Friday, September 11, 2015

Heat and hilarity in Bourdain's kitchens

Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
By Anthony Bourdain
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback edition 2001

There are certain occupations that have always seemed so foreign to me that I've never been able to grasp why or how people are drawn to them. Cooking is one.

AnthonyBourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" dispels some of the mysteries of the culinary profession and answers some of my longstanding curiosities about what goes on inside restaurant kitchens. This amusing book - later made into a short-lived TV series starring Bradley Cooper - is a rambling memoir about Bourdain's first 25 years in the restaurant industry, written in a style that is brash, hilarious, and honest.

"Kitchen Confidential" starts with Bourdain's early fascination with food and follows his apprenticeship to becoming a respected, versatile and productive cook/chef in New York. As a young boy, while on a cruise ship with his family, Bourdain was served Vichyssoise for the first time and was totally blown away that a soup could be served cold and taste so delicious. Through his teen years, he continued to feed his appetite for all things food related and wound up studying at the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a topic to which he devotes an entire chapter.

After graduating from CIA, Bordain's apprenticeship in the culinary arts began in earnest. Throughout his twenties and thirties, he bounced around New England and New York, working in an assortment of restaurants, from greasy spoons to high-end dining establishments, such as the Rainbow Room at the Rockefeller Centre. During these years, Bordain honed his chops and encountered a motley crew of characters who provide amusing fodder for his adventures in the kitchen.

His recollections of these colourful cooks, sou-chefs, master chefs, restaurant owners and busboys are told with frankness and insouciance. One of the most memorable characters is Bigfoot, a pseudonym for a legendary restaurant owner whom Bourdain worked for and who served as a mentor to him.
"He [Bigfoot], more than anyone else I encountered in my professional life, transformed me from a bright but druggie fuck-up into a serious, capable and responsible chef. He made me a leader, the combination of good-guy bad-guy the job requires. He's the reason I am never off sick, go to sleep every night running tomorrow's prep lists and menus through my mind."
I also enjoyed the story about Adam, a bread baker who regularly gets under the skin of his colleagues. "He may be the enemy of polite society," Bourdain writes, "a menace to any happy kitchen, s security risk and a potential serial killer, but the man can bake.... His bread and his pizza crust are simply divine." The author describes how out-of-control Adam's life is in all aspects and how in awe he is of the man's God-given talent when it comes to baking bread.

What makes "Kitchen Confidential" such a compelling read is Bordain's pull-no-punches writing style, his acerbic voice and his sardonic wit. Here he describes a period in which he managed a kitchen for someone nicknamed The Shadow in an Italian restaurant in New York:
"But I was off dope now...and comfortably sedated by methadone, I felt free to visit the service bar numerous times a night, so that I could pack my nose with cocaine. This gave me that lovably psychotic edge so useful for mood swings, erratic bursts of rage, and the serious business of canning people, thus saving my master money."
For years, Bourdain indulged in a variety of recreational substances, all the while managing to perfect his craft, expand his knowledge of the restaurant business and manage kitchens, both large and small, with workmanlike efficiency and flair. Cooking is clearly in Bordain's genes and his passion for food and cooking is plainly evident throughout this rollicking tale.

Bottom line on "Kitchen Confidential" is that it provides readers with a blunt portrait of the personalities and behind-the-scenes work that occurs inside restaurant kitchens. Although preparing food remains a source of mystery to me, and probably always will, "Kitchen Confidential" has shed a morsel of light on an activity that is an essential part of our daily lives.