Thursday, 18 August 2011

Book Review - Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential : adventures in the culinary underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

New York: The Ecco Press, 2001                           ISBN 0060934913


I am no chef. I'm not even really a cook - I can manage to produce a meal, as long as it's a simple meat-and-veg affair, or perhaps a chilli or spaghetti - but if you're looking for culinary delights, it's best to ask my wife to provide. I'm more interested in the eating. As is Tony Bourdain.

Kitchen Confidential begins with a young Bourdain visiting relatives in France, where he is first turned on to the idea of food by eating an oyster fresh from the sea (something his parents baulk at). This anecdote sets up Bourdain's book - he moves quickly on from there to Provincetown in New England, where he has his first job in a kitchen, and from where he begins his journey into the strange, subterranean world of chefs and restaurant cookery.

Part noir thriller, part guide to cooking and eating well, it's easy to see why Kitchen Confidential became a best seller, and why Bourdain has moved on to become a television celebrity. The style of the book owes a lot to others both in and out of the genre - there's a bit of Raymond Chandler, a bit of Henry Miller, and quite a bit of George Orwell (Down and out in Paris and London). In fact many of the kitchen scenes in the book have more than a sniff of Orwell about them - late in the book Bourdain describes Down and out in Paris and London as "invaluable". Bourdain's description of himself and his fellow workers portray an image of a group of half-insane drug addicts, psychopaths, thieves and charlatans - detritus collected in the grease-trap of life that is second-rate restaurants. Of course we always need to keep in mind when reading that "cold recitation of the facts" is something Bourdain says is "hardly what I've been up to". There is certainly quite a bit of hyperbole in his descriptions of himself (how did he keep getting such good gigs if he was such a junkie?) and others - Adam "Real-Last-Name-Unknown" is one of the great characters of the book, but surely not everything written about him can be "real" - even if I for one hope it is.

Parts of this book had appeared before publication in various magazines, and this does give the book a slightly disjointed effect, moving from Bourdain's career, to what sort of items a home cook might need to become better at the craft, back to Bourdain, and then back to why you might want to avoid the Monday night fish special at your local restaurant. The disjointedness actually feeds well into Bourdain's narrative of a drug addled career that lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous on more than one occasion. Bourdain's journey comes full circle by the end of the book, from French Oyster to strange Japanese seafood restaurant, where he re-affirms that it's all about the eating.

Bourdain's use of language is perfect - he never flinches from telling it like it was, and is unafraid to use the exact terminology (read foul language) of the kitchen. The book has the impression of something that was tossed off after (or before) hours, quite quickly, but he has certainly spent many hours getting his scenarios reading perfectly. Just a snippet from the chapter where he talks about how you can improve your cooking at home - this about purchasing good (i.e. heavyweight) pots and pans - "A proper saute pan should cause serious head injury if brought down hard against someone's skull. If you have any doubts about which will dent - the victim's head or your pan - then throw that pan right in the trash." It's this kind of humour and writing skill that makes this book so enjoyable, and such fun to read - I basically knocked it off in two sittings.

If you, like myself, have yet to catch up with this book, I can highly recommend it - I'll be hunting around for the sequel Medium raw : a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook.

Check out your local library for a copy of Kitchen Confidential, or you can try Amazon.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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