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26th August
2009
written by Steph
Portrait of the Chef as a Young Jackhole

Portrait of the Chef as a Young Jackhole

As self-professed foodies, one of the shows Tony & I enjoyed most this summer was Top Chef Masters.  We were truly sad to see it come to an end, as each week we were dazzled and excited by all these top-of-their-game chefs concocting mouth-watering creations each week.  Sure the new season of Top Chef has started up, but it’s already clear the cooking won’t be nearly up to the same standards we’ve now come to expect, and unfortunately the show will feel the need to add in interpersonal dramas, as if the cooking itself weren’t exciting enough.  With a TCM-sized hole in my life, I found my appetite was whet for a deeper look into all things food.  Thus, I sought out Anthony Bourdain’s memoir of sorts, Kitchen Confidential. Now, Tony and I have tried to watch No Reservations, Bourdain’s tv show.  After all, on paper it combines two of our passions: travel & food.  But unfortunately, we just couldn’t get into it, and this was largely due, I must confess, to Bourdain himself.  I find him really unpalatable, so brash and arrogant… a guy who’s trying way to hard to show how bad-ass he is, that he doesn’t give an eff, who thinks he’s God’s gift and oh so funny and snarky.  I’m sorry, but no.  I don’t need his snipey commentary!  The places he’s visiting and the food he’s eating are interesting enough without all his asides.  But maybe if he were just less of an asshole I wouldn’t mind – after all, we’re fine with Alton Brown’s travel food shows, and we’ve become mildly obsessed with Man v. Food (another Travel Channel show).  So really, the blame lies squarely with Bourdain, I’m afraid.  Still, I figured that maybe if I didn’t have to HEAR him, perhaps I could stomach him on paper. Well, turns out I could and I couldn’t.  The things that bother me about tv-Bourdain bothered me in this book, but I certainly felt this book went down a lot easier and far less painfully than any of his hour-long shows have in the past.  He is still a pretentious, churlish dick, who clearly wants to shock his readers, but beneath all the bravado and posturing, there are really interesting insights and kernels of truth about the food industry in America (or at least New York).  I really enjoyed learning all the things restaurants don’t want you to know (like why you shouldn’t order fish on Monday, why brunch is a bad thing, and what makes the daily special so, well, special), and it was also interesting to get a first-hand look into a busy kitchen and see how restaurants are run.   I did feel like Bourdain effectively captures the frenetic, fiery atmosphere of the professional kitchen, and I had a newfound appreciation for how busy and chaotic (not to mention grueling) that profession can be. Also, sometimes his descriptions of food he has prepared or eaten would make my stomach cramp with hunger.  How I wish I had the constitution to make duck confit and other rustic French food! But I did feel the book was uneven, with these moments of insight and genuine interest interspersed between chapters filled with hazy, egotistical reminiscing.  I guess I enjoyed the parts that were about cooking more than the parts that were more autobiography, where Bourdain recounts his many errant years as a young drug-addicted chef.  The aggression and nastiness is really wearisome rather than inciting and scintillating, because the message gets cold so swiftly.  If you keep trying to shock your readers, they’re eventually going to become inured to that kind of stuff.  I mean, how many more examples do we need that Bourdain was (is?) a self-involved jackass?  Some people think that his willingness to admit this is his redemption, but I feel like recognizing that you’re a jerk is easy; it’s what you do about it that really matters.  And Bourdain seems pretty happy to accept that he’s a d-bag, rather than trying to do anything about it.  You see, he rationalizes that the world of professional cooking is made up of “fringe elements”, the drug addicts and social maladjusts who just can’t make it work anywhere else.  Really, Anthony Bourdain?  I’m sure most chefs are pretty zany – people who are at the top of their careers and are that passionate generally are – but you look at your Eric Riperts, Hubert Kellers, and Rick Baylesses, and I think we see there may be a flaw in his reasoning.  Anyway, the bottom line is that the chapters that seem to revel in Bourdain’s youthful indiscretion and complete disregard for anyone but himself in the kitchen are tiresome after a while. Those chapters are about cooking, but then again, they’re not.  They’re really just a testament to Bourdain and who he is today.
I have no idea what this has to do with his life as a chef, but it kind of sums Bourdain up nicely, doesn't it?

I have no idea what this has to do with his life as a chef, but it kind of sums Bourdain up nicely, doesn't it?

Also, even though the book is divided into sections based on the progression through a meal, I felt he jumped around a lot in time, not necessarily bridging between one chapter and the next, repeating information (almost verbatim) across chapters, which was annoying.  I didn’t always have a clear idea of his progression as a chef, for instance when he did finally decide to turn his life around and get off the drugs, or how/where he finally got his real break as an executive chef at a respected establishment.  So much time was spent splashing around in the flotsam of his failures, I never figured out how he did succeed, which was disappointing. I found this was a book that could beat me down at times – some parts I read ravenously, but other times it was like Bourdain overload, and I felt like I was just trying to find the next interesting bit and I either needed to put the book down for a while, or push through.  And he said life in the kitchen was hard! The other thing that bugged about the book was that for being published in 2000, it all felt REALLY dated, and did so in several ways.  First, the perspective Bourdain is of someone who did most of his culinary advancement in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I just got the feeling that the culture he was presenting was not exactly a current one.  I’m sure there are a bunch of stoner and alcoholic chefs out there, but I think drug culture in the era Bourdain is talking about was VERY different than it is now.  Are we really meant to believe that most kitchens today are filled with heroin-addicted, Sex-Pistol fanatics?  Perhaps there’s been some kind of renaissance or restructuring of the industry, but it seems to me that the industry is some how elevated and that kind of behaviour (plus all of the flagrant sexual harassment and verbal abuse that purportedly goes on) just wouldn’t be tolerated.  Yes, I’m sure it’s hard to be a woman in the kitchen, but don’t tell me that it’s common parlance in most kitchens to respond to requests with “suck my dick.”  By his own admission, Bourdain says that much of what he relates is probably evidence as to why he never made three-star chef status – surely he experienced the personalities and kitchens he did because those are what he was drawn to.  Even so, much of what he relates is, I think, either colored by the time period, or is perhaps specific to New York kitchens.  The other thing that I felt dated the book was the sections in which Bourdain attempts to educate his readers on their own culinary prowess.  In particular, the chapter in which he talks about ingredients most home cooks don’t know about is a tad embarrassing (he suggest we don’t know about shallotts or that restaurants use a lot of butter, NOT margarine…), as well as when he talks about tools of the trade (plastic squeeze bottles and the mandolin).  Not to say there are some good tips thrown in there, but to someone with a passing familiarity with food, these parts can feel more than a little condescending. [Apparently there is an updated version of this book that has a preface from Bourdain in which he mentions that many of his “shocking insights”, while valid at the time, have become general knowledge to most home cooks today… I have the original 2000 version from the library, so I can’t say any more on that, but I think I would be interested to read what else he has to say looking back on this book.] Throughout the book, there were elements of Bourdain’s personality or his personal philosophy that did grate and bother me, and even portions that I felt were confused and conflicted (there is a chapter where he talks about what he will and won’t eat, and this also seems to be interspersed with discourse on how sometimes you need to take risks in what you eat, even if it will make you sick… and I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say.  Like eating chicken gizzards is awesome, but eating in a restaurant that has a dirty restroom is not something he will do… so you don’t want to eat somewhere unhygienic, but then you go on to say that sometimes you know you might get sick ordering a slice of pizza at a greasy joint and do it anyway, because you only go around once?  What are you saying, sir?  Because eating unfamiliar foods/being adventurous with your eating (which sometimes you say isn't a good idea... but then sometimes it is!) is not the same as flouting health laws…), but in the end I realized that Bourdain was simply recounting his personal truth, not necessarily a universal truth.  He is writing about what he knows, which is not necessarily to say that he knows everything there is to know.  He acknowledges that his experience in the kitchen is very different from many other very successful chefs, that many of the things he considers fatal sins are not in fact hard-fast rules.  And I respected that he had the insight to recognize this.   So often I think we assume that our story is the common touchstone rather than a piece of a larger puzzle.  There are plenty of good tips and gossipy bits here that are objective and universal, but in the end this is really the Anthony Bourdain show telling his story.  It’s not always a very interesting one, but it did have its moments, and there really were parts I just gobbled up, hungry for more info and inside scoop.  Also, for not being a professional writer, I have to tip my hat to Bourdain, because one thing many writers struggle with is developing their own voice.  The writing here is sometimes base and unrefined, but flipping the pages in Kitchen Confidential, for better or for worse, it was like having Bourdain’s voice narrating the whole thing in my head; definitely no ghost writer here.  All told, this was both better than I expected given that it was Bourdain, but also a bit underwhelming nonetheless… I suppose this is a book with which I have some reservations (hardy har har…).  I don’t regret having read it, but I’m not sure I will rush out any time soon to read his other books… Rating: 3.5 out of 5

9 Comments

  1. I was tempted to read this, but gave up after a few pages. I can’t remember what put me off, but it sounds as though I didn’t miss anything amazing!

  2. 08/26/2009

    I read this quite awhile ago, and found your interpretation spot on. I haven’t watched his show, and mostly it is because his attitude in the book really turned me off. I found some of his restaurant secrets interesting, and no doubt his food descriptions were indeed drool worthy, but I just got really sick of his self involved “badness”. If you want to read a really good kitchen memoir, I would recommend Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen. It tells her story of life as a pastry chef in a set of fine restaurants. I liked that book much better than Bourdain’s, and felt that they explored many of the same issues, albeit very differently.

  3. 08/26/2009

    ARG! I’m not supposed to be commenting, I’m supposed to be working!

    Okay, well, I read the book a LONG time ago, probably in 2001 as soon as it was released in paperback. It does seem a little…abnormal for a restaurant, but I have to say that restaurants are the breeding ground for drug addicts and lewd men. New York tends to attract a much more…vocal type of chef, where they are more likely to throw things, yell, etc.

    Something to keep in mind, though, is that in some places, like California, the fish rule doesn’t apply. Some of his advice was particular to New York.

    All that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bourdain had exaggerated his experiences for shock value. Because he certainly likes to shock.

  4. 08/27/2009

    @ Jackie: As I said, I don’t regret reading the book, because now I know, but I don’t think it’s as great as most people seem to feel it is. Maybe if I had read it back in 2000 it would have felt more revelatory, but I think it makes less of an impact on a 2009 reader (kind of sad the book had such a short shelf life, as it were!).
     
    @ zibilee: We had heard such good things about No Reservations so we rented the first disc through Netflix… and then found it nearly unwatchable. The Paris episode was also REALLY disappointing because it is such a food city, and yet the food was hardly showcased at all! There was too much gimmicky stuff going on (like this extended “hallucination” sequence, and Bourdain conveniently and felicitously sitting down next to an Absinthe expert… ugh!), too much of Bourdain’s faux bravado, and not enough food! We watched the next episode just to give it a fair shake, but never rented any more!
    Thanks for the rec on Spiced! I vaguely recall you reviewing it a few months back… I’ll have to revisit your review!
     
    @ Trish: Yes, I completely see what you’re saying. I wasn’t denying anything he said, it was just the early bits where he painted everything with such broad strokes, suggesting ONLY miscreants and maladjusts make up the food industry where I felt he clearly wasn’t being level with us. Heck, maybe it does attract a higher proportion of weirdos than other jobs, but still! There seemed no accounting for the fact that it was HIS experience rather than a universal truth (at least at first). I think if he had made it to some of the truly haute cuisine places in NYC, even then his experience would have been different (as he suggests when he, very late in the book, discusses the NYC chef that he is most impressed by (Scott Bryan) and how he runs his kitchen).
    And Bourdain does mention that you can ignore the Monday rule if you know the restaurant well and know they get fresh fish every day. As we’re in a landlocked state here, I think we’re wise to follow his rule!

  5. 08/27/2009

    Ugh. I think I’ll pass on this one.

  6. 08/28/2009

    @ Rebecca: Yeah, perhaps not the best choice for you for your Spice of Life Challenge! If I read one more, I would have completed your “A Taste” version of the challenge.. Not sure I’ll get to another cooking-related book before the end of the year (at least not one that I’ll review), BUT I’ll consider this my “amuse bouche” contribution! 😉

  7. 08/29/2009

    I do not resonate with his attitude when I used to watch his tv show in which he traveled around the world to taste street food. He’s very brash and abrasive, and just a bit too loquacious on his being critical. I was tempted to read the book but judging from your review, I can live without it.

  8. 08/31/2009

    @ Matt: I think this is probably the kind of book where if you already like Bourdain, then you will like the book… but if you don’t find his brand of humor actually, well, funny, then the book gets pretty annoying as well. Not to say I found it a waste of my time, but I think there are better cooking memoirs out there for me.

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