Kitchen Confidential, the book that made Anthony Bourdain a star after he published it in 2000, hasn’t quite aged like a perfect Burgundy. Some of it may have even turned a little vinegary. The memoir celebrated a profane and raunchy culinary culture boiling over with testosterone, where womanizing line cooks threw around the word cocksucker like punctuation and female staff could only survive by giving as good as they got. In one of its most famous scenes, a young Tony realizes he wants to become a chef after watching another cook slip away from the broiler station to go “rear-end” a new bride in the alley while her wedding party and groom enjoyed dinner. In other words, it was a joyous, charismatic romp through the kind of world we now, two decades later, recognize as a menacing hellhole for a lot of women.
Bourdain came to realize some of this later in life, and he grappled with it openly and without ego as the #MeToo movement gained steam. “I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, ‘To what extent in that book did I provide validation to meatheads?’ ” he told Slate’s Isaac Chotiner in an interview last year. That willingness to reflect, and recognize his own warts for what they were, is a big part of the reason why so many women have been mourning the loss of a feminist ally since the news of his suicide this morning.
But I also think it would be a bit of a shame if Kitchen Confidential were merely remembered as the fun, dated book Bourdain was vaguely ashamed of at the end—as just another problematic fave. Because as much as it was about drugged-up, back-of-the-house hijinks, and all the reasons you shouldn’t order fish on a Monday, it was also a wonderful story about screwing up and finding your footing a bit late in life.
My fondness for the book is admittedly a little personal. My father was a particularly zealous home cook—he and my mother catered their own small wedding in 1984—who spent the better part of a lifetime regretting that he’d never followed his dream of becoming a chef. When he read Kitchen Confidential, it finally persuaded him to enroll in cooking classes at what was then the French Culinary Institute in New York. Pushing 50, with a teenage kid at home, he wasn’t trying to go pro. But he did get a little taste of what it might be like, and he became enough of a technically proper cook that he was able to help prepare meals for relief workers after 9/11, one of the things he was proudest of before he died a few years later. For a brief period of time, Bourdain was his beacon, a lodestar in chef’s whites.
When I finally picked up the book as an adult, it was easy to see why. My father struggled with depression and substance abuse—he had a brief and ill-fated run trying to deal coke in the early ’80s—but centered himself as a parent, literally putting dinner on the table. With Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain grafted a classic addiction and redemption story onto the cooking world. (The book is really a pretty loose collection of essays, but it still manages an arc.) “It is one of the central ironies of my career that as soon as I got off heroin, things started getting really bad,” he wrote of his low point. “Stabilized on methadone, I became nearly unemployable by polite society: a shiftless, untrustworthy coke-sniffer, sneak thief and corner-cutting hack, toiling in obscurity in the culinary backwaters.” He puts his life together with the help of an old mentor, and his ultimate triumph isn’t a Michelin star but a normal head chef’s job overseeing the kitchen at Les Halles, a popular but not flashy brasserie. He finds his Zen in the everyday pleasure of dishing out good steak-frites, happy to just be alive.
But then, he hints that maybe there’s more to life waiting ahead. Toward the book’s end, Bourdain recalls the time he traveled to Japan to help train the chefs at the new Les Halles Tokyo. “In the spring of 1999, I really and truly thought that I had had all my great adventures, that the entertainment and excitement segment of the program was long over,” he wrote. “I didn’t think I’d be shipping out on a great big clipper ship (as Lou Reed puts it), wandering the back streets of Peshawar or sampling live monkey brain in the Golden Triangle.” But after getting over his anxiety about the 14-hour flight, he makes the trip and finds himself intoxicated with a new city. Knowing that Bourdain would go on to become one of the world’s most beloved travelers, it’s hard not to laugh at the irony and unintentional foreshadowing alive in the chapter. But in the end, it’s a simple story about a 43-year-old guy embracing a small adventure, before coming home to his wife (who’s waiting with a box of Krispy Kremes). It’s about finding new, unexpected sources of joy, once you think your race is run.
That’s the sort of message that an aging guy with dreams of perfecting his soufflé, a guy like my father, could easily hook onto, of course. But I think it also says something about why Bourdain was so good at understanding the changing world around him. Fundamentally, he made a career being honest about his past mistakes—albeit maybe while embellishing some of the drama—while staying open to whatever lay ahead. Kitchen Confidential is a story about a guy who learned how to evolve with life, enough so that he could be honest about the book’s own flaws.