I was interviewing a Chef one day when I asked him to describe a day in his life, from wake up to sleep. What I got from him I already knew or could have guessed. Chefs work long hours. For a chef the day-night cycle does not exist. They have risen up through the ranks of dictatorial kitchen culture and have scarred and calloused hands to show for it. They belong to an outfit while diners are civilians. I knew all this because I spent six weeks as an apprentice in one of Sydney’s high end kitchens to have my snuggly cuddly TV perception of food positively destroyed. If you want yours destroyed without all the hassle, my chef-in-interview said at the end of his spiel that one book will reveal all you need to know: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. The Chef says he isn’t a big reader, but he’s read his copy so many times the pages are in tatters. I can say the read was enlightening. Here is my review:
Kitchen Confidential is essentially Bourdain’s autobiography. Written while he was still working ‘the line,’ he’d get up at five or six in the morning, light up a smoke and start tying, get in a couple of hours at the computer, drag a razor across his face, and hail a cab straight to work. It is a book addressed to his comrades in arms – chefs, cooks and dishwashers. It reflects the claustrophobic worldview of the professional cook – a slightly paranoid, fiercely territorial mix of pride and resignation. Above all, Bourdain’s work impresses upon readers one thing; that food is not a subject for aesthetes.
The reason and way that Bourdain fell into cooking tells you a lot about the sorts of people the restaurant industry tends to attract. It was while on vacation in 70’s Provincetown as a stoned and rudderless college student that Bourdain started washing dishes for a band of pirate cooks, who “drank everything in sight, stole what wasn’t nailed down and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers and casual visitors like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined…I knew then: I wanted to be a chef.” In fact, Bourdain includes an entire chapter titled “Who Cooks” which describes the type of dysfunctional, mercenary fringe dweller required to survive in the kitchen environment. Most often, only well trained dog-chained immigrants have the endurance and loyalty to endure the mindless repetition of orders on a line. Bourdian’s battle reports of dinner rushes as a line cook are written in a Kitchenese which is as absorbing as it is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever dunked French fries for a summer job or suffered under a boobish owner.
Bourdain met no shortage of characters over his great jobbing journey, each experience retold in anecdote and spread across the book. From the New York mob meat purveyor racket to ‘Bigfoot’ – a man who keeps a book on every cook with the individual yield averages for each and every fish they ever cut for him, each person more movie-like and outrageous than the last. Bourdain tells the tales of suburban dentists turned Ill-fated restaurateurs whose operations he helped drive into the ground, and of moments of downtime where he and his sous chefs would re-enact the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now by emptying half a pint of brandy over the range so that it would ignite as a grand opening to service.
Bourdain describes the crippling pressure of being an executive chef working one hundred hours per week. On a typical Friday he’d be piping his 10th cigarette by 10am, 8th aspirin by 4pm after three double espressos with his stomach a “roiling hell broth of supressed frustration, nervous energy, caffeine and alcohol.” But interlaced between the pages are practical tips; He tells all the food newbs why not to order fish on Monday (because it’s been in the walk-in since last Friday); what chefs really think of the weekend crowd; Inside information about the bacteria-philic holding conditions of hollandaise sauce (so don’t order it after 11); when, and when not to listen to your waiter; and why leftover meats that have been wallowing in their own piss make up your specials like “shepherds pie” “beef parmentier” and “chilli special.” Bourdain’s account of his life experience culminates in a work that is more revealing, meticulous, and hard-hitting than a high commission into the restaurant industry.
Between the drugs, the depression, the heroin addiction and the search for meaning, the scope of his experience and the people he shared his life with truly make cheffing seem like the rockstar lifestyle he had wanted that first day dishwashing. It’s also ironic that in Bourdain’s attempt to disclose the closed off, inhumane world of cheffing, he has ultimately experienced the beautiful and common journey of struggle and uncertainty lived moment by moment. A more balanced work would be hard to find. It is the stark reality of accepting ones lot, of not taking oneself too seriously, but going with the flow of living which makes this one book the bible of chefs everywhere, and If you’ve ever enlisted your name on a restaurant’s reservation list, it should be on yours too.