Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly….Anthony Bourdain

Chef Anthony Bourdain

Considering a career in the food industry? Or wondering what really goes on in restaurant kitchens? Read this book first.

Chef Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is a no-holds-barred, juicy tell-all book about what goes on back behind restaurant kitchen doors. In between revealing moments and helpful tidbits such as “never order fish or the house special on Monday nights”, Bourdain tells the story of his checkered career as a chef with humor and honesty. For those of us who think you’d go straight from culinary school into a cushy three-star restaurant job, think again. Although Bourdain graduated from the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA), his path was anything but smooth. And for those who might think working in a high-profile kitchen would be glamorous and exciting, Bourdain shows us that kitchen life is really anything but that.

One of the shocking aspects of Bourdain’s book is his acknowledged addiction to drugs and alcohol during the early phases of his career. Bourdain openly admits to showing up to work high on heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Food Month here at Prologue has been very eye opening, in that it doesn’t seem Bourdain’s lifestyle was unique. Chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and Mario Batali also tell tales of drug and alcohol use in the early stages of their careers. My surprise here is twofold: 1) How can these people show up and successfully get through a work shift when they’re high on all kinds of crap, and 2) what is it about cooking that would cause people to turn to that lifestyle? Admittedly, cooks don’t work 8 hour days like the rest of us. Bourdain tells about showing up for prep work at 7:30am, and sometimes heading home at midnight. Although not supportive of drug use, I can somewhat understand how an amphetamine or an “upper” would be helpful to get through long days.

Also surprising were Bourdain’s revelations about professional kitchen staff. Thinking most two- or three-star restaurants would employ only storied and experienced cooking school graduates, I discovered this was emphatically not the case. Bourdain reveals that most kitchens are staffed with underpaid cooks from foreign countries like Ecuador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, whom he maintains can cook any culinary school graduate under the table any day of the week. Bourdain also talks about the male dominated dynamic of most kitchens, where the cooks trade insults, dick jokes, and regularly harass each other. It doesn’t sound like a very inviting place for women to work!  Bourdain definitely agreed with me, and remarks that women in the industry have to be tough as nails and be able to hold their own in the testosterone-charged atmosphere. I bet they don’t teach those skills in cooking school!

Other parts of the book I enjoyed equally. Bourdain’s trip to Tokyo and his week-long immersion in and enjoyment of their culture was fascinating. I wondered as I read about this trip if that was what inspired his show No Reservations, where he goes to visit other countries and tries their food. Bourdain is definitely not afraid of food!  As a child, Bourdain admitted to being a picky eater until he sampled his first raw oyster in France and was served vichyssoise aboard the Queen Mary. From that point forward, any and all food was fair game. I think that’s an important quality in a chef, to know what most things taste like.

Bourdain’s book was hugely entertaining, and although I had read the book about 2/3 of the way through last summer and didn’t finish it, I’m glad I restarted it and finished it this time. Goes to show what giving books a second chance can do! I’ll tag this one for the Books I Started But Didn’t Finish Challenge.

Grade: A


Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, One Tiny Apartment Kitchen….Julie Powell

Julie Powell, author of "Julie and Julia"

In September of 2002, Julie Powell was as lost as lost could be. On the cusp of turning thirty, childless, and spending her days in a thankless job at a bloated government agency in New York City, Powell was desperately searching for something to give her life meaning. She found it between the covers of Julia Child’s masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. A self-taught cook with no professional training, Powell challenged herself to cook every one of the 524 recipes in the book within the space of a year, and created a blog where she shared her epic journey with others. The success of her blog led to national recognition in print and on TV, and eventually the really cute movie Julie and Julia, where Julie’s cooking challenges are contrasted against Julia Child’s discovery of food and cooking in France. Her book Julie and Julia is a memoir of the year she spent cooking and her unlikely rise to fame.

Surprisingly, I found this book very enjoyable, despite the fact that many of the reviews I read on Amazon were negative. Reviewers complained loud and long about Powell, labeling her as narcissistic, whiny, and angry. Let’s be honest…they’re all correct. She’s not particularly likeable personally, and it sounds like her husband spent several nights during that year hiding from her :). She’s like that crazy, neurotic friend we’ve all had at some point in our lives, (or have BEEN at some point in our lives)….very entertaining but slightly unstable. For me, this book was a guilty pleasure, just like reality television; it sucked me in not because Julie Powell was a great person or role model in any way, but because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I actually found her cooking freakouts slightly enjoyable and humorous, since I’ve had many myself. Haven’t we all had something go horribly wrong in the kitchen? I grudgingly had to admire Powell’s bravery for attempting some of those recipes and making them edible, and maybe more so her family and friends for eating them along with her. Aspics and bone marrow sauce sound disgusting!

This book was a nice change for me, since I read so much heavy nonfiction. It was a light, quick read and was hilarious in parts (the aspic section alone is worth the price of the book). It’s not really a book about serious cooking, so if you’re looking for that you’ll be disappointed. The book made me feel that any of us could take on a big challenge like Julie Powell did and learn something about ourselves in the process. I haven’t read great reviews of her next book, Cleaving, but I will probably pick it up at some point, just to see how the drama continues.

Grade: A-

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief: The Astonishing True Story of a High-Society Cat Burglar…..Bill Mason with Lee Gruenfeld

Bill Mason, infamous jewel thief

One of my all-time favorite movies is Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, an amazing suspense movie starring Carey Grant and Grace Kelly. Grant plays John “The Cat” Robie, a reformed jewel thief, who has lived a squeaky-clean life since retiring as the world’s most notorious cat burglar. When a new string of high profile jewel thefts occurs on the French Riviera, Robie is immediately suspected. Thinking that it may ‘take a thief to catch a thief’, Robie offers to help the authorities nab the real culprit, bringing him back to the tantalizing world of wealth and society. It is Robie’s ability to think like a cat burglar that eventually helps him apprehend the suspect and prove his innocence.

 By day, Bill Mason was a successful property manager, married with three kids. But by night, Mason stole nearly $35,000,000 worth of jewelry over a thirty year period from some of the wealthiest and most famous Americans of the time. His unique and sometimes heart-stopping tale is told in his book, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. From the planning stages–where Mason checked out the society pages of newspapers and magazines to find his targets, studied their daily living habits, and researched their apartment security systems–to the execution phase, where he might have to do something crazy like creep along a narrow concrete ledge 15 stories up in the rain, or lower himself into a glass atrium on a rope, and then after all that find out that the owners have done something stupid like leave their patio door unlocked (!), Mason takes us all along on the adrenaline-soaked thrill ride that made him famous (or infamous). Lest you think he got away scot-free, he did eventually get caught and served some time in prison, but it was the ineptitude of the authorities combined with the skill of his lawyers that kept him from the multi-decade sentences he probably deserved. 

Mason also shares what it was like behind bars, what it was like to live as a fugitive, and the vindictive nature of the authorities, who did not appreciate being outwitted by Mason and strove to take their revenge in other ways. Several times Mason was arrested on false or trumped-up charges, and like John Robie, was blamed for other crimes that he had nothing to do with simply because he was so visible. It was amazing to me that he could be walking down the street and the next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed and put into a police car AGAIN, when he’d done nothing wrong. He also shares how hard his life of crime was for his family. His wife knew little or nothing about his double life, and it was she who had to hold things together for their kids as he was dragged in and out of courtrooms and jail. They would eventually divorce but remain friends, and Mason remained very close to his children.

I enjoyed the parts of the book where Mason broke down his individual heists, but I got really frustrated reading the parts about his personal life. I kept waiting for him to help himself out and grow up. It was almost like the guy wanted his life to be screwed up. It made me mad that he was lying to his wife the whole time (he admits cheating on her as well) and he admits that it took him almost falling 16 stories to his death during yet another theft attempt to finally reform his life, not the fact that he was putting his family and friends through hell. Even though at one point he was living as a fugitive, he would still go out to bars and even got sucked into a drug deal. I think my eyes were rolled back in my head for the entire middle section of the book. Are people really that dense? Come on! Stay home and stay out of trouble! Jeez.

I appreciated that by the end of the book he was very remorseful about what he’d done and how his actions affected not only his family but those he stole from, and that part of the proceeds of the book were going towards a robbery victims’ recovery fund.

Not a book I would wholeheartedly recommend, but it had its good parts. To Catch a Thief was much better.

Grade: B-

Teasing Secrets from the Dead: My Investigations at America’s Most Infamous Crime Scenes…Emily Craig, Ph.D.

Dr Emily Craig, forensic anthropologist

It seems you can hardly turn the TV on these days without flipping to one of the many crime shows currently on air. NCIS, Bones, CSI-Miami, Cold Case…you can barely find a show whose premise doesn’t surround a murder. In real life, though, crimes can’t always be wrapped up in a quick 3o minute episode, you don’t always find the bad guys, and one investigator rarely solves the crime alone. Dr Emily Craig, a world and nationally-renowned forensic anthropologist, clears up the myth and mystery of real-life crime scene investigations in her amazing and fascinating book, Teasing Secrets from the Dead.

 Dr Craig’s career began as a medical illustrator, which involved making highly detailed drawings of the human body and surgical procedures for physicians. A man she was dating who worked in law enforcement turned her on to the possibility of a new career in forensic anthropology, so Craig headed back to school to get her Ph.D. in forensic anthropology in her mid-forties. A forensic anthropologist’s job is to evaluate bodies and/or human remains at crime scenes to help solve crimes. Dr Craig specialized in skeletal remains and what they can tell her about the identity of the victim and the nature of the crime. Amazingly, there is much information that can be found from skeletal bones: the sex, race, and age of the victims can be determined from certain skeletal bones, and also how they died,  if knife marks or bullet holes are found in the remains. Dr Craig shares with us many of the trips she goes on as part of her job with the State Examiner’s office in her home state of Kentucky to help solve violent crimes, hanging off of cliffs, crawling into tiny mine shafts and sifting through ash at house fires to locate and catalog remains. Dr Craig’s expertise was also requested in the aftermath of three of America’s most devastating crime scenes from the last twenty years: Waco and the death of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians; the Oklahoma City bombing; and the Sept 11 attacks on America. Dr Craig was there on site for all of these momentous and horrifying occasions to help coroners and medical examiners to identify the victims in order to return their remains to their families.

Most importantly and poignantly, although she is a scientist, Dr Craig shares early and often the need to remain human in the face of such tragedy.  It’s understandable that many protect themselves by putting up emotional walls to keep themselves immune to the magnitude and horror of these violent crimes. However, Dr Craig stresses the importance of staying in touch with the humanity of these crimes, remembering that these victims were real human beings who died violent deaths, with sad families that are grieving their loss. She opens up about the stress of working near Ground Zero for eight weeks after the Sept 11 tragedy, where the sadness and anger of the event hung over all of them as they sifted through the remains of the innocent victims. Yet she also finds resolve in her work, to help these victims to justice whenever possible, and to give closure to their families.

Dr Craig recently retired from the Kentucky State Examiner’s Office in late 2o1o after a distinguished career. This book was a completely engrossing read and I really enjoyed it. I hope you’ll check it out.

Grade: A+

Night….Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author of "Night".

In the spring of 1944, German jeeps arrived in the small town of Sighet, Romania, where Jewish teenager Elie Wiesel lived with his parents and three sisters. Within days, their comfortable lives would be changed forever. Herded like animals from one confining ghetto to the next, and then onto train cars bound for who knew where, Wiesel recounts for us the horrifyingly tragic tale of his fight to survive the journey to and imprisonment at Auschwitz/Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps in his short yet profound book, Night.

Wiesel tells of the terrors of the separation from his mother and sister on the train platform at Auschwitz, and the horrors of daily life in the camps, as he and his father survive on barely any food and water, watch as their friends and relatives are ‘selected’ for the crematoriums, and are worked to the bone. Saddest of all is the dehumanization of the inmates, who understandably grow increasingly detached from everything and everyone around them as a mental survival mechanism. As his time in the camps lengthens, Wiesel and his fellow inmates are no longer saddened or even surprised to see other people harmed or killed right before their eyes. They will fight each other for the smallest scraps of food, and leave behind sick and old relatives who have become burdensome. As the inmates are forced to flee to avoid the oncoming Russian liberation force, they are forced to toss dead bodies out of train cars, or march over those who have fallen in their tracks in the snow. Wiesel, who was deeply religious before the Germans came to Sighet, understandably questions the existence of a God who would let this happen to his people several times during the book.

It is hard to say that I enjoyed a book of this intense and depressing nature, but I did. Wiesel wrote clearly and sympathetically of the horrors he endured and witnessed, so that he could speak for all of those who would never get a chance to speak for themselves. It took him ten years after he was liberated to begin writhing about his experiences. How hard it must have been for him to relive those days and nights, as he was separated from his family and later watched his friends and father die.  He would also have trouble finding a publisher for the book at first, but it would be published here in the US in 1960, and eventually translated into 30 languages. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

 I end with a profound quote from Night:

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”.

Wiesel’s Night is unforgettable. It is a very short book, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in the power of its message.

Grade: A


Speech-Less: Tales of A White House Survivor…..Matt Latimer

Matt Latimer (right) with President GW Bush in the Oval Office.

It was Matt Latimer’s childhood dream to be a White House speechwriter. Growing up in Flint, MI, the sole Republican in a Democratic household, he channeled politics from a young age the way some kids play sports or video games, chasing after his Republican heroes for autographs at conventions like they were movie stars. Latimer would eventually get his chance at his dream job, but would walk away after seeing what really went on behind closed White House doors during the death throes of George W. Bush’s presidency. His story is chronicled hilariously and poignantly in his memoir Speech-Less.

Latimer spares no one his incise observations and insider details. On his first boss, Senator Spence Abraham: “….my entire job in the Senate was to abet a series of deliberate frauds. We were reading letters the senator never read, writing responses he apparently didn’t review, and now even signing his name.” 

While working for Congressman Nick Smith: “Nick claimed his mother needed an operation. The family had to decide whether to spend money for the operation or use it to pay expenses on the farm and buy land. They voted, and the farm won. Nick shook his head. “It’s not as bad as it sounds,” he said. “She got a vote, too.””

After a run-in with his one-time Republican idol, Kay Bailey Hutchison: “Many people repeated the claim that she once slapped a staffer back in Texas. In Kyl’s office, we hired a former KBH purse boy to work for us…..whenever her name was mentioned, he seemed to shake a little.”

On President Bush: “When Ed Gillespie once asked Bush if he wanted cameras to follow him around to chronicle his last 100 days in office, the president shook his head. With a slight smile on his face, he said, “If I had a camera following me around all day, I’d look like a total a$$hole.”

On Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson: “Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president’s proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. The real problem wasn’t that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.”

On presidential candidate John McCain: “To me, praising McCain was basically slapping Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley in the face. One thing I absolutely refused to do was to type the words “President John McCain” into any speech draft. I could type “president”. I could type “John”. I could type “McCain”. But never would those words appear together.”

Quoting President Bush’s thoughts on Joe Biden: “”If bullshit was currency”, he said, straight faced, “Joe Biden would be a billionaire.””

….and on Sarah Palin: “”What is she, the governor of Guam?”” and “”You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off that rose,” he said. Then he made a very smart assessment. “This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.””

This book is a can’t-miss, irreverent and thought-provoking insider’s look at Washingtonian life at its best and worst, and an idealist’s collision with the disillusioning realities of politics and his party. I felt that the last portion of the book dragged a bit compared to the rest, but overall enjoyed it, laughing out loud at several parts. Here is a hilarious clip of Latimer on Stephen Colbert’s show The Colbert Report; it’s of course very funny too. Don’t miss the book.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School…..Kathleen Flinn

Kathleen Flinn

It began with an obituary. Kathleen Flinn was getting her start as a fledgling journalist in the obituary section when she came across an obituary stating only the deceased’s name, that of her husband, and her birth and death dates. Looking at that brief obituary, Flinn realized that it was time to pursue her dream of going to Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school made famous by Julia Child, so that when the time came, her obituary would be able to proclaim to the world that she had done something special with her life.

The stage was set when Flinn suddenly lost her job as an executive with Microsoft. Knowing very little French, and encouraged (and later accompanied) by her new boyfriend, Flinn drained her savings account and flew to Paris to pursue her dream of learning to cook professionally. What she experienced while going through Le Cordon Bleu’s three stages of cuisine to get her diploma is the basis of her wonderful memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. During the six months she spent in Paris, she would learn more about cooking, life, and herself than she bargained for.

The diploma program for Le Cordon Bleu is broken into three sections which must all be completed sequentially in order to get the diploma: Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine. Each section revolved around 30 core recipes, each of which would teach different cooking techniques and in some cases, would expose them to different cuisines from around the world. Each day, the students would first watch the chefs prepare the food and take notes, and would then be expected to prepare the food themselves in the student kitchens. They would then be graded by the chefs on taste, techniques, and presentation. And God forbid you serve hot food on a cold plate!

You wouldn’t think that a book about cooking could be suspenseful. You would be wrong. Flinn made you feel the stress of trying to please the very exacting chefs that supervised the courses and graded their food and technique. You acutely felt Flinn’s disappointment when food didn’t work out as it should, and felt her embarrassment and anger when the chefs yelled at her or her classmates. It’s not quite Kitchen Nightmares, but it’s close! You wondered if Flinn would be able to stay the course and graduate, even after she takes a break to get married and has several medical emergencies. And even more important, you realize how creative, physically demanding, and perfectionistic professional cooking really is. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat out at a nice restaurant in the same way again.

Flinn brings to vibrant life the camaraderie of working in the kitchen and her love of food, making good friends in all three parts of the diploma program, but most importantly, reminds us all not to let our dreams sit on a shelf, even if they seem crazy or unattainable. She made me want to hop on the first flight out to Paris, and even though I’m a picky eater and would never go near a vegetable of my own free will, made me want to learn to cook. After reading this book, I checked out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol I, and may have to try something in there, just to say that I did.  A great read.

Here’s a great video of Kathleen in action.

Grade: A