If you haven’t read Anthony Bourdain, stop reading this blog now, and go get yourself a copy of Kitchen Confidential – post haste!
It’s been a long time since “Tony” (may I dare to call him that?) put out a book about the inner workings of the restaurant world. Sure, there have been a few travel books (Cook’s Tour, Nasty Bits – for the most part, and the below-par No Reservations travel diary), but nothing to really expose what happens behind the swinging doors at your favourite neighbourhood greasy spoon or at a 3-star Michelin restaurant.
It’s been 10 years since Kitchen Confidential first shed light on the hot, booze & drug fueled, psychotic, gruelingly long, unforgiving environment that chefs have to work in. Bourdain may no longer be cooking, but man can he still write. I’ve never found myself drooling over pages of written text, but when you read about what cutting-edge chefs like David Chang (from the Momofuku restaurants) are doing, you too will be under Bourdain’s spell:
At my first meal at Momofuku Ssam, one particular dish slapped me upside the head and suggested that, indeed, something really special was going on here. It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisee aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple – smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wondefully runny, perfctly poached quail egg. Good enough – and, so far, not something that would inspire to tear off my shirt and go running out in the street proselytizing. But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korena-style tripe – and it was, well, it was… genius.
If that’s not good enough for you, flip to the introduction, where Bourdain offers you an over-the-top visceral experience, listed in incredible detail over 8 pages, where you can almost taste along with Bourdain, bite by succulent, sinful bite, a single course, at an exclusive, if not illegal, dinner party.
Another chapter (My Aim is True), which I read a second time immediately after finishing the first reading, was about Tony’s observation of the fish prep man, Justo, at Le Bernardin. Amazing – not only do you get a sense of the skill required and possessed by this man who customers will never think of, but you from Bourdain you also get a sense of respect that Justo rightfully garners from his peers in the trade.
In interviews about the new book, he seems to lament the professionalization of the food world, and how celebrity chefs have given the cooking industry an unnecessary squeaky clean polish. I think it goes further than this – I think Bourdain is having a hard time coming to terms with the path he’s chosen in his life (or the opportunities that he was afforded that others weren’t). You can tell he feels like a poser – that he isn’t a chef anymore, and that others who are still in the life are “better people” than he is. He also seems to be pushing hard to un-burry the hatchet – spending a unnecessarily long amount of time slagging certain personalities in the food world. I get that he’s trying to still distinguish himself from the hacks and fakes, but I’d rather he spend his word-count murmuring sweet descriptions of exotic food in my ear.
So – poor Tony? Or maybe, poor us? Did we win out because his apocalyptic version of the restaurant industry finally went away? Or have we lost because there’s nothing edgy for Tony to write about anymore. I hope this is not the final sequal to Kitchen Confidential – I’d love to see another book to really cap off this incredible perspective he has. Medium Raw is hopefully just the entremet, I need a better desert from Bourdain, and I know he can deliver.