The Book Club

Those Were the Days

Dear Jeffrey,

I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to lunch yesterday. I was busy “wolfing” down an $8 sandwich.

I guess you missed my comment about the female cooks’ talent with obscenities. I somehow missed that part of restaurant life. Oh, sure, when I worked in France, I quickly learned the word merde. But that would really be minor league in Mr. Bourdain’s kitchen, now wouldn’t it?

Women don’t get much play in the book, it’s true. It doesn’t surprise me. The book isn’t really about restaurant life today. It speaks more to restaurant life of a decade or so ago, when a kind of cooking renaissance was taking off in New York (I wasn’t here but that’s what I read about all the time back then.). There were, as chefs have told me, many underskilled cooks (like Mr. Bourdain) and restaurateurs desperately trying to catch the wave, opening restaurants with almost no experience and no knowledge of what restaurant dining was about, let alone a decent meal. In the book, Mr. Bourdain lands himself with at least two such clueless entrepreneurs. There was the gay couple known for their dinner parties and meatloaf, then the middle-aged women at One Fifth. He seems to have known all along things wouldn’t work out, but implies that that’s the way restaurants got started back then. They either lucked out and worked or, with his help, they wilted.

It seems to me you can’t get away with that today. The restaurants that Mr. Bourdain worked at may have lasted all of six weeks. Now, they would probably last 10 minutes, thanks to savvy restaurateurs like Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, and Steve Hanson. Most restaurateurs are actual businessmen (and women).

Back in Mr. Bourdain’s prime, I’m sure there weren’t nearly as many women in the kitchen. And the male cooks probably don’t resemble those in today’s restaurant kitchens either. Most cooks today go to cooking school, if not college first. (Jeffrey, did you ever notice how many chefs were archaeology majors?) And many have worked in other countries. Weren’t you surprised that, other than his trip to Tokyo and a few covert meals at rival New York restaurants to steal other chefs’ ideas, Mr. Bourdain never mentions dining out or traveling to learn more about food? (Oh, I mean, not counting the luxury jaunts through France with his parents when he was a child. They didn’t seem to sink in very well.)

It’s just a different business today. Rick Bayliss, the chef at Frontera Grill in Chicago, takes his entire kitchen staff to Mexico every year to explore the regional cuisines. And though that may be an extreme example, most cooks I know spend their days off dining out at new restaurants. I’m sure they gather ideas, too, but it’s more a sign of passion for their profession.

Mr. Bourdain can’t do much about this now. But I do wish he had let readers know that his book was about the “culinary underbelly” of the past. When he described Scott Bryan’s serene kitchen at Veritas as an alternative to his own, what he failed to mention is that Bryan’s kitchen is increasingly the norm, and Bourdain’s less professional sort of operation is losing ground.

But enough about that, I want to meet this wife of his, Nancy. And why isn’t she coming out with a book on marriage? (Maybe she’s too busy cleaning up cigarette butts and pine needles.) I think she needs to be on the radio. I want to call her!

Talk to you tomorrow. I’ll be on a farm in Ohio, far from this mysterious restaurant world.


P.S.: I didn’t know you rated restaurants by stars.

P.P.S.: Have you thought of inviting Mr. Bourdain on your show? Better act quick. He might be getting expensive. And one more thing: Were the bathrooms at Les Halles clean?