Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
I’ve just returned from a short break to Barcelona, during which I marvelled at some amazing architecture, enjoyed some top-notch tapas, and took some time out to sit in the sun and read a couple of books.
I usually try to read things on holiday that I wouldn’t normally get to in my day-to-day life. Novels, the odd biography, and at least one more serious book.
In case one cares, or on the off chance that this may inspire a few people as to what to pack for their summer holidays (or what not to!) I thought I’d post a few brief thoughts on each book, in the order in which I read them. Beginning with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain
Bourdain is the original ‘culinary bad boy.’ Foul mouthed, crude-humoured; he’s lived a pretty colourful life as chef, author and TV personality. And this book is part-memoir and part inside look at the world of the professional kitchen.
It’s a fascinating, if somewhat-crude, insight into an industry whose glossy image has become so popular through the ever-increasing number of cookery shows that grace our TV screens. Even the shows that purport to show behind the scenes in working kitchens tend to emphasise the stress, the heat and the attention to detail, but rarely show any of the un-pleasantries that are so core to Bourdain’s account. I’m not sure they would be allowed to…
It’s not always pleasant reading, liberally seasoned with profanity. Think Gordon Ramsay, but with a large side helping of sex, drugs, drugs, drink, drugs, and rock and roll. (And did-I-mention-drugs?)
I have no idea how reflective his debauched tales really are of the industry as a whole, or how much they just reflect Stateside kitchens of a particular era, rather than today’s kitchens this side of the Atlantic as well, but I was pretty surprised by some of the practices. The huge quantities of drugs consumed, for example.
Bourdain writes about his time in a trendy SoHo restaurant in the early ‘80s:
We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in refrigerator at every opportunity to ‘conceptualize.’ Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Cannabis, methaqualone, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, secobarbital, tuinal, amphetamine, codeiene and, increasingly, heroin, which we’d send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get.
This doesn’t really instil a lot of confidence in me. I understand that many highly-pressurised work settings tend to create a culture of drug taking in order to manage the hours, the stress, the pain and the exhaustion. But surely there comes a point where drink, drugs and cigarettes of the quantity Bourdain is admitting to impair your ability to present work of sufficient quality to justify your reputation?
It’s a question I’ve often wondered of chefs like Marco Pierre-White – whose cigarette-brandishing promo photos have always put me off eating at any of his restaurants – how can I fully trust the palate of a man whose taste buds have been so deadened with smoke over many decades?
This book made me realise – although it’s something I already knew from having spent time with chefs – that theirs is a job I really wouldn’t want to do. I love cooking. I love cooking for others. I love experimenting and learning and I hope to continue improving. But I wouldn’t want to work in a professional kitchen. And not just because of the grimy tales – which I’m sure are not true of every kitchen – but because of the pressure, the antisocial hours, the instability, and the chance of having a boss like Bourdain! I suspect that working in a kitchen might just kill off any passion I have for food. No… I’d rather observe their world from a distance, learn what I can, and cook in the comfort of my own home, on my terms.
And to that end, I did enjoy good chunks of the book, because they enabled me to do just that: observe and learn. I enjoyed the chapter on ‘how to cook like the pros’ with a few helpful tips that I can translate to my own kitchen; I enjoyed the ‘day in the life’ chapter, breaking down the ins and outs of a typical day in a busy kitchen; and the chapter entitled ‘from our kitchen to your table’ was quite insightful and taught me a few dishes I shall never order again from a restaurant, most notably fish on a Monday!
Should you read Kitchen Confidential? Well… if you’re interested in the inner-workings of a professional kitchen and aren’t too put off by the bad language, go for it. Some bits will make you laugh out loud, and others will make your toes curl. And Bourdain is a really good writer, who manages to pace this book like a Stephen King novel. But all in all, I suspect that this will be one book that will be of little interest to the vast majority of my readers.