I’ve never really worked in a kitchen. I cannot tell you what it is like to be in the “weeds”, or to really deal with the notion of creating any sort of culinary masterpiece for a paying customer. What I can tell you is this, I’ve eaten at many fancy restaurants, and some allow you to see the action unfold as they let the curtains down into the kitchen and you see the frenzy of action that is going on to prepare even the simplest of meals. It is within that frenzy and chaos, that there is a master at the helm, a chef that has organized the band of misfits and created a certain final product that either makes or breaks your dining experience. In the case of the year 2000, a book was published by Anthony Bourdain, and it would become one of my personal favorite autobiographies, as it is raw, and yet delicious all in the same breath. “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain was published in the year 2000, after the New Yorker published Bourdain’s work about dining. From there, the book was crafted and takes no prisoners in a very “gonzo” approach to writing. Devoid of smoke and mirrors, the raw honesty shared in this book showcases an incredible self-awareness that few writers have.
Kitchen staff has a special place in my heart. Bourdain reflects on this because there’s a large impact of immigration found in the restaurant world. The author himself is not an immigrant, but rather he admits to being a spoiled white guy that flunked out of college the first time around before getting serious about cooking and going to the Culinary Institute of America. He is unlike the people that he met along the way, and yet he becomes like them. The notion of kinship and undocumented workers is interesting, in that the restaurant world provides a great deal of narrative outside of what Bourdain discusses (Kim, 2009). The book discusses immigrant tales, or rather the tales of someone that has witnessed the interactions of hard-working immigrants, cooks, chefs, and more.
Aside from the immigration angle, I recall much of Bourdain’s book to be flowing in and out of personal details about the learning process of a chef, and his mistakes and triumphs that came through his early career, and present. He starts a naïve kitchen worker, and then ends up a hard-nosed, grizzled veteran by the time the book ends. Throughout, there’s a variety of ups and downs, and through the lines you start to realize that depression and mastering any art form can run hand in hand (Chuang, Lei, 2011). I battle depression, so the language that Bourdain uses at times reminds me of the narrative style that I had for many years as a blogger. I spent a lot of time talking about my life, and therefore can weave through the emotional complications that exist within mental illness and mask it with bravado, and vocabulary choices that are esoteric or even antiquated. Bourdain does the same, and while I didn’t land myself fin destructive behaviors, he did and talks about them openly. From smoking cigarettes to shooting heroin, Bourdain admits that the stress of being a chef, cooking in a high paced kitchen, and having to deal with life in general lead him down vices to “cope” with the order and the chaos that ensued.
Who makes your meals? I cook a lot of my own meals, and you probably do to, but do you ever think about who makes them outside of your home? If you’re relying on a chef of any type, including a line cook, then you are going to want to read Bourdain’s take on what is necessary to be successful in that arena. From the dishwasher to the waiter, there’s a lot going on and he discusses the economics of restaurant ownership as well as the blue-collar world of working within the business. Amidst the economics of the structured business solution, you’re also going to find that there are a lot of elements that speak to the nature of human behavior. If you’re a fan of solely economics, then I suggest reading another book, because this is not a dissertation on managing a restaurant.
Why would you read such a boring book? I admit, it took me a long time to get back to this book, even though I had a copy of it laying around for many years. I even have the Kindle version, and just waited to read it completely until this past weekend. Bourdain’s experiences are interesting on their own, but the workers around him also showcase an incredible look at the “boys club” that kitchens are. Yes, there are women working, but they are enduring a world that is very much not PC, and harassment levels are that of, if not higher than construction workers (Giuffre, Williams 1994). The levels of misogyny revealed in this book should not be celebrated, and I don’t think that it was meant to, but rather it is a sign of acceptance in that arena. I’m not excusing the behavior, but one must consider the larger scope of what Bourdain is writing about, which is a time and place specific to his view and upbringing within the culinary word. For that reason, I find that to be a part of a past, not necessarily representative of the present, although I’m sure it’s very much the same.
Whatever happened to Manny? Manuel worked as a waiter and worked with me at a video store. He told me stories of lurid behavior among the servers, bus boys, and the class of waitresses that would come through the restaurant he was at. Sex, lies, video tape, and a lot more happen with a certain frequency in the restaurant world, and it’s naïve to assume that people are just always good, and behave themselves. There is something sexy about chefs, and Bourdain confirms this with the lurid tales that he remembers about his employers, his own life, and a lot more. Through that, you have the juxtaposition of food, drink, and larger realities that are nothing short of intriguing. Manny was going to be a boxer, he was training and together we had a scheme in place to get paid “tips” for being video store clerks. It worked like a charm, then out of the blue, my boss caught on, and fired Manny and took money from my paycheck to cover his perceived loss of wages from the cash register. It was a plan that was like “Office Space”, and yet, did not get me fired. Perhaps it was because of all the free labor I gave, showing up early for my shift, doing extra work at the video store, and having the keys to the place at one point. I would’ve bought it if I could’ve. I never saw Manny after he got fired, but always remember his sexual conquests or at least tall tales of them in the restaurant world, as it reflects what Bourdain was saying in his book.
“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain launched a following that would eventually get him mass fame on television. I cannot relate to the life of a chef at times, but I see how it could compare with a master at any craft. Whether chef, professional skateboarder, rock star, or any other master of a certain craft, there’s overlap between what happens when you are the best in any respective field. It is rare to see someone get to a certain level of expertise, and not have vices be they self-destructive, pleasure seeking, or otherwise. For that reason alone, I think people will want to read this book, and the others? Well, they probably remember Bourdain, and how he passed on, depressed, and perhaps, alone.
Giuffre, P. A., & Williams, C. L. (1994). Boundary lines: Labeling sexual harassment in restaurants. Gender & Society, 8(3), 378-401.
Kim, E. C. (2009). ‘Mama’s family’ Fictive kinship and undocumented immigrant restaurant workers. Ethnography, 10(4), 497-513.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain paperback, hardcover, kindle, download here