Eating Between the Lines

Summer Reading, Culinarily Speaking

Eating Between the Lines

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

by Anthony Bourdain

BloomsburyUSA, 320 pp., $24.95

I know chef Anthony Bourdain's roman a clef about the upscale New York restaurant milieu makes a great vacation read because I had a galley proof copy with me when I went to Providence, Rhode Island, earlier this spring. By day and evening I sampled wonderful Italian food in the charming colonial city before racing back to the hotel each night, eager to climb into bed with Bourdain's wickedly funny, audaciously revealing book. It's quite a page turner. Kitchen Confidential received a fair amount of prepublication press, with an excerpt in The New Yorker and features in The New York Times and Newsweek. It's being touted as the book that will blow the top off New York's upscale restaurant biz, kicking ass and telling names. While the chef/author does name a few names and creates character portraits vivid enough for those in the know to recognize his players, I doubt that anyone outside the New York celebrity chef clique will be particularly scandalized. The true value of Bourdain's book, however, is that it's a surprisingly well-written and brutally honest account of what life in many restaurant kitchens is all about.

Bourdain serves up his story just as if it were a restaurant meal. As an appetizer, he proclaims his love for the restaurant business and the work of a chef and at the same time promises to reveal "the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly" to his readers. The various dining courses chronicle Bourdain's on-the-job training in East Coast eateries and eventual rise to his current executive chef position at the highly regarded Brasserie Les Halles in New York. The dessert section begins with "a day in the life" of one restaurant chef and is spiced with raunchy depictions of the colorful denizens of restaurant kitchens along with their various job descriptions. Just like any good meal, the chef closes with a post-prandial coffee and cigarette in which he imparts the 14 things anyone should know before deciding to become a chef (never call in sick, always be on time, learn Spanish). It's all very good advice. After my early career working in restaurants and resorts, I'd say Anthony Bourdain's book should be required reading for anyone who thinks they want to become a chef. Not so much because all chefs and/or restaurants are exactly like the ones he depicts, but because Bourdain makes it abundantly clear that the restaurant life is not all celebrity, Charlie Trotter's, and the French Laundry. You might as well be prepared.

It's obvious why chefs and restaurateurs would want to read Kitchen Confidential. What makes it interesting to anyone else? Turns out the chef is a very good writer and while he states repeatedly he's not ready to forgo the physically punishing daily grind of restaurant cooking, he has an obvious writing career waiting for him when he finally quits his day job. It's a hilarious book with some very opinionated insider advice for restaurant diners (don't order fish on Monday, the brunch special is almost always refurbished leftovers, hollandaise is a case of food poisoning waiting to happen), plus a very accurate peek "beyond the pass" of certain restaurant operations.

My favorite aspect of Anthony Bourdain's work is his brutally honest self-portrait. There is nothing so pitiful or tiresome as a "tell-all" memoir wherein the author consistently portrays him or herself as a victim, always justifying their own behavior. There's none of that here. Bourdain can write about alcoholism and drug abuse in some restaurant kitchens because it's run through his veins. He's equally forthcoming about the testosterone-rich atmosphere of many kitchen crews, and his raunchy "pirate ship" stories bring that aspect of the book vividly to life and even make for enjoyable reading, as long as you're not a woman trying to work in a similar environment. I've never had the pleasure of eating chef Anthony Bourdain's black sea bass crusted in sel de Bretagne with frites, and I don't much care if he can cook. But based on my enjoyment of Kitchen Confidential, I'm busy trying to track down a copy of his out-of-print novel Bone in the Throat about a chef in a Mob-owned restaurant. Somehow I just know it's right on target and wicked funny in the bargain.

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