The Book Club

Kitchen Confidential

If Anthony Bourdain has worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week, in a multitude of restaurants, and then lies awake all night, every night, smoking and worrying about his job, first as the lowliest prep cook and in the end as a presiding chef, and if he has done this for the past 28 years, all the while using and abusing alcohol and drugs–from weed to cocaine and on to heroin–and holding his marriage together, apparently without a strain, then where did he find the time to write two mystery novels and this hilarious memoir, this tell-all kitchen exposé?

Hilarious only up to a point, I guess, maybe up to Page 100 (out of 307), though with genuinely comic interludes thereafter. Bourdain is a clever and fluent writer and probably a nice guy. But reading his book in two sittings is like watching a tape of the immortal Animal House for seven hours straight (I am a slow reader, though with excellent comprehension), in a version that leaves out John Belushi and never reaches the movie’s fantastically revolting climax.

Here is an upper-middle-class boy with a year of Vassar under his belt and a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America on his wall who immediately adopted, wholesale, the values and tastes of a British soccer hoodlum. Food is power. Food is sex. Bourdain’s favorite kitchen colleagues are drunks, ruggies, and ex-cons, all profane beyond imagination. “They dressed like pirates,” he writes gleefully of an early job in Provincetown, “chef’s coats with the arms slashed off … gore-covered aprons … tattoos. … They hurled dirty sauté pans and pots across the kitchen. … They looted the place for everything it was worth.” Bourdain despises waiters with an incomprehensible passion, has endless contempt for most restaurant owners, and has no respect for customers, especially but not limited to those who show up on weekends (off-islanders as they were called in the ‘50s), those who order chicken or well-done meat, and those who send their steaks back to the kitchen to be broiled a little more.

“An uncensored look inside the city’s top kitchens has foodies fuming,” is how a popular magazine subtitled its review of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and how the book is generally thought of. But Bourdain has never worked in any of the city’s top kitchens, or even at the level just below, and until the end of the book shows only contempt for chefs who consider their calling higher than, say, that of an apprentice in an auto-body shop. Until recently, Bourdain has worked in only one restaurant worthy of a star from the Times, and that was the two-star Le Madri, from which he was quickly promoted up and then out. The “culinary underbelly” of the title is not the dank, dismal, and disgusting underside common to all restaurants. It consists of the kinds of restaurants that were willing to hire Bourdain through most of his career–those with high volume, small and agonizingly uncomfortable kitchens, everything cooked ahead or bought already cooked ahead, rock-bottom food costs, unreliable and unskilled labor, cheap ingredients–places without pride, conscience, integrity, or taste. When, relatively late in life, he gets to Le Madri (an estimable institution where I have had both wonderful and mediocre meals), he is amazed. Everything is made fresh every day including the tomato sauce, the chicken stock, and the pasta. There is an on-the-scene butcher who cuts the meat only when a customer orders it. And the labor, largely Ecuadorian, is highly skilled and talented. (Bourdain is fittingly appreciative of the Hispanic kitchen workers without whom most of New York City would be eating out of cans.) At Le Madri he is dazzled by the notion of (relatively) authentic Italian food–clean, simple, and with unassuming integrity, as he puts it–a cuisine he has denigrated all his life. Where has he been?

Why are foodies fuming? Part of it is that most reviewers and the general public assume that the sickening descriptions in the first 170 pages apply to all restaurants. The other part is that five weeks ago, Kitchen Confidential made its debut on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list in seventh place, dipped to 14th for two weeks, then bounced up to 10th place. This doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that the book’s been optioned for a movie by what’s-his-name, the director of Fight Club, and that Brad Pitt is said to be eager to play Bourdain. That really bothers me. Half of the foodies’ fuming arises from envy and half from a conviction that, funny as this book can be, it misrepresents what goes on in the kitchen of a really good restaurant, whether it’s a great pizzeria, a southern BBQ shack, or a shrine of haute cuisine. (Though I have always wondered what happens to the unused butter and bread at the finest restaurants–Bourdain warns that the butter will be strained to eliminate the cigarette butts and then reused.)

It’s not entirely Anthony Bourdain’s fault that most reviewers and many readers have got his book wrong, even the New Yorker headline writer who felt that “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” summed up the part they published last summer. But Bourdain does nudge these misconceptions along, somehow placing himself and his experiences at the center of the booming New York restaurant scene rather than at its furthest degenerate outlaw fringes, and not revealing, until near the end, that he does have some ability to appreciate and even understand finer food than he apparently can prepare, whether it’s sashimi in Tokyo or Scott Bryan’s cooking at Veritas, and that another kind of restaurant kitchen is quite common in this city–calm, respectful, serious, and full of talent. Bourdain drank vodka throughout the meal at Veritas, which has one of the country’s great wine lists–he says he does not appreciate wine.

Bourdain has run the kitchen at the two-star Les Halles for nearly two years now, and although the most recent review was issued before he arrived, Les Halles is a world above any restaurant previously under his charge. He uses some of the same gruesome metaphors to describe his life there, but nearly everything that is bizarre about working at Les Halles can be attributed to the extremely limited kitchen space (and the juggling acts this leads to) and the ‘70s punk rock he plays on his boom box, for most people not an aid to contemplation. We are left to wonder how he ascended from the zoo-like atmosphere at his previous job at the Supper Club to the pheasant salad, prime aged beef, and boudins noirs at Les Halles. How did he get the job? How does he keep it? Is it possible that Bourdain’s New Yorker article, from which so many blessings have flowed to him, was written mostly before he arrived at Les Halles and the world it stands for, before the moment at the age of 43 when he suddenly became a successful establishment chef who no longer needed to surround himself with unrepentent ex-cons and imagine himself one of them, blaming the restaurant business for his failures and disappointments?

I have not eaten at Les Halles since Bourdain took over the kitchen. I think I’ll have lunch there tomorrow.

à bientôt,