Review: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

I’ve long been a fan of “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain on The Travel Channel. It’s a fresh combination of his wicked, acerbic wit, exotic locations, and a true passion for food. He travels the world in search of foods that lift him to a level of sublimeness that Buddhists say can only be achieved through meditation. For Bourdain, Nirvana is found in a simple, but perfectly cooked bluefish fresh from the ocean seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper, appallingly good sushi from the bowels of Japan, to the gastronomic ecstasy of a melt-in-your-mouth buttery Steak au Poivre from France, to the spicy rich Ropa Vieja and rice and beans in Cuba. It’s not only about the food, but the adventure, the people, the culture, the glaring differences and subtle similarities between all people.

Much to my surprise (and apparent obliviousness), Bourdain has written several books about his journey in the culinary world as well as two recipe books. I discovered this as I was reading Writing & Selling Your Memoir: How to Craft Your Life Story So That Somebody Else Will Actually Want to Read It by Paula Balzer which I’ve mentioned before. Balzer recommends several memoirs throughout her book for examples of excellent memoirs and writing. Thus, I discovered her suggestion of Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential.” How could I have missed this? I immediately downloaded his book to my Kindle and became lost in the underbelly of the culinary world.

Reading the book is much like watching his TV show except it is the tale of Bourdain himself rising through the ranks. Kitchen Confidential reveals what Bourdain calls “twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.” Most diners believe that their sublime sliver of seared foie gras, topped with an ethereal buckwheat blini and a drizzle of piquant huckleberry sauce, was created by a culinary artist of the highest order, a sensitive, highly refined executive chef. The truth is more brutal. More likely, writes Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, that elegant three-star concoction is the collaborative effort of a team of “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths,” in all likelihood pierced or tattooed and incapable of uttering a sentence without an expletive or a foreign phrase. Such is the muscular view of the culinary trenches from one who’s been groveling in them, with obvious sadomasochistic pleasure, for more than 20 years. CIA-trained(Culinary Institute of America) Bourdain, currently the executive chef of the celebrated Les Halles, wrote two culinary mysteries before his first (and infamous) New Yorker essay launched this frank confessional about the lusty and larcenous real lives of cooks and restaurateurs. He is obscenely eloquent, unapologetically opinionated, and a damn fine storyteller–a Jack Kerouac of the kitchen. Those without the stomach for this kind of joyride should note his opening caveat: “There will be horror stories. Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetizing industry-wide practices. Talking about why you probably shouldn’t order fish on a Monday, why those who favor well-done get the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, and why seafood frittata is not a wise brunch selection…. But I’m simply not going to deceive anybody about the life as I’ve seen it.”

It is the scrapings of the filth at the bottom of the barrel. Yet, through it all there is a fragile hope, a longing for consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around, and a desire to be the best of the best. Bourdain is uncharacteristically vulnerable, but carries it with an acerbic, self-depreciating voice and a true love of good food. His awakenings of potential of food was born on a family trip to France when Bourdain, at nine-years-old, tasted his first oyster to prove his bravado to his family, and his love has only grown since. He has attended culinary school, fallen prey to the sticky world of drugs and even established a restaurant in Tokyo, discovering along the way that the crazy, dirty, sometimes frightening world of the restaurant kitchen sustains him. Bourdain is no presentable TV version of a chef; he talks tough and dirty. His advice to aspiring chefs: “Show up at work on time six months in a row and we’ll talk about red curry paste and lemon grass. Until then, I have four words for you: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ” He disdains vegetarians, warns against ordering food well done and cautions that restaurant brunches are a crapshoot. Gossipy chapters discuss the many restaurants where Bourdain has worked, while a single chapter on how to cook like a professional at home exhorts readers to buy a few simple tools, such as the “perfect” chef’s knife. Most of the book, however, deals with Bourdain’s own maturation as a chef, and the culmination, a litany describing the many scars and oddities that he has developed on his hands, is surprisingly beautiful. He’d probably hate to hear it, but Bourdain has a tender side, and when it peeks through his rough exterior and the wall of four-letter words he constructs, it elevates this book to something more than blustery memoir.

To learn more about Anthony Bourdain and his books, visit his website.

Kitchen Confidential available at Amazon

This links to an affiliate program.

Published by Ecco, 2007

ISBN-13: 9780060899226

Source: Bought Copy (see my Review Policy)

Rating: A-

Copyright © kld/klc for Kat’s Book Reviews. All rights reserved. (see Review Policy)

One thought on “Review: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

  1. i have to confess that i’m not so much into reading about such topics, but somehow your way of describing Bourdain’s book – aside leaving me with water in my mouth – woke up a certain curiosity in me. i’ll search for this – thanks for the suggestion! 🙂


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