‘The Kitchen Confidential’ — a look inside the culinary industry by Anthony Bourdain
Charlie Kenney | Thursday, September 13, 2018
This past June, just weeks after his death, I read Anthony Bourdain’s breakthrough book from 2000, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.”
The manner in which I did so, admittedly, is not the most respectable way that I could have gone about it. The way I dove into Bourdain’s book is the same way that millions of people are just now getting to know Mac Miller’s dense, complicated discography. I took notice of the outpouring of emotion that occurred after his death, and recognized that his art was something worth paying attention to — something worth reading, something worth watching. And, although my attention may have been directed towards Bourdain and his art at the most somber and uncomfortable of times, it is in no way something that I regret.
My reading of “The Kitchen Confidential,” for short, made me appreciate Bourdain as a person, made me value the art that he created and made me understand the restaurant industry in a way and with a depth that I never intended.
“The Kitchen Confidential” is not merely a textualized version of Bourdain’s shows “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations.” It’s a vulgar, cramped depiction of the culinary industry through his eyes only. It doesn’t focus on the international politics and dressed up gastronomy of “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations. It’s in a class of its own — written by Bourdain before he was famous and intended to be read only by a small group of those involved in the restaurant industry. It was supposed to be one chef’s look into another chef’s kitchen, but instead it became the world’s look into every chef’s life.
Bourdain’s love letter to the kitchen is split up into five sections: First Course, Second Course, Third Course, Dessert, Coffee and a Cigarette. It’s a book that has a cadence to it as natural as the courses of a meal, even if you don’t end your meals with a cigarette.
Bourdain, the narrator, starts out by introducing you to food, how he got to know it and why it’s something more than “a substance one stuffs in one’s face when hungry — like filling up at a gas station.” He goes through his early relationship with food and why he made the jump from a kid who was surprised by a cold soup like Vichyssoise to a food-obsessed student at the Culinary Institute of America. The text skips over entire years in Bourdain’s life with ease, but you don’t notice. He focuses on the food, the good food as he puts it — everything else falls into place around it.
As the book progresses, it remains strictly from Bourdain’s point of view, yet it becomes intently more focused on the kitchen and less on the man that runs it. Making sure you know what a “sous-chef” and “maitre d’” are is much more important to Bourdain than you knowing any, what he would call forgettable, detail about his life. An entire chapter, adequately titled “A Day in the Life,” takes the reader through every painstaking detail of a Friday or Saturday in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant in New York City. From the chef reviewing the inventory while he lays awake in bed at 6 a.m. to a regrettable shot of Georgian vodka while the Velvet’s “Pale Blue Eyes” fills up the noise at 4 a.m. the next morning, he takes the reader through it all.
Bourdain also gives advice, and lots of it. He knows that 99 percent of his readers can’t cook at all. He wants to do what he can to help. He tells the reader how to cook — talking about the importance of garnishing your food, roasting garlic and buying non-stick sauté pans. But he also tells the reader how to eat — emphasizing to not order fish on Mondays, to never order mussels unless you see them made in front of you and to never request your meat cooked anything longer than medium. It’s advice that he doesn’t need to give in a memoir mostly about himself, but advice that he feels obliged to give.
Watching “Parts Unknown” or “No Reservations” is a lot easier and covers much more material than “Kitchen Confidential.” Those shows teach you about the externalities of a single restaurant in Thailand or Israel — knowledge that by no means should be overlooked. But if you want to learn about the thousands of moving gears that get your food on the table and the inner workings of the, often times tragic, minds that put it there, then you need to read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” You won’t regret it.
Every time I have gone to a proper restaurant since reading the book I have felt like a fish that recognizes he is surrounded by water. Every person running around the restaurant has a title that means something, the screams from the kitchen in their rarely discernible jargon have meaning and tipping is an act I wish I could bestow on every person making the restaurant run. Everything from your neighborhood restaurant to watching the movie “Ratatouille” makes infinitely more sense. Restaurants seem less like places to eat and more like pieces of art.