- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
- Publisher: Ecco
- Year: 2000/2007
- Pages: 312
At some point during my teenage years (1997-1998, specifically), Fox aired a series of specials called Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed; an anonymous masked magician performed all the old reliable magic tricks and then revealed how they were done. If you believed Fox, it was a big deal, except that of course it wasn’t. Still, the shows were ratings successes, because people would like to believe they are gaining firsthand knowledge of a heretofore inaccessible realm of knowledge—especially, I suppose, if there are pyrotechnics and showgirls involved.
In 1999, Tony Bourdain was a chef working in New York City, unknown outside of a small circle of NYC chefs and accomplished foodies. This began to change after he published an article entitled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” in The New Yorker1; a collection of helpful hints garnered from his time in the cooking industry, it was precisely the sort of insider knowledge that seems as though it should be clandestine but probably isn’t. Ordering beef well-done ensures you get the worst cuts; order fish on Monday means you get fish leftover from last week; the atmosphere in a kitchen is a little like a frat house, but with more French sauces.
Riding the success of this article, Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential the next year (and catapulted himself into stardom), essentially expanding the article into book length with extensive autobiography and even more lurid details. It still has that “Here’s what They don’t want you to know” sort of conspiratorial allure, but generally speaking you could save yourself no small amount of time and boredom by just reading the original article instead.
I am not known for gustatory adventurousness. I was a vegetarian for much of my life, and even then my extraordinary finickiness (enforced, likely, by some behavior which resembles O.C.D.) prevented me from expanded my culinary horizons. I’ve got better since, but I still eat well-done meat, abstain from seafood, and stick to foods that I know I like instead of trying new things. Clearly, I am at odds with Bourdain’s foodie nature, yet it still seems as though the gourmet-loving subculture he describes throughout the book seems predicated upon using the most disgusting ingredients possible. His love affair with food began, he writes, when he slurped down his first oyster while on vacation in France, to the disgust of his family and the obvious delight of the crusty old fisherman who proffered it. Since then, Bourdain has simultaneously made apparently delicious meals as the chef in a number of high-end restaurants, and made it his life’s work to eat every comestible on the planet, regardless of its aptitude for intestinal distress. The book describes his visit to Tokyo and necessarily his gorging on all sorts of sushi and sashimi (of course), but culminates with a trip to an out-of-the-way local eatery where he dines on a smorgasbord of things that I wouldn’t feed to my cats: with particular relish (both for the memory and the queasiness he knows it will elicit from his readers) he details eating a grilled, scales-on fishhead, noting how he sucked out its eyeballs.
In other words, Bourdain routinely eats things for pleasure that Bear Grylls eats to stay alive in the wilderness. One cannot help but note with some consternation that Bourdain refuses to order fish on Mondays (because it may be bad) but later exhorts his readers to eat foreign food, even if it means risking intestinal distress.
There is a certain extent to which Kitchen Confidential is little more than Bourdain showing off. While it may contain an account of his first humiliation while working in a busy kitchen (which caused the young punk Bourdain to suddenly become serious about cooking—an 80s movie montage follows), it’s largely an account of how much drugs he did, how many parts of languages (usually the dirty and conversational bits) he can shout, how scarred his hands are, how he knows much more about cooking than you will ever know, how he’s gladly eaten things that will probably make your anus pucker. Most of the biography is of this same attempted badassery; aside from a visualized swagger, there’s not much else we know about Tony Bourdain the man, which makes one wonder what the point of all the storytelling was in the first place.
It tends to be a messy business when people who are not writers turn around and attempt to write books; even with competent ghost writers, this so rarely ends well2. Generally you get wooden prose, a plodding narrative, and the sense that the author has no real sense of purpose or direction; it’s akin to listening to a stranger tell you stories about their cat. Surprisingly, Bourdain (who does not use a ghostwriter) sometimes manages to pull great prose out of his back pocket. With practice (and there’s no reason to believe he hasn’t improved in the last decade), I can well imagine him becoming a capable writer. Kitchen Confidential, on a purely technical level, contains too many departures from a good writing to be impressive, and its overall quality isn’t enough to bridge that gap.