Anthony Bourdain was one of my travel heroes and his suicide several years ago still guts me (while reminding me that people who look like they have everything you could want may still be very unhappy). I have never read any of his work before but I love his voice and attitude, which is to say: my expectations for this book were high.
Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000 and was a bestseller. It is Bourdain’s memoir of working in the food industry, divided into chapters that follow the order of courses in a meal (Apertivo through to ‘Coffee and a Cigarette’). He relates coming from a childhood of relative privilege where he was often a brat (including life-changing oysters on a family vacation in France as a child), his embarking on a career in restaurant kitchens as a place where he could both excel and continue to be a bad boy rebel, and ultimately his sweaty and depraved course through a number of increasingly prestigious and demanding New York kitchens.
I am still trying to decide how I feel about this. I really liked the insight into how a kitchen runs- the ballet-like precision of getting well made meals out on a short schedule, the negotiating of prices with strong-armed suppliers, the creation and fine-tuning of a the menu based on the contents of a fridge and freezer with always approaching best before dates, the managing of personalities and various mental health issues (particularly addictions) with your staff.
What I didn’t love was the glorification of bullying and addiction that Bourdain celebrates here- it seems like he was aiming for a Gordan Ramsey-esque, ‘if you can’t handle it, get out of the kitchen’ lesson. I kept thinking that these parts of his memoir must have hit differently in 2000. Read in 2022, I just kept thinking about how there was no HR support (and how valuable the armies of immigrants, legal and illegal, are to the service industry’s ability to provide all of us with the hospitality to which we’ve become accustomed). I think Bourdain meant it in a spirit of “everyone is an equal in the kitchen” (he went out of his way to talk about the tough lady chefs who were as tough as any man, and his appreciation of the immigrant line cooks and dishwashers) but it really just reads as people being assholes because they can be. Maybe I’ll stick to his tv shows…