Non-Fiction: “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain

Yes, I did the thing where I read one book about a waiter at a high-end New York City restaurant and then turned around and read the book about a chef at a high-end New York City restaurant. Admittedly, Anthony Bourdain is much more widely-known, and also, I’ve read this book twice before.

The book kind of goes all over the place – it starts with Anthony’s childhood and a trip to France with his parents and brother. The summer started with he and his brother acting like normal tourist kids: asking for hamburgers and complaining about the cheese. After his parents lock* them in the car so they can enjoy a traditional French dinner without the kids, Young Tony realizes that Food is Good. This causes him to try anything and everything he can get his hands on, including a raw oyster. This essentially seals the deal for him going into a culinary career.

[*Sidenote: I seriously just typed that “locke.” I HAVE BEEN WATCHING TOO MUCH LOST.]

And his career, to start, was rocky. Starting in Provincetown (P-Town, to New Englanders) as a dishwasher, he quickly moved up to line cook. After an embarrassing moment, he decides to join the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, for all you non-foodies out there). He goes back to P-Town and gets a swelled head. After another summer, he hits New York.

Tony writes like a chef – direct, full of expletives, humorous. There is an entire chapter of the language that cooks use, both epithets, euphemisms and actual swear words. And, with an emotion that I’ve felt at times:

The tone of the repartee was familiar, as was the subject matter, a strangely comfortable background music to most of my waking hours over the last two decades or so — and I realized that, my God … I’ve been listening to the same conversation for twenty-five years! [220]

Some other fun moments:

“Who’s making food these days that interests you?” I asked.

“Oh, let’s see … Tom. Tom Collicchio at Gramercy Tavern. Tom makes really good food … and Rocco di Spirito at Union Pacific is doing interesting stuff.” [266]

Tom Collicchio! The best part of Top Chef! (yes, I watch that show. shut up, it’s awesome.) He is a cold-hearted bitch: all he cares about is the food. And I love him.

In one chapter, Tony describes one of his crew: Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown. A great bread man, but an overall crazy person. One day, Tony and his wife decide to invite Adam skiing:

And [Adam] skied like a hero, though he’s the last person in the world who should be allowed. He had his ski boots on the wrong feet for the first hour. He had neglected to bring gloves or mittens. He lost a ski pole. [240]

I can imagine that this is what I would be like when I dare to go skiing (I never have).

At the end of the book (don’t worry, I’m returning to the meat of it in a minute – heh, meat, because he’s a chef, and … yeah, sorry, I’m done) Tony travels to Les Halles Tokyo and is enraptured with the Japanese culture and, most importantly, food. He spends his days wandering the town on foot, trying everything he can. The Friday or Saturday night he’s there, he encounters this:

Mobs of people surged in never-ending waves toward Shibuya station to meet friends and lovers by the statue of a dog. The dog, it was explained to me, had continued to show up every day at the station, long after its master had died. [285]

Why is this important? It’s not really, not in the grand scheme of the book. Why it stood out to me was because last week, Lisa, with whom I work, asked me if I had ever watched this movie about a dog who is adopted by his master, and he loves him so much he follows him to the train station every day, and then one day, the master dies, but the dog doesn’t really realize it, so he still waits for him at the train station, and oh my god you guys, I was tearing up listening to Lisa tell the story. Not only that, but it made me think of that episode of Futurama where Fry’s dog has been frozen in cement and he wants Seymour to be reanimated, but then they can’t, and the episode ends with Seymour sitting in front of Panucci’s Pizza waiting for Fry to come home and the dog just keeps getting older and older and OH MY GOD FUTURAMA YOU BROKE ME JUST NOW.

Anyway. Lisa just told me about that movie, and I wanted to reread Kitchen Confidential before lending it to … Lisa. Coincidence? You decide.

So here’s what this book always inspires in me: a chance to be daring in my food. I am an aspiring foodie, but I lack the guts to back it up. I am a picky eater. If I go out to a restaurant and see a menu with a couple of dishes where I know the ingredients and know that I like the ingredients, I will most likely order it. If I don’t, I don’t try it. How sad is that? Reading this book always makes me want to experiment with food.

I mean, how inspiring is this?:

They say that Rasputin used to eat a little arsenic with breakfast every day, building up resistance for the day that an enemy might poison him, and that sounds like good sense to me. Judging from accounts of his death, the Mad Monk wasn’t fazed at all by the stuff … perhaps we, as serious diners, should emulate his example. We are, after all, citizens of the world — a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly. Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed pope-mobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. [p. 74-75]

Every time. Every time I read that, I want to rush out and try the craziest restaurant, spend a hundred dollars or more and try everything.

But I usually end up going to a chain restaurant instead. And really, how sad is that?

Grade for Kitchen Confidential: 5 stars

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