The Book Club

A Cooked Book?

Dear Jeffrey,

So uncharacteristically unsympathetic of you.

But I do agree. It is remarkable that he was so beaten down with depression and drug abuse that he was unable to take his Christmas tree out to the garbage until August, unable to hold down a cooking job (not long ago, blue-collar work), and yet has managed to crank out two crime novels and a memoir. I wish I could be so prolific.

What was difficult to keep in mind was that it is a memoir, not an inside look at the world of professional cooking. Overall, it is an interesting account of his life (he and Anne Lamott would get along), but he failed at every crucial point to ground the book and give it perspective. So it ends up a tell-all of sorts but one that is painfully skewed to a certain kind of restaurant. Restaurants run by people trying to make a quick buck, former (and present) criminals, lost souls.

I haven’t been to most of the restaurants where he’s worked (most of them died before I moved to New York). But I do remember my first meal at Les Halles. It was crowded, dark. The kind of place where you really don’t want to see the floor because it might scare you. The waiters moved through the place like linebackers, and they moved so rapidly, constantly plowing through the room, that I felt like I had to get out of there quickly or they might shove me out the door.

I recall seeing flames rise up to the hoods in a window that led to the kitchen. The window was fogged up and greasy, and I remember thinking, “What a nasty place to work.” Now I know why. It’s really about Mr. Bourdain, as you wrote, not the restaurant itself. Not the business.

Les Halles, unfortunately, seems to have been the highlight of Mr. Bourdain’s career.

He spends most of the first half of the book describing what it takes to be a good chef (never revealing that in his 20-year career, he has never been one himself; but that messy history comes later–and, unfortunately, in plenty). A good line cook, he writes, “never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and injury.” And he particularly likes female ones. “To have a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking female line cook on your team can be a true joy,” he adds. I wonder if there is a special class for those added skills in cooking school? If so, I must have missed it.

No matter how trash-mouthed you need to be (in Spanish, Bengali, and French, too), line cooks, he writes, need to “work clean,” meaning you wipe down your station as you work. And burns, cuts, and terrible oozing wounds are not only part of the job, but part of what makes you a real cook. Near the end of the book, Mr. Bourdain spends several pages describing his hands. They are scarred, worn, grotesque. “I got, finally, the hands I always wanted,” he writes.

I once worked at a one-star restaurant in southeast France. There were no rats running over our feet as in Mr. Bourdain’s world. But the line was hot, so hot that it broke blood vessels on my eyelids. I do not recall thinking this was cool. Nor did I think it was cool when, in a rush, I accidentally grabbed hold of a hot iron pot handle. I didn’t continue working because I was tough, but because I was too embarrassed to let the chef know I had been absent-minded. That was my experience in every restaurant I worked. You were not supposed to get burns. A former chef at a top New York restaurant once told me that if he looked at a cook’s hands and they were covered with burns, he wouldn’t hire him. It was a sign that he was a sloppy cook.

What is remarkable in a 307-page book about restaurant life, about a man who refers to himself as a “sensualist,” is how few lines–not even pages–are devoted to taste, his palate, and the pleasure of making good food for someone. But perhaps he doesn’t care. After all the cigarettes (a 14-hour flight without one almost kills the man) and decades of snorting everything in sight, he may not even be able to smell. Personally, though, I’d rather a chef who can taste the food he’s cooking for me than one who can be clever with obscenities while slinging together 150 meals in a single service.

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating is all about risk,” he writes repeatedly in the book. Then he recalls a trip to Tokyo, where he finds himself in Starbucks, terrified of taking the risk of walking into a noodle shop for breakfast.

Mr. Bourdain’s world is a small one, and he prefers it that way. All the drugs and alcohol helped him hide from risks and responsibility. He stayed in kitchens where he knew he was the smart guy, where he knew he could manipulate the staff and rule his “pirate ship,” as he calls restaurant kitchens. But his ships have sailed nowhere. Mostly, they just sank.  

Near the very end of the book, as you noted, he finally admits that not all kitchens are the same filthy, criminal dens that he has inhabited. To give proof, he walks all of eight blocks to the three-star restaurant Veritas and spends an evening observing the kitchen and the dining room (which is filled with happy diners as opposed to what are apparently victims in the restaurants where he has cooked).

After trying to shock the reader for so many pages, what happens? He is the one who’s shocked. Can it be? Can a restaurant be a calm, orderly place where food is actually revered and appreciated, and cooks are interested in what they are doing not what they will score later? Can food be eaten rather than shoveled or wolfed, as he likes to describe it?

Yes, Mr. Bourdain. That is why so many people go out to dinner. That is why people in New York think nothing of dropping $50 for a weeknight dinner. For that, they do not expect art. They expect craft. And even that can be pleasurable.

I think, perhaps, Mr. Bourdain’s most interesting observation was that fish people are not funny and butchers are. That seemed to welcome more exploring. But that will, I suppose, be left up to us.