I can’t remember where I bought Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I loved the book so much that I like thinking I found it in a little bookstore in Venice. But Amazon seems more plausible. On the first page, there’s a creepy dedication “Happy Birthday Rhys” with a drawn knife. So it surely comes from abroad. And I hope Rhys is well and safe.
I saw Anthony Bourdain for the first time on TV. He played this grumpy American chef – basically, himself – on a nice show called No Reservations. In each episode he traveled in a different country, tasted charming, exotic dishes and dined in AMAZING restaurants. In other words, a thinner and less friendly Andrew Zimmern who wasn’t forced to eat raw monkey brain.
Good for him.
But only after I’ve started reading Kitchen Confidential I realized that Bourdain is a real badass. A guy who says you only need a professional knife to cut everything you need – tomatoes, mushrooms, an entire pork. A guy who got lost in drugs at a young age, then saved himself through cooking.
A cook, a chef, a voracious eater. Kitchen Confidential is both Bourdain’s autobiography and his very personal, very true ode to food and cooking. I loved it. It’s politically incorrect and sincere. We are so used to romanticized representations of the lives of chefs, that reading such a disenchanted description can be shocking. But also enlightening.
Enlightening like the food epiphany he had as a child, while eating his first oyster in a tiny village on the Arcachon Bay, France:
I took it in my hand, tilted the shell back into my mouth as instructed by the by now beaming Monsieur Saint-Jour, and with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater … of brine and flesh … and somehow … of the future.
I had the same epiphany last September, when I was traveling the French coast with my husband. We took a break from a long drive in a small oyster village in Arcachon and had oysters and rose wine at 4 in the afternoon. The bay was calm, the breeze gentle. There was nothing more perfect in the world. In that moment I understood Bourdain’s statement “food has power”.
The book is divided as if it were a menu, from “appetizer” to “coffee and a cigarette”. As in a menu, each section tells a different stage in a process of growth. In this case, that of Bourdain’s. The years at CIA, the first traumatic experiences in fast food kitchens, the crews hazing the youngest members, the drugs and its career in New York.
Each aspect of the lives of cooks is analyzed and described in this book with no mercy. It’s painfully true. You can really feel the suffering and sacrifices of these people of the night. They’re modern pirates, jailbirds, they can save you from a robbery in an alley, then cook a delicate soufflé.
If you’re looking for tips on where and when to eat, this is the book for you. If you want to know the best days to buy fish at the market, read it. If you are curious about the managing aspects of fancy restaurants, start now. If the idea of becoming a chef tickles you, be ready. This book will discourage you.
But if you’re already desperately in love with food and cooking, if you have a profound respect for the silent army in restaurant kitchens, then this book will become your bible. The words to which you will return again and again whenever you feel like reading something that amazes you like the first oyster.