Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly Rating:
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Most diners believe that their sublime sliver of seared foie gras, topped with an ethereal buckwheat blini and a drizzle of piquant huckleberry sauce, was created by a culinary artist of the highest order, a sensitive, highly refined executive chef. The truth is more brutal. More likely, writes Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, that elegant three-star concoction is the collaborative effort of a team of "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths," in all likelihood pierced or tattooed and incapable of uttering a sentence without an expletive or a foreign phrase. Such is the muscular view of the culinary trenches from one who's been groveling in them, with obvious sadomasochistic pleasure, for more than 20 years. CIA-trained Bourdain, currently the executive chef of the celebrated Les Halles, wrote two culinary mysteries before his first (and infamous) New Yorker essay launched this frank confessional about the lusty and larcenous real lives of cooks and restaurateurs. He is obscenely eloquent, unapologetically opinionated, and a damn fine storyteller--a Jack Kerouac of the kitchen. Those without the stomach for this kind of joyride should note his opening caveat: "There will be horror stories. Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetizing industry-wide practices. Talking about why you probably shouldn't order fish on a Monday, why those who favor well-done get the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, and why seafood frittata is not a wise brunch selection.... But I'm simply not going to deceive anybody about the life as I've seen it." --Sumi Hahn

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  1. Robert I. Hedges says:

    Rating

    Tony Bourdain is a smart, witty, funny, and deeply twisted individual, and is also a first-rate writer whose non-fiction is as entertaining and expressive as any novel I have ever read. I first became aware of Tony through his cable television show “No Reservations” (which is the only television show that I go out of my way to see each week.) I immediately bought this book after seeing the episode on Icelandic cuisine, as I thought he was intelligent yet not another insufferable food snob. He is a man who wants to try everything and has absolutely no fear or prejudices about food and excels at telling it like it is.

    This book recounts his life and career rising to the top of the pack in the culinary world. It is a deeply personal and unvarnished look at the world of big-league professional food, and is full of insights on both food and the restaurant business. When I was younger I worked as a line cook in a relatively nice restaurant. Although my experience was somewhat less frenetic and more sanitary than the scene in New York, I can certainly attest that the cast of characters (and their flaws) revealed in this book is right on the money.

    One thing I like about Bourdain and this book is that he tells the truth even when it’s ugly. He explains why, for instance, not to order meat well done or why not to even think about ordering fish on Monday. (He’s right on both accounts.) He doesn’t dodge his own past when others would fail to mention diversionary activities such as a heroin addiction, and even though he comes across as cantankerous, he is a guy you can take at his word.

    Some of this book is pure gold, not just for cooks and would be chefs, but for everyone. His writing (“Rules to Live By,” page 64, and “A Commencement Address,” page 293 in particular) is excellent and applies to any profession. He also shares many inside secrets of Les Halles (and other restaurants he has worked at), of winning “mise-en-place” (or just “meez;” people who really want to cook professionally should take this to heart), and technical opinions (why and how to use an offset serrated knife.)

    This book is coarse and not for the faint of heart, but if you really want to know about cooking or cooks, it is the best (and funniest) single volume ever written. I highly recommend this book

  2. Anonymous says:

    Rating

    In this book, Anthony Bourdain, executive chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, takes us on a wild ride through that city’s food supply industry that includes surprises such as heavy drinking, drugs, debauchery, Mafiosi and assorted seedy personalities.

    It is clear that Bourdain enjoys a true passion for both food and cooking, a passion he inherited from the French side of his family. He tells us he decided to become a chef during a trip to southwestern France when he was only ten years of age and it is a decision he stuck to, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.

    Kitchen Confidential is a surprisingly well-written account of what life is really like in the commercial kitchens of the United States; “the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly.” In describing these dark recesses, Bourdain refreshingly casts as many stones at himself as he does at others. In fact, he is brutally honest. There is nothing as tiresome as a “tell-all” book in which the author relentlessly paints himself as the unwitting victim. Bourdain, to his enormous credit, avoids this trap. Maybe he writes so convincingly about drugs and alcohol because drugs and alcohol have run their course through his veins as well as those of others.

    The rather raunchy “pirate ship” stories contained in this fascinating but testosterone-rich book help to bring it vividly to life and add tremendous credibility. The book does tend to discourage any would-be female chefs who might read it, but that’s not Bourdain’s fault; he is simply telling it like it is and telling it hilariously as well.

    In an entire chapter devoted to one of the lively and crude characters that populate this book, Bourdain describes a man named Adam: “Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, the psychotic bread-baker, alone in his small, filthy Upper West Side apartment, his eyes two different sizes after a 36-hour coke and liquor jag, white crust accumulated at the corners of his mouth, a two-day growh of whiskers–standing there in a shirt and no pants among the porno mags, the empty Chinese takeout containers, as the Spice channel flickers silently on the TV, throwing blue light on a can of Dinty Moore beef stew by an unmade bed.” Apparently Bourdain made just as many mistakes at the beginning of his career as did Adam, but the book however, doesn’t always paint and bleak picture.

    Another chapter entitled “The Life of Bryan,” talks about renowned chef Scott Bryan, a man, who, according to Bourdain, made all the right decisions. Bourdain describes Bryan’s shining, immaculate kitchen, his well-organized and efficient staff. It’s respectful homage, but somehow, we feel that Bourdain, himself, will never be quite as organized as is Bryan, for Bourdain is just too much of the rebel, the original, the maverick.

    Kitchen Confidential can be informative as well as wickedly funny. Bourdain is hilarious as he tells us what to order in restaurants and when. For instance, we learn never to eat fish on Mondays, to avoid Sunday brunches and never to order any sort of meat well-done. And, if we ever see a sign that says, “Discount Sushi,” we will, if we are smart, run the other way as fast as we possibly can.

    Kitchen Confidential isn’t undying literature but it’s so funny and so well-written that no one should care. It made me hungry for Bourdain’s black sea bass crusted in sel de Bretagne with frites. It also made me order his novel, Bone in the Throat. If it is only half as funny and wickedly well-written as is Kitchen Confidential it will certainly be a treat.

  3. Ralph Adam Fine says:

    Rating

    Three-foot-long worms in swordfish, a careless kitchen crew tossing perhaps open mussles into the pot, blood and lord-knows what else spurting in the kitchen … these and other tales about which most of us suspected but never really knew, abound in Kitchen Confidential. It is a modern-day Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s witty intrusion into the muck-laden three-star kitchens of his era.

    The book is a funny, multi-dimensional, personal journey of a talented chef through cuisine’s netherworld. Although some reviewers disliked the frenetic style, it was resonant with the frenetic pace of restaurant kitchens. Kitchen Confidential is not only a fast-paced page-turner, but, indeed, it was one of the few books that I was sorry to see end. Bourdain is a marvelous writer … conversational and witty.

    Amazon tells us that Bourdain has two novels in the pipeline … I can’t wait until they are formally published. I also hope that he gives us a Kitchen Confidential redux … a more extended view from the culinary peaks, to complement this book’s story of his climb.

  4. D. L Harris says:

    Rating

    This book should be required reading at every culinary school in America. It should be the book you bring as a hostess gift when your friend (who’s a fabulous chef) has another dinner party but won’t stop talking about how, someday, she wants to open ‘a little restaurant.’ In short, it is 100% the real deal when it comes to what it’s like to be a professional chef. It captures the excitement, the misery, the pain, the anger, the pride and the abuse that is part and parcel of cooking in a restaurant. As a pro-chef-turned-pro-writer, it is the book that I always wanted to write but never did because, frankly, I wasn’t in the life long enough to do it justice. In that short period, I had a freakish ascent from prep cook to bistro sous chef (and w/out the benefit of cooking school). During that time, I witnessed everything that Bourdain writes about – and quickly realized that I didn’t love the world of 24/7 back-breaking work in someone else’s restaurant to make it my calling. And as for the idea of opening my own place – as Bourdain himself said in a recent online chat, ‘NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER.’ Not only do 80% of restaurants die a horrible death within 5 years of opening, but those that survive extract an incredible toll on their owners. (You’ve got to be a little of a masochist to be chef, but you are a victim of psychosis if you become a chef-owner.) Bourdain is justifiably proud of his current post as a journeyman chef as NYC’s Brasserie Les Halles, but I think he should be even prouder that he managed to capture everything it means to be a chef in his first nonfiction book – something that The ‘BAM!’ Food Channel, with its dozens of programs, doesn’t even begin to understand. Bravo, chef!

    PS: Bourdain advises that the quickest way to find out if you *really* want to be a chef is to become a restaurant’s dishwasher for six months. And he’s absolutely right.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Rating

    Fascinating and horrifying, Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is actually mostly entertaining. In this autobiographical work, Bourdain recounts seminal experiences in his career as a chef, all the way from an inadequate newbie line cook at a sea shanty restaurant to helping open Les Halles in Tokyo. The hardest part I found in reading this book, was dealing with my judgments of him and the industry at large as he paints it. He is clear from the beginning that (a) his book was only intended for others in the industry and (b) the industry, in his experience, is comprised of antisocial misfits.

    The experiences he describes here as having molded his personality, and which continue to mold his kitchens, make the book so amusing and both his individual character and the restaurant business at large so difficult to swallow. Fortunately, he does present, in a very well written chapter, a counterpoint description of a fellow, yet civilized, chef’s kitchen and restaurant.

    If your the least bit interested or experienced in restaurant dining, this is a must read: an insider’s narrative of a world most of us only visit for a few hours at a time.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Rating

    I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book more! From the first page to the last, this brutally honest testament of a life as a chef is an absolute “can’t put it down” page-turner.

    It’s wicked, funny, touching and fascinating. I went on errands with my wife, so that I could read to her while she drove — it’s so good that you want to call up strangers and just start reading pages to them — any page will do.

    The best writing is honest writing — and it doesn’t get more honest than this.

    What a geat read. I’m sure that Les Halles, where he works his craft, will be “booked” to infinity because of this book — as it should be.

    Anyone who loves food will devour this with greed…and wish it were longer.

  7. J.A. Davis says:

    Rating

    Oh, you are really going to enjoy this book…while you’re reading it, that is. Then afterwards you’ll be torn between the memories of the hilarious antics Bourdain describes in his book…and memories of the disgusting things that go on every day in restaurant kitchens. Believe it or not, it IS worth reading! (And take it from a former restaurant manager, it is, unfortuately, true – the after-hours shenanigans, especially!)

    Bourdain has put together a truly gonzo collection of restaurant tales that aren’t all depraved…but, like his restaurateur/chef subjects, most of them are! Kudos to him for a book that is this honest while being this hysterical. If you have the, um, stomach for it, this is a book you’ll remember fondly. Well worth digesting!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Rating

    This is a hilarious book that is all too true. I was, until recently, a career switcher who spent several years working the line at some of New York’s top two and three-star restuarants (which I will not name). Bourdain got it down exactly right. High level cooking is a roughneck trade and not at all what serious home cooks might expect. Those readers who doubt the truth of this book — or the dangers of ordering fish at a two star restaurant — and think it just an exception from the glamorized and sanitized world of the Food Network are blinding themselves to the truth. And the truth is, through all of it, that those who stay are insane in a great way, fanatics who work relentlessly at their craft because there is simply no other way.

  9. Erika Mitchell says:

    Rating

    This book recapitulates the life of Anthony Bourdain, a New York City chef. Bourdain describes how he decided to become a chef, and his training, from washing dishes for a Provincetown surf-and-turf, to studying at the Culinary Institute of America, to boot camp with Bigfoot, an unnamed New York City restaurateur from whom he learned how to survive in the big leagues. He introduces us to the backrooms of a busy restaurant kitchen, where we meet the people who prepare the fabulous food, learn about their tools and slang, and begin to get an inkling about the daily responsibilities of a head chef.

    Thanks to his French heritage, Bourdain had learned to appreciate superb food as a youngster, and his parents had the resources to send him to any college he chose. Bourdain, however, likes to live on the edge, and his desire to live life to the fullest and push the limits soon led to multiple drug dependencies and heavy alcohol usage that kept steady employment difficult to maintain for a time. Remarkably, though not detailed exactly how in this book, Bourdain managed to beat his addictions, and has gone on to become not only a talented executive chef, but also a successful novelist and writer in his spare time. How anyone could even find spare time in a chef’s life as he describes it is unfathomable- -Bourdain obviously thrives on stress and challenges.

    The pace of the book is relentless- -it’s one of those volumes that you can race through in a single day, not allowing anyone to interrupt you. Bourdain’s language is not for everyone though- -he accurately records the words that are said behind the kitchen doors, so if you are squeamish about sex or take offense easily, this book is not for you.

    This book confirms the importance of knowing who is cooking your food. After all, food is something you put inside your body, so it is a real act of trust to consume something that someone else has prepared. It’s remarkable that many people are quite content to let total strangers prepare their food. Why would anyone frequent fast food restaurants where most of the cooks are teenagers with no talent or interest in food preparation, doing it all for minimum wage? At least in kitchens like Bourdain’s, although some of the cooks may be oversexed drug addicts with filthy mouths, only those who can consistently achieve high cooking standards manage to stay on. Bourdain also reminds us to use our heads when placing our orders. After all, when you tell the waiter what you want, the food isn’t just going to appear on the plate out of thin air when the cook snaps his fingers. If the fish market isn’t open on the weekend, then Monday isn’t a great day for ordering fish. Today’s luncheon special may indeed contain leftovers from last night’s menu. Some items take longer than others to prepare- -hence shouldn’t be ordered at five minutes before closing. This book provides a fascinating perspective on what it’s like to study at the CIA, how an executive chef spends his time, and what may be happening behind those closed doors at your favorite restaurant.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Rating

    I work as a sous chef in a three star restuarant(name withheld) in downtown Chicago, and let me just tell you that Tony knows what he’s talking about. From the disgust of being demoted to cooking brunch to the fact that a fish special on Monday means you’re eating at least five day old fish, Mr. Bourdain lets his reader into the sometimes scary glimpses of what professional kitchen life is really like.
    Mr. Bourdain also allows the non-professional to see what actually goes into cooking lunch for a hundred plus guest and then turning around and doing two hundred for dinner (don’t forget they’re different menus). The amount of prep and the realization that at one time or another you will be in the weeds, especially if your mise is out of sorts, is felt in this read. And though some want to romanticize about the Chef’s life, Mr. Bourdain has been doing this for twenty-five years and he’s still cutting his own shallots and doing inventory every week.
    Bourdain also takes a good look at the people who work in this industry. From the “actor” servers to the great line cooks from just south of the border(that’s you, Juve), the amusing and different people you’ll find are quite astonishing. The life is really for the people who could never do the nine to five but who aren’t afraid to put in a twelve hour day. Bourdain describes us characters as sociopaths or anti-social, and he might just be right. The production that the kitchen goes through daily has to be ran by people who truly love food or just people who can make risotto taste the same way fifty times a day, otherwise it just won’t work. Don’t forget there’s always the ever present barracho somewhere in upper managment.
    For anyone who is serious about getting into the industry, this book is worth while to see what you’re getting yourself into. Did I mention that I’ve worked over forty hours the last three days, thirty hours split between Christmas Eve and Christmas day. It’s the life and you either love it or hate it and Bourdain makes a strong commentary for both.
    The read is also very friendly and if you have a good reading spot it might only take one sitting.