Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Harper 2000).
At the age of 16, I worked my first job, a gig on the crew of the local McDonald’s; at the age of 17, I quit to work on a political campaign and vowed that I would never, under any circumstances, work in food service again.
This lifetime vow is one of the few that I’ve kept. So, while college mates would tell stories about serving breakfast to David Brinkley or turning a bar surface into an Everclear-fueled bonfire, I would just nod. I had no similar tales from the trenches of telemarketing or temping or whatever other boring McJob I had at the time, but I didn’t care. At least I wasn’t working in food service.
I missed a rollicking time, according to Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. The concept of the movie Top Gun was pilots as rock stars. In the same vein, Bourdain has you convinced by Page 25 that Steven Tyler, Axl Rose and Pete Doherty in their primes could not have kept up with the drinking, drugging, screwing, thieving and all-out mayhem found in the kitchen of the Dreadnought, a tacky seafood joint on Cape Cod where Bourdain started his career in the 1970s.
Bourdain’s first lesson in the culinary life: Cooks rule.
“They had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing,” Bourdain wrote. “They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn’t nailed down, and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers and casual visitors like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined. They carried big, bad-ass knives, which they kept honed and sharpened to a razor’s edge. They hurled dirty sauté pans and pots across the kitchen and into my pot sink with casual accuracy. They spoke with their own peculiar dialect, an unbelievably profane patios of countercultural jargon and local Portugee slang, delivered with ironic inflection, calling each other, for instance, ‘Paaahd’ for ‘Partner’ or ‘Daahlin’ for ‘Darling.’ They looted the place for everything it was worth, stocking up well in advance for the lean months of the off-season. A couple of nights a week, the chef would back his Volkswagen van up to the kitchen door and load whole sirloin strips, boxes of frozen shrimp, cases of beer, sides of bacon into the cargo area. The speed racks over each station – containing bottles of cooking wine, oil, etc., for easy access during service – were always loaded with at least two highball glasses per cook . . . . Joints were smoked in the downstairs walk-in, and cocaine – always available, though in those days very expensive and still considered a rich man’s drug – was everywhere. On payday everyone in the kitchen handed money back and forth in a Byzantine roundelay of transactions as the cooks settled up the previous week’s drug debts, loans and wagers.”
Yes, a summer of that would certainly affect an aimless 18-year-old.
Bourdain got it together enough to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America and spent his 20s working in every type of chowhouse in New York City. Bourdain paints cooks as nomads wandering Manhattan, working three weeks at a nameless oyster bar, then five months at an overrated warhorse (such as Windows on the World), then six weeks at a doomed vanity project (a Moroccan with a Casablanca theme), with several stints at red-sauce restaurants owned by members of an “Italian fraternal organization.” Each move is characterized by cooks and staff being fired, being poached, quitting, or just vanishing and re-appearing weeks later. It’s musical chairs with broilers and shallots.
Bourdain’s writing is zesty and fun, and it’s a marvel that he can remember the details since he’s the first to admit he was drunk and high most of the time. Miraculously, he also kept his marriage together, although he rarely mentions home life. Kitchen Confidential is firmly about life behind the swinging doors.
Bourdain offers practical advice to foodies. Order seafood on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when it’s the most fresh. The toughest meat is reserved for customers who request “well done.” Salads with meat or pasta are reworkings of food that didn’t sell yesterday. The “discount sushi” people buy their fish near the close of the market, just before the cat food people do. No-name diners on weeknights are held in higher esteem by the staff than the bold-faced names who secure tables on Saturday night. Half of all bread placed on tables is not eaten, so it is routinely recycled to other patrons. Hollandaise sauce – which turns an uppity Egg McMuffin into the world’s best hangover food – is a magnet for bacteria that must be stored and handled exactly correctly.
For me, the most disappointing lesson of the book was learning that Sunday brunch is a culinary farce. The expensive food that wasn’t sold on Friday and Saturday night is dumped into the brunch. The best chefs work evenings, so the C team works Sunday morning. The seafood is three days old. It’s leftovers at $30 a person.
All of this is old news to readers who follow the food books that clutter the bestseller lists. Celebrity chefs are a cultural wave that passed me by (although I did notice that Nigella Lawson is easy on the eyes). I’m the type of bachelor who did not realize for two years that the pilot light in my oven was out. But I made my vow, and I’m sticking to it. I’ll place the order and pay the bill, but I’ll stay out of the kitchen. That’s Bourdain’s world, and he’s welcome to it. I hope his other books are as entertaining as this one.