The Book Club

Bottom Feeding

Dearest Amanda,

Did you read the replies to our first round of correspondence? Do you think Slate customers have lower reading comprehension scores than readers of Vogue or even of the food section of the New York Times? Now you’re on some farm in Ohio, leaving me here to defend you.

Look. It’s all pretty simple. In 20-plus years, Anthony Bourdain has never cooked for more than a few days in a really good restaurant. He has never strived to cook above a certain relatively low level. And the lower down on the food chain one goes, I suppose, the less respect you find for products (did he mention one vegetable in the entire book?), for craft, for customers, for each other. I know a good number of chefs in this city who turn out huge quantities of bistro food every day for owners who are eager to hold down food costs; their kitchens are more apparently “working class” than those of the haute cuisine, but nowhere near what Bourdain describes. They have skill and pride; after hours, they dine at many of the new restaurants that open here, high and low. They eat in the Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, or Los Angeles during short vacations, and in Italy, France, Spain, or Japan during long ones. In 20 years, did Bourdain ever leave Manhattan? How often does he mention eating at other people’s restaurants?

The distinction should be one of culture, not of class. Mr. D., the phenomenally knowledgeable and skilled executive chef at one of this city’s best modern French restaurants, retains his neighborhood accent from Queens, as has one Mr. E., whose passion for fish is flabbergasting; his high-school buddies from Long Island have all become fishermen and supply their daily catch to him, hours out of the water and minutes from his restaurant by SUV. His kitchen is neither frantic nor silent. It sounds and looks like a place where serious and skilled and even happy cooks are producing very good food with phenomenal ingredients.

I am a huge fan of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. But all three come in many flavors and colors. If Bourdain had written a funny book about degeneracy among gas station attendants, he would have attracted far fewer readers; about degeneracy among pro-football players, many more. People these days are fascinated by restaurants. It’s the inside scoop they’re after. They wouldn’t buy a book about just any kind of squalor. But until the end of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain is unwilling to let us know that there is another type of kitchen, another type of cook, and even if most of them recycle their bread, you would probably want to make a reservation at one those places instead of Mr. Bourdain’s when you’re spending $75 a person for a meal. It is possible, I suppose, that Bourdain was unaware that restaurants (or, at least, kitchens) like these existed until he met Scott Bryan and ate at Veritas, some time after he had written the New Yorker article.

Lighten up? You lighten up, motherf-cker! (No, not you, Amanda.) And read again the response we received from a former waiter, the class toward which Bourdain is the most vicious. “Bourdain is typical of about 80 percent of chefs that I have worked for: the drugs, the [contempt for] chicken-orderers, the waiter-loathing. All of the above keep them in the business.” And presumably attracted them to it in the first place.              

Amanda, I love what you wrote. We would not have become food writers if our trade were the equivalent of being reporters about male locker rooms. “Passion” may be overused, but that’s the key (or, fascination, obsession, etc.)–passion for many kinds of food, fancy and plain, for the natural world that gives us the raw materials, for the skill and craft of the farmer and cook, for the history and culture of food, for displays of flavor and texture that can, on rare occasions (though never when I’m cooking), approach the level of art. Bourdain shows none of this; he describes his passion for bread, which I certainly share, but then serves at Les Halles the baking equivalent of road kill.

You mentioned the food renaissance that began 10 years ago. It was really 20 years ago, when you were 7 years old and insensible to renaissances and food trends. But that doesn’t mean Bourdain is 20 years behind. Don’t you think there are Bourdains entering the business today, working in restaurants you neither patronize nor feel impelled to write about? If readers and book reviewers find the substance of this book compelling, it is because they mistakenly believe Bourdain is describing places where they like to eat. Otherwise they would buy a book about gonzo gas stations.

And let’s get this straight. Kitchen Confidential is not, as some have called it, George Orwell meets Hunter Thompson. Bourdain is a talented writer (I’ve got hold of his earlier two books.) But he is not a demi-god like Orwell or Thompson, at least not yet. But you already know this, Amanda. Or does your generation see the great Hunter Thompson as an incomprehensible relic of the ‘60s and ‘70s?

Seven months after Bourdain’s New Yorker piece was published in the April 19, 1999, issue, he wrote an update in the December issue of Food Arts, billed as his account of how he weathered the reaction to “the most controversial restaurant article in memory.” I expected Bourdain to produce an uproarious yet analytical defense. So I was disappointed, especially after reading the book. In Food Arts he quotes from his New Yorker piece in three places, all memorable passages–outrageous and sound at the same time–but also quite famous by now. And then he goes and tries to take back his characterization of vegans–as a “Hizbollah-like splinter faction” of vegetarianism in general. Why soften it? It’s witty and pretty much true. And he’s already told us how he much he had already toned down the original article. “I’d been in a pretty evil state of mind when I first took pen to paper because my restaurant [in Times Square] had just died a well-deserved death … and I was reviewing my career with an unforgiving eye, looking to take no prisoners, shoot the wounded, burn all bridges, and salt the earth.” Then, somehow, he becomes nostalgic and romantic, especially after landing the job at Les Halles. He considers his final draft to be positively affectionate. But affectionate for what? The sordid culinary underbelly that he still equates with the entire industry? He has not yet acknowledged the existence of anything else.

He tells us that every chef he saw after the article was published gave him the high sign. Praise poured in from every knowledgeable source. The media pursued him for interviews. Others plagiarized his advice. (Please. Eight years ago I warned people about ordering fish on Mondays. So probably did the New York Times reviewer whom he criticizes for stealing.) He became a fixture on the radio. Agents and other Hollywood types deluged him. The main people who objected to his admonitions about fish and chicken and seafood frittatas and recycled bread and butter (all of them with a kernel, large or small, of truth, and all fun to read), he says, were self-deluded middle-class restaurantgoers. This could be. The New Yorker piece was more about topics like these and less about the macho kitchen as war zone, and yes, less about sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll.

Even though by December 1999 he was deep into the book, in which he would recount the entire course of his career, he tells us that cooking is still the most important thing for him. He was still doing six shifts a week at Les Halles. “I still spend more time thinking about food and daily specials,” he writes, “than I do about writing–or anything else for that matter.” But Bourdain is a much better writer than a cook. In the Food Arts article, he still does not understand this. Here’s how he describes the cooking there (and the owners’ personalities at the same time): “relaxed, funky, sensual, and occasionally, whimsical.”

Come on! Nearly everything on the menu comes from the menus of French, mainly Parisian, brasseries and bistros, both 100 years old or older, both with their remote but evident sources in the countryside. (Brasseries in Paris were created by Alsatian exiles fleeing the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s, bistros largely by Lyonnais cooks who came to Paris to seek their fortunes some decades later.) I love these dishes. They are what I pursue in Paris on my fairly frequent visits. They are often what I try to cook at home. No, there is not one authentic way of preparing them; there is a range of old ways and lighter modern twists that acknowledge and preserve the ancient flavors. It has nothing to do with cooking that is relaxed or uptight, funky or formal, sensual or academic, whimsical or stolid. Bourdain’s adjectives sound like excuses for what I ate for lunch at Les Halles. As wide as the range of possibilities can be as you prepare each dish, there is still good cooking and bad cooking, and people who know how to tell the difference.

Am I getting as bitter as Bourdain?

See you in September,

P.S. I did not inspect the bathrooms at Les Halles. My date did but never brought it up in conversation. Sorry. What are you doing on a farm in Ohio? Aren’t you afraid of missing one of the many restaurant openings in Manhattan this week. Just kidding, of course. I thought I would give our rural detractors something else to deride.