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.