Pros: Funny, witty, amazing story material
Cons: A bit depressing; language may be too much for some; a little disorganized; egotistical
Rating: 4 out of 5
“Kitchen Confidential” is the memoir of a chef, Anthony Bourdain, and it’ll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the life of a chef and the restaurant business… and then some.
Like many other people who enjoy cooking, I’ve occasionally been told, “you should open a restaurant!” or, “have you ever thought of becoming a chef?” After having read this book, I’m very happy to be able to say that my response was always, “uh, no thanks.” I knew very well that cooking dinner for a bunch of friends wasn’t even remotely the same kind of activity as knocking out several hundred meals a night. After reading this book, you too will probably never be able to think about becoming a chef again without feeling vaguely ill. Unless of course you’re one of the totally insane people who would actually enjoy that sort of job.
The Working Conditions
The kind of working conditions most chefs deal with would cause most “normal” people to sue for millions of dollars (it puts a lot of today’s frivolous lawsuits into perspective). The language (oh, yes, the language in here isn’t even remotely suitable for children, and may make adults uncomfortable in places too), the harassment, the ridiculous hours, the injuries, the manipulation, the psychoses, the drugs, the Mafia…
Scared of working in a restaurant yet? The paragraph above is nothing compared to some of the stories Anthony will tell you. He’s worked in many, many restaurants, and has more than enough stories to tell. I could hardly put this book down.
Anthony Bourdain has quite the personality. I’m perfectly happy with the idea that I’ll never meet him. I wouldn’t want to work for or with him, and I’d probably hate him if I met him. He’s obnoxious, arrogant, and egotistical. Which are job skills where he comes from.
He’s also a hopeless romantic (you can see glimmers of it through the cracks here and there), and he’s sometimes surprisingly aware of his own shortcomings and failings. He’s bitingly funny. I might not want to meet him, but it’s really hard not to like him from a distance!
What really saves him from being labeled with a few choice four-letter words of his own is the final part of the book (called “Coffee and a Cigarette”). In it he tells you about the chef he most admires, and how that chef succeeds in being utterly fantastic by running things in all the ways that Bourdain considers wrong, by breaking every rule Bourdain has developed throughout his career, by running a – gasp – quiet and efficient kitchen, without rampant swearing and machismo. By showing us that he understands that his way isn’t necessarily best, by admitting that someone else is better than he is, by displaying an awareness that the entire industry doesn’t necessarily run in the same way he runs his kitchen, he rescues himself from sheer unadulterated egotism.
Another part of that same section tells us of his trip to Japan, and in that we also get to see glimmers of his romantic side, his humanity, poking up out of all the attitude and bad habits.
I know a lot of people are going to want to read this in order to get all the dirt on their favorite celebrity chefs. There isn’t really all that much of this in there. There’s a little Emeril Lagasse-bashing, and some outrage at the idea of celebrity chefs who don’t really do “real work” as Bourdain sees it. But that’s pretty much it.
What Not to Eat and When Not to Eat It
I wanted to know just how bad conditions in some of those kitchens could get. I wanted to know what I should and shouldn’t eat when I go to a restaurant. To a certain extent, this boils down to you figuring out just how obsessive you want to be. Almost anything can be prepared badly, can be bled into when someone cuts himself, and so on. But then whose kitchen at home is completely sanitary either?
On the other hand, he’ll definitely tell you a few things to avoid. Like weekend brunches (leftovers!), and Monday fish specials. I’ve never been so glad of my hermit-like tendencies – I hate crowds, so my fiancee and I usually go to dinner Tuesday to Thursday, when things aren’t as crowded. Turns out those are the best days to go.
The stories in here are amazing! Stories of Mafia-run restaurants, doomed restaurants, wild drug-use, kitchen violence, manipulative control-freak restaurant owners, and more. Oh, and yes, some of those stories are rather explicit and sexual in nature.
Things are a little disorganized; it can be tough to keep track of when in his life you’re reading about. But this isn’t a big deal. It isn’t incredibly important or jarring.
All in all, this is well-written and interesting. There are a few bits that are a little slow or a little confusing, and Bourdain’s egotism may get to be a bit much for you sometimes (along with his language). If you find it amusing, though, definitely stick with it – it’s hard not to like this man by the end of the book. If you’re a bit sensitive, you may find this book depressing. It’ll really show you some of the worst of human nature. Luckily it’s rescued by Bourdain’s sense of humor, which can make any wild story hilariously funny.
If you’re thinking of becoming a chef or opening a restaurant, though, do read this book first. Maybe it’ll cure you of your insanity. If it doesn’t, you may learn a lot of helpful things to get you through your chosen career path with a minimum of bodily injury!