The late chef Anthony Bourdain released his book titled, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in The Culinary Underbelly” in 2000, preceded by an article in The New Yorker with excerpts from some of the most unappetizing chapters. In “Kitchen Confidential”, Bourdain tells of his childhood summers in France, discovering for the first time that food can be powerful and exhilarating. From this point on, Bourdain dedicated his life to creating that same feeling of power and excitement. Throughout the book, stories are told of crushed dreams, failed businesses, and embarrassing fry station mess-ups. He speaks of drunk, shady bread bakers, late nights in Tokyo sampling a variety of peculiar raw seafood dishes, and the many friendships and partnerships he made and lost during his years as a chef. The mouth-watering descriptions of Japanese, Italian and French cuisine will have the reader simultaneously gagging with disgust and looking up a recipe for swordfish tartare.
A Taste of Adventure
In 1966, nine-year-old Anthony, also known as Tony, boarded the Queen Mary on a transatlantic voyage to visit family in France for the summer. He recalls being served a French soup dish called Vichyssoise, delighted at the surprise of the cool temperature. Bourdain notes this is the first time he remembers enjoying a meal. Upon arrival, Tony and his brother rejected the new, unusual foods of France, ordering nothing but steak hache and soft drinks. Their displeased parents eventually left them out of a dinner in an upscaled Vienna restaurant, La Pyramide. This ignited a spiteful fury in young Tony, inspiring him to no longer turn away at the sight of cheesy, Normandy butter, fritures with persillade or rognons de veau. From this point on he accepted every dish offered to him, the most influential being oysters he ate on a neighbor’s pinasse(oyster boat). Bourdain remembers, “I’d learned something. Viscerally, instinctively, spiritually-even in some small, pervasive way, sexually-and there was no turning back.”(17)
Welcome to The Jungle
Bourdain spent his early twenties in and out of different restaurants, working long hours in small, cramped kitchens to achieve his dreams of becoming a chef. There were many people he learned from, but he has fond memories of one in particular, nicknamed Bigfoot. Bigfoot was a no-nonsense leader who had a tendency of making himself seem naive before tearing into a vendor for being late or marking up the products. Bigfoot taught the late chef about the importance of character, something that is hard to find among the chaos that is the life of a chef. Bourdain described his mentor as, “Cunning, manipulative, brilliant, mercurial, physically intimidating-even terrifying-a bully, a yenta, a sadist and a mensch: Bigfoot is all those things.”(92)
Ten years after his first encounter with Bigfoot, the young chef showed up to a job offer by the same man while in the middle of heroin addiction and looking for his next score. During this offer, Bourdain asked his former mentor for some money, intending to purchase drugs or some other vice to support his unhealthy lifestyle. Bigfoot lent him the money with no questions asked. The trust that his mentor instilled in him by lending such a large amount of money gave Bourdain the determination to become a more honest and determined person. The time spent in Bigfoot’s kitchen was critical to the author’s growth of character, reminding him every morning to wake up five minutes before his alarm and revise the following day’s menu in his head before going to bed each night.
Another impactful moment for the author took place on West 46th Street, also known as Restaurant Row, in New York City in a tasteful eatery that welcomed the pre-theater crowd and several famous celebrities. Tom and Fred were described as a lovely couple who owned the brownstone building Bourdain worked at, living on the top floor and owning Tom H., the restaurant on the bottom floor. The location attracted the occasional celebrity customer, but this, along with Tom’s famous meatloaf and jalapeno corn pudding, was not enough to keep the business afloat. Bourdain witnessed the demise of their hard work, recalling, “It pained me…to see the realization dawn-with each expensive repair, each slow night, each unforeseen expense-that things were not turning out as hoped.”(131) This heartbreaking experience taught Bourdain the realities of owning a restaurant.
The multi-talented Anthony Bourdain was born in June of 1956. In the time between his birth and the year “Kitchen Confessionals” was published, the image of a chef was completely transformed by the public. When the author entered the culinary field, cooking was viewed as a job for the talentless and underqualified. The Food Network premiered in the early eighties, changing the viewers’ opinion on cooking for a living. Other channels such as MTV, which premiered in August of 1981, brought the idea of visual art in food and music to the center stage. Over the years, food transformed into an art, seen today on shows involving ice sculpture competitions and holiday bake-offs.
A Message of Equality
Though “Kitchen Confidential” was aimed towards those who understood ‘being in the weeds’ and enjoyed having conversations over involuntary rectile penetration, the novel reached those outside of the industry and created a feeling of unity for chefs around the world. What captured millions wasn’t just the colorful descriptions of restaurants’ dirtiest secrets, but the message Bourdain sends on how vital Latinos are to the industry.
“They’re the ones who remain behind when the white boy moves on to the next thing.” Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confessionals: Adventures in The Culinary Underbelly
Undocumented citizens are given the stereotype of lazy and dependent when in reality many of these people have worked tirelessly their entire lives and experienced more tragedy than many privileged American’s will ever know. These Latino men and women fill the kitchens of most local family joints, beloved restaurant chains, and Upper Manhattan five-star dining establishments. Bourdain speaks very highly of all Latino staff, stating, “They’re the ones the incoming white boys look to to learn the ropes-and they’re the ones who remain behind when the white boy moves on to the next thing.”(305) Towards the end of the novel, Bourdain provides a list of things any aspiring chef should know. One of his strongest suggestions is to learn Spanish, telling his audience not only how helpful it is in the restaurant industry, but how satisfying it is to indulge in another’s culture and language.
The Legacy Left Behind
Bourdain invokes feelings of hunger, pity, wonder, disgust, and ambition in “Kitchen Confessionals”. This novel is a love letter to any poor soul who has entered the restaurant industry hoping to accomplish their hopes and dreams but instead found themselves overworked, sleep-deprived, and always bitter. This feeling isn’t without some sweetness, though, and the benefit of being surrounded by the finest food and the most enjoyable company.
Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in The Culinary Underbelly. Updated ed., Harper Collins, 2000.