Anthony Bourdain’s memoires “Kitchen Confidential” is certainly a book like no other. It is an incredibly honest insight of several decades spent in the secret places of the cooking industry, the kitchens. Instead of fine restaurants, Bourdain spent a solid part of his career working in mid-range places. Of course, he is not at all ashamed by that fact. One of his passions is punk music, which he reveals often plays in the background of his kitchen while he works, so it is not unusual that its influence can be felt in his writing, which is raw, direct, definitely provocative, and sometimes quite harsh, but never truly shocking or offensive to reader. When he puts together all the puzzles of his career, he writes without hesitation, describing his use of drugs like cocaine or amphetamines and even his addiction to alcohol and heroin.
His “culinary adventures” begin by the description of the roots of his love affair with food. As he explains - when he discovered his parents’ strange fascination with food, he began, out of spite, to develop interest in strange foods. He remembers tasting his first oyster, which felt as good as the act of losing virginity and in some ways even more fondly. In this life-changing moment he sees the roots of often self destructive chase for new sensations, even the ones like drugs and sex.
Bourdain started his cooking career as a teenager, working during summer at the seasonal seafood restaurant in Provincetown, a small fishing town in New England where he worked with vivid crowd that enjoyed all sorts of vices. He claims to have realized he wanted to become a chef after seeing one of the restaurant chefs he worked with having sex with a bride in the backyard during her own wedding reception. Still, he makes it very clear that this profession is above all about hard work.
His first attempt to work in a more serious restaurant was a complete disaster, one he was very frank about, but it only motivated him to be tougher, work harder and get formal education at the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA was also much different in the seventies than today, and instead of top ranked chefs, it mostly produced middle to low level restaurant workers. When describing his first fiasco, or his days at the CIA school, he clearly points out the main psychological trait of a successful chef – the ability to withstand stress and function under extreme pressure.
One chapter of the book is dedicated to a very interesting issue to both professionals and amateurs – Bourdain asks: “Who’s cooking your food?” To answer this question he turns to his own motivation to work as a chef. He answers: “If the chef is anything like me, the cooks are a dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers motivated by money, the peculiar lifestyle of cooking and a grim pride. They're probably not even American.” (Bourdain, pg 54) His reflections about the personality types that make successful chefs are very specific - he sees a good cook as a mercenary, and he considers cooking to be a craft, not art. On the other hand, when writing about people he worked with, he reveals he has always had a taste for people that were out of the ordinary and, to some degree, misfits. People he describes are ex-cons, misfits, tough people that “look like pirates”.
He also discusses the psychological profile of possible restaurant owners searching for some reason that would motivate anyone who has worked hard and saved money to risk it all in the business with such small odds for success. His conclusion is that there is an easy answer to that – feeding one’s ego.
Further, he describes mandatory equipment and ingredients in cooking profession, among some of the unexpected ones are shallots he says are used in all top kitchens all over the world.
First truly fine restaurant he worked in was Le Madri and he was very amazed by the high level of organization. At the end of the book, Bourdain speaks out directly to aspiring chefs, offering 14 rules he finds crucial for success in his profession. Some of them are understandable and some are rather unexpected. Apart from respecting basic moral values for every profession and life in general, such as the following rules: do not lie or steal, be on time, do not be lazy and never blame others for your own mistakes, he also lists some of his own, rather unexpected rules. For example, he advises future cooks to learn Spanish, which is actually understandable after reading the whole book – he has a very positive attitude about Latin American cooks, especially the Ecuadorians with whom he often worked. Among funny warnings is the one to avoid restaurants with owner’s name above the doors. He finishes his book with an advice to arm yourself with the mandatory sense of humor if you want to succeed as a chef. Those who want to survive the pressures of the profession will certainly need it.
Bourdain, A. M. (2000). Kitchen confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly.