I want to say right off the bat that I don’t really know much about Anthony Bourdain. I know he was a famous chef, with a (ok, several) popular TV show(s). I know he tragically took his own life. Until now, my only understanding of his personality was a gifset I saw on Tumblr where he’s dining with some people presumably from somewhere in the British Commonwealth and they toast “To the Queen!” and he shoots them all an “are-you-out-of-your-fucking-minds” sideways glance.
When I received a copy of Kitchen Confidential as a Christmas gift shortly after declaring my interest in going into the food industry all those years ago, I set it aside, having little interest in books, let alone the guy posing with 2 swords on the cover. Even in college, my pretentious obsession with books had more to do with owning them- and showing off my collection to flaunt how smart I must be- than actually reading them. And not even his passing and the surrounding controversy piqued my interest, or, perhaps, I didn’t want to look like a poser who only cared because he was now dead or someone who worshiped “suffering artists” (in hindsight, a very Bourdain thing to be afraid of). But now, Roadrunner, a new Anthony Bourdain documentary, coming out and my inaction towards getting internet set up at my new apartment (which has, by now, since been remedied) have created a perfect storm for sitting down and reading the damn thing.
He says in the new introduction of the “updated” version I have that he wanted to write a book that fellow cooks would find relatable and entertaining rather than any sort of exposee, so I think I’ll mostly focus on how relatable it is to my own experience in the industry
The book opens with Bourdain regaling us with how he fell in love with food in the first place. And while I can’t say I can relate to his tale of how having a bowl of vichyssoise and the subsequent revelation of “soup can be cold” blowing his mind, there was a bit from those early chapters that did really strike a chord with me. After spending one summer working his first ever restaurant job, he returns the next summer to find that a (much busier) competitor bought out the place, but was willing to hire back former staff members. He spends his first shift at the new restaurant running his mouth about how great he was at the last place, gets his ass kicked by the dinner rush, and eventually burns his hand. When he asks for some burn cream, one of the more seasoned cooks looks him in the eyes, reaches into the broiler and pulls out a sizzle pan bare-handed. Replace the arrogance about the last place he worked with my arrogance about being one year into culinary school (and then also dial the drama back a bit), and this was basically my experience at my first real restaurant job. He managed to stick around- albeit bumped down to a prep cook and kept as far away from the line as possible- while I got fired after about a month (although they ended up going under a few months later, so I guess I had the last laugh). Either way- after such humbling experiences we were both driven by pure spite to prove them all wrong.
Some of his remarks on his time spent at the Culinary Institute of America also mirror my own experiences in Paul Smith’s College’s culinary program, mainly the focus on dying, classical French techniques- even if I more closely resembled the “pimple-face bedwetters” that he had to deal with in classes than a young Bourdain himself (and, to give Paul Smith’s some credit, they did make more of an effort to teach modern techniques than 1970s’ CIA). And I can confirm, between myself and a few other people I knew from school, that his later comments about how culinary school grads are full of shit are completely true.
Another thing that really struck a chord with me was his mention of a restaurant going under can haunt the location for years; in addition to the restaurant I mentioned having my first real job at I can think of at least 2 other restaurants in town that have opened and reclosed under new aliases some many times now that we all joke about how the buildings must be cursed. And my heart fluttered when he mentioned a micromanaging (in a good way) restaurant owner he previously worked for keeping his ordering sheets organized by where the product was stored, as all of my experience with ordering has been with order sheets that were very much not that, dooming me to wander in circles as I check par levels.
I could ramble on and on about how I can find things to relate to in each of his anecdotes (short of the one job where he walked in on the first day to find cooks running guns out of the prep room, I can’t say I’ve seen that). Or, at least theoretically- as much of the latter half of the book deals more with the managerial side of chefdom that I’ve yet to experience firsthand. My point is: Anthony Bourdain set out to write a book by a cook, for cooks, and he hit the nail on the head. He somehow conveys all the stress-fueled chaos of the industry, all the hyper-masculine, drug-riddled and violent cooks, the insufferable temperatures and tight quarters of the lines, the clueless customers and even more clueless restaurant owners, all with a gravitas that neither condemns nor condones it, telling it like it is without bragging about how he’s “gonna tell it like it is.” Bourdain speaks truth in a way that, no matter how outlandish it may sound, you can’t help but eat up every word.
It almost makes me nostalgic, wishing I had never given up the never-ending ticket snakes and the thrill of the dinner rush in favor of air-conditioned, corporate kitchens of grocery stores.