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Book Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Confession: I’m siiiick, and not just in the late 90’s/early 2000’s way (though I am that); but the coughing, sneezing, aching, bubonic plague kind sort of sick that happens when you’re surrounded by the walking germ gardens some refer to as “children”. Thusly, no Top Ten Tuesday this week- instead you get a review I’ve been sitting on for awhile because it’s foul mouthed and kinda strange and also a little rambling. But that’s fine, right? Chances are good that you are also at least a little foul mouthed and have a penchant for strange and also for rambling.

Speaking of rambling- I’m doing it.

*coughs up entire planets of phlegm*

This review starts out with a bit of reflection… also cursing, not too much, but I thought I should warn you, gentle readers. Or maybe you’re used to that by now? Anyway- be warned.

Also I have no pictures of the book because I borrowed it from my mom and forgot to take a picture of it surrounded by knives like I intended.

Reading this was good- after an eleven year stint at a restaurant it was strangely cathartic and aggravating at the same time. I’ve been there, you see- bandaging a drunk cooks hand because he’s too unsteady to do it himself. Avoiding the other cook in the walk-in because of his penchant for ass-touching. Knowing the dishwashers are doing coke at the very least. Spewing vitriol so foul my grandmother wouldn’t meet my eye if she ever heard me speak that way. Throwing ingredients the length of the line, shouting in Spanish, being angry, putting some fucking English on it, laughing like some manic broken toy after eight hours of scavenging like a feral child off of returned plates and fries fallen in the window and abandoned by furious, frantic waitresses. Tired, sore, desperate for inebriation, and the only praise being the silent nods and pressed fists of the other poor sods you work with at the end of a particularly fucked day.

I’m free of it now, and there’s a sick part of me that misses it. NOT the emotional and verbal abuse laid on me by the more… egocentric workers, but those moments of intense activity when everything clicks, one thing after another falls into place as you time your movements perfectly. Four top, two top, single, party of twelve, single, party of seven, another two top, and on and on till your day is done and you’re screaming in the walk-in, half Spanish, half English nonsense about mothers milk and black hearts and that song by Lady Gaga…

“Alejandro, Ale-ale-jandro…”

It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been in it; carrying five glasses of water with four hot coffees hooked on your right pointer, knuckles screaming as they press into the hot ceramic as you dodge inattentive teens, escaped babies, elderly with walkers, and your slower, weaker fellow employees to deliver the payload, nary a drop spilled and a monkey dish of creamers resting on that spot between your thumb and forefinger because someone stopped you in the middle of that five tops order to ask if they could have another bowl of cream to add to the empire of tiny empty cups their table is becoming. Learn to drink it black, like I have, and leave me the hell alone.

But I digress.

Bourdain has most of it right, but of course, this is younger, angrier Bourdain. An Anthony who had yet to be tempered by travel, by seeing a world so very different from his own. There were times I cringed at the amount of ego, but it’s something he fully acknowledges, so at least he’s not deluding himself. There were times, too, were his lack of empathy came to the forefront, made all the more poignant by his recent suicide.

It is an honest, if opinionated, story of how Bourdain got where he was. Sweating and cursing and creating, all while doing massive amounts of drugs. Our tale begins, truly begins, in France, where a young Anthony realizes the power food has. It can change the way people see you, the way you see yourself, and from that moment on Bourdain knows his destiny.

Buuut, that destiny gets muddled along the way by drugs and alcohol, insane head chefs and poor business choices. Through a mix of accident and miracle, Bourdain becomes something more then the dishwasher, the grill bitch, even the head chef. He becomes an ambassador for America, and an advocate for sharing our cultures through our food.

At time hilarious, other times sad and angst ridden; Bourdain is a natural story teller. The wild characters he surrounds himself with come alive on the page. From deluded restaurant entrepreneurs to almost certain mobsters, from friends to foe and back again. We see Bourdain the dishwasher, Bourdain the student, Bourdain the head chef, and most importantly, the human.

It’s a wild ride, but one that’s incredibly relatable for anyone who’s been there. I can’t recommend anyone work in the restaurant business, but I firmly believe that if you ever intend to eat out, you should. Learn what it’s like, learn what complete and utter crap it is sometimes, learn about the camaraderie and the hatred. Understand there’s a good chance your server is overworked and underfed (it’s very hard to feed yourself, unless, of course, you’re a cook on the line, everyone else is starving).

I enjoyed reading this a lot, and if you’ve every worked in a restaurant, chances are good you will too. If you haven’t? Well, I don’t know… obviously, if you like Bourdain’s television shows, it safe to assume you’ll enjoy this, too. One of the great benefits of having watched hours of his programs is that I get to hear him, voice over style, reading the book with all his customary pauses and rallies. If, however, you prefer to pretend restaurants aren’t the dens of inequity they truly are, you may want to avoid this.


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