I have dreaded writing this review. I have dreaded writing it so much that I actually refused to finish the book for months, therefore delaying the review. Perhaps this wasn’t done consciously, but it was done nonetheless. I like Anthony Bourdain, after all. I have praised him highly for many things, including most of his TV journalism. I have celebrated his anti-static nature and his basic humanitarianism. I am an insatiable foodie. While I know that I do not want to become a chef in the traditional sense, there is a place in my heart for dreams of a less conventional career in the culinary world. Plus, who wants to talk ill of the dead? And yet, here I am, with Kitchen Confidential help limply in my hand, a curl on my upper lip.
I have been looking forward to reading the book for years, with deference and excitement. I fully expected it to become a favorite or at least to immensely enjoy the read. Sigh. This is why they say assuming makes an ass of you and me. It wasn’t completely assumptions, as I have encountered some of his other work, but still, dreams are dashed. Let’s see…
My husband and I wandered into a new used book store on a date, in the fall. I was hoping to buy a little something to show my support for the local endeavor, and when I saw a copy of Kitchen Confidential by the late, great Anthony Bourdain on the shelf, I immediately brought it to the cash register. I knew it was on my Best Books list. I knew that I had been long intending to read it. I assumed I would like it. Food-journalism-memoir by a hero of mine? Sold! For only a half-dozen bucks I took it home. When I started a side job as a personal shopper for Instacart/Publix, I was told to bring a book for odd shifts where I didn’t receive any orders. They didn’t have to tell me that twice! And before I would descend into a pit of alcoholic father books (unintentionally, and I have now emerged), I took this book along and started reading. Surrounded by groceries. People’s eating habits on the brain. And a twinkle in my eye.
Which was extinguished, almost immediately. There is an extent to which this book is about becoming a chef. There is also a maybe-larger extent to which this book is about an adolescent, aimless, angry young man alternately bashing and slouching his way toward a bright future which the reader is not quite sure he deserves. There is an affection for food, for the restaurant scene, and for fellow humans that begins to peek its way out as early as this memoir (and which would develop with the years), but at this point it’s only peeking.
And the grit! To be honest, I have to imagine that the life as a restaurant employee that Bourdain describes is limited. Limited to certain countries and cities and even certain restaurants owned by certain people. I know this is supposed to be an expose of sorts, but you just can’t convince me that this is so prevalent that I would walk into any restaurant within ten miles of myself and find a rampant and complete mess of casual sex, drugs, violence, and disrespect coupled with a near-religious respect of things like masculinity and terror. Restaurants can exist and be successful without terrible bosses, caustic chefs, and criminal workers. He’s honest, but I’m not sure he’s open to conventional beauty. He’s been in the mud so long that he has grown affectionate for it, and this is actually interesting.
For I did find this story interesting. New York City restaurant life, let’s call it. And not completely ubiquitous, but prevalent enough. Probably not even a remnant of the past. So interesting to read about and wonder how likely it is that a new chef straight outa culinary school would have to go through a gauntlet as rough and dirty as the one Bourdain did. Then again, there is an element of Bourdain making the bed that he would have to lie in. He didn’t seem to have any moral boundaries, as it were, and so let the baseness of his surroundings dictate his code. To survive? Maybe. To have a great time and air his artistic personality? More likely.
In the end, I was rooting for Bourdain out of a love for who he would become, outside of the book. If I had just been given the book, I would never have invested myself in him as a character. If you like to gawk at the seedy underbelly of things, if you enjoy, I don’t know, Dateline and Quentin Tarantino movies as well as think you might want to be a chef, well then this is the book for you! Don’t expect it to have much of a roundness to it: the stories aren’t ordered well and the reader loses track of Bourdain’s personal life and the timeline multiple times. But there is a fairly nice voice going on. Not floral, but the lush, snarky, sharp-edged recounting that would characterize all those TV shows I was telling you about.
Want to scare someone out of the food scene? This might do it. Obsessed with food and want to knock another must-read off the list? Take this on a plane to somewhere exciting and far away. My biggest complaint, in the end, is the lack of narration and consistency. That, and there are some rather gratuitous scenes. But I would advise you to take this memoir with a heaping dose of Bourdain’s other—and much better—journalism.
BY ANTHONY BOURDAIN
I would definitely recommend the TV series. All of them. Some of his work did not do well, particularly the novels.
- Bone in the Throat (novel)
- Gone Bamboo (novel)
- Medium Raw (prequel to Restaurant Confidential)
- A Cook’s Tour (nonfiction)
- Nasty Bits (essays)
- Les Halles Cookbook (cookbook)
- Typhoid Mary (historical)
- No Reservations (nonfiction)
- Many articles and a blog
- A Cook’s Tour (TV)
- No Reservations (TV)
- The Layover (TV)
- Parts Unknown (TV)
- Lots of appearances on food shows and other TV programs