“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential received good reviews when it was published in 2000. I thought, “I’d like to read that.” Then I watched a few episodes of his Food Network “A Cook’s Tour“, and was put off by his on-air persona. But my favorite local food writer wrote a positive article about him, and his book was turned into a decent, though canceled, sitcom (now available on DVD). I thought I’d give the book another chance. Then a few years went by. A friend lent me the book. My husband lent it to someone else. I got it back, and finally read it. And I wish I’d read it way back when.

I’m now a fan of Bourdain as a guest star on “Top Chef” or from his Travel Channel show “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” for which he has a blog. From what I’ve read, part of the the unlikeability of Bourdain’s former Food Network show was about its production, not its star. His book is written in the acerbic, funny, and in-your-face provocative way that he comes across in person.

What most people don’t get about professional-level cooking is that it is not at all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner. Line cooking – the real business of preparing the food you eat – is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator …. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.

The essays that make up the book alternate between personal anecdotes, behind-the-scenes looks at chefs and line cooking, and advice on food–don’t eat fish on Mondays, go to brunch or order meat well done, and own one good chef’s knife rather than a big block of mediocre blades. They are loosely arranged in the order of a multi-course dinner. “Loose” is the key term here, because it wasn’t always clear to me why some essays were in particular “courses,” and they did not flow chronologically.

In the eight years since this book was published, much of what he notes has become common knowledge, so the shock value it must have had has lessened. To be fair, though, some of the explosion of food knowledge and appreciation of fine dining is likely due to this popular book. I was both entertained, and a little disappointed in the book. I enjoyed the anecdotes, but they never delved much below surface level. I learned about food, though a lot in the book I knew already. This book was of its moment, and momentous in the changes it helped inspire. Eight years later it’s still good, but perhaps more culturally significant in retrospect than currently relevant.

4 Responses to ““Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain”

  1. Kirk Says:

    I think Tony Bourdain is fantastic. You’re right that his early Food Network show was pretty horrible, but he’s really hit the groove with “No Reservations”. “Kitchen Confidential” was a little immature, probably, but eye-opening and an early step down a now distinguished path. “No Reservations” might be my only can’t miss TV show because he does such a unique job of displaying his brash, old punk rocker vocabulary against a poetic counterpoint.

  2. Carrie (Reading to Know) Says:

    Huh. This isn’t a book subject that I would normally find interesting but you make it seem so. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it and pick it up if I see it. Thanks for the review!

  3. ChristineMM Says:

    I have not seen Bourdain on the various TV shows.

    I read the book in 2006, also late. I really enjoyed it because I used to work in a restaurant kitchen while putting myself through school. I also bussed tabled and waitressed and even had to wash the grimiest of pots and pans by hand. The book was very true although in the mid-1980s for me we had mostly white workers with some Mexicans not the Equadorians that Boudain writes of. I worked with some surly characters so I felt the book was accurate in describing some people that he worked with similarly.

    I credit FoodTV in general and the explosion of cooking shows in the early and mid 1990s combined with Martha Stewart’s show and magazine (pre-jail period) for the boom in interest in cooking at home.

    A self published book which IMO tries to copy Kitchen Confidential but the view of the waiter of a fine restaurant in Wash DC is Fine Dining Madness by John Galloway. I read half of that and found it more crude and more judgmental.

    Very recently a new waiter book came out titled Waiter Rant which was a blook–a blog that resulted in a book. I heard that author interviewed on a radio talk show and it made me want to read the book. I missed out on getting a review copy. I’ll check for it in my library but I doubt I’ll spend my money to buy a copy. I just have too many books in my TBR pile and too many things vyying for my time to read all that I want to read.

    Have a great day.

    (Linked through from Semicolon’s Sat Review of Books and I also am a faithful reader of MentalMultivitamin like you.)

  4. girldetective Says:

    Christine, it’s interesting to have corroboration on his experience. Was it as brutal as he described to be a woman in a kitchen?

    I saw the waiter rant book, too, but am waiting to hear if reviews are favorable or not. Kitchen Conf. didn’t make me feel like I needed to read a whole lot more true confessions about restaurants. There are some things I feel better about NOT knowing.