Last weekend Leah and I hosted book club. The food we provided was “meat on a stick,” since we just read the late Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. As Bourdain makes clear time and again, almost nothing is better than meat on a stick, and indeed, the recipe Leah made was delicious. So check that out if you want to know more, and as for the book, it’s really hard to put a finger on why I liked it so much. Kitchen Confidential is good if you like memoirs, it’s good if you like tell-alls, and it’s good if you like food. Also, it’s good if you don’t care about food at all, beyond a means to sustenance—it’ll give you a lot of fodder for your “high society” friends. But before going on about it’s somewhat unique format, a some “grabbers” on what I learned from our reading:
- Never buy fish on Mondays—it’s the oldest then
- Likewise, beware of specials
- Likewise, avoid anything that isn’t made to order (his big example is Eggs Benedict, since the hollandaise sauce is made in bulk and then sits there
- “Well done” = worst cuts of meat
- Everything tasty has more butter than you could ever imagine
- Beware of brunch, because its when the best cooks are sleeping
- Chefs drink A LOT
Now Leah and I started watching Bourdain’s Parts Unknown—his last show—after his death. It’s great, and is as much about traveling and culture as the food (only sometimes) featured. So we came to Bourdain a bit late in the game, and it’s fair to say that my views of the book were shaded by having seen the colorful chef/author on TV. I read the text in his voice, though also, Bourdain HAS a unique voice—the narrative is invariably his own, both in terms of style and substance. And that’s where I’ll stop with the English major analysis. Or basically, if you know about Bourdain and like him, you’ll love Kitchen Confidential. If you know about Bourdain and hate him, you’ll hate this book. And if you don’t know about him, give this a shot.
But WHY check it out, and especially if you’re a Bourdain novice—besides for entertainment value? Well actually, Kitchen Confidential helped kick off a pretty healthy literary trend. It wasn’t the first tell-all by any means, but it was one of the first tell-alls about a specific job. In modern times, Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again set the literary stage. Published in 1991, this Hollywood, behind-closed-doors gossip book ended up getting the first woman to ever win a Best Picture Oscar blackballed from ever making movies again. She wrote in the vein of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, of course, though what makes Bourdain unique is that he gets much more specific, YET without ever naming names.
Each chapter in this odd hybrid like an essay. I’m intrigued by the fact that this book is twenty years old, and by reading it we can see how Bourdain really knew his craft—he highlights nascent culinary trends that are huge now compared to in 2000. There are historical events Bourdain recounts first-hand, some stories are written for shock value, and others are written to prove that cooking really is an art form, and then there’s the perfect mix of serious and funny. But what unites it all is a true underdog narrative, which isn’t hard to get behind. Those are all the reasons I liked reading Kitchen Confidential, beyond the fact that I’d seen Bourdain on TV. Hopefully that creates a little interest, and especially if all you know is that Bourdain killed himself last year. We’re all so much more than the way we died, as his writing proves.
–Jeff and Leah