that matter ever hope to. This out of the ordinary 'stuff' is fascinating. Anthony's personal story, from lazy ass druggie to master chef, is so full of ups and downs you really never know what is going to happen next. So, get crakin'...readin'


P.S. What made me first pick up this book was Anthony's shameless promotion of it on his great travel/food show No Reservations. Funny though, the jokes on Anthony - he promoted his book, which I got free from the library, from his show, which I also got free from the library...oh boy, I'm quite the cheapskate!

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