Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly delivers on its promise to give readers a glimpse behind the kitchen doors. It’s a work that jumps back and forth between conspiratorial chapters offering advice on all things cuisine, reveals the “secrets” of the restaurant industry, explains the process of running a kitchen, reflects on Bourdain’s checkered career, and shares anecdotal biographies of people who are clearly his favorites in the business. Kitchen Confidential is always irreverent, frequently funny, and covers most of the above topics with a compelling honesty, something that I imagine is a breath of fresh air within the sphere of chef-authored culinary literature.
However, like most of the people that populate its pages, Kitchen Confidential is not without a few minor faults. Towards the end of the book, there are a handful of obvious punctuation and editing errors, and there are also some organizational issues: the chapters have obviously been shuffled out of the order they were written to maintain a reader’s interest, but I think the mixture of anecdotes, advice and autobiography is still jumbled enough to be inaccessible to some casual readers. The work is also absolutely stuffed with the names of famous cooking personalities and exotic French cooking terms that can be frustrating if you’re unfamiliar with them, but are thankfully easily glossed over by the casual reader.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s explanations of what happens behind the scenes. He paints a vivid picture of the hornet’s nest that is his restaurant kitchen, obviously taking great pleasure in exposing all the gory details – from recurring episodes of vulgar, testosterone-charged banter and practical jokes to the sometimes sneaky cost-saving measures and food prep shortcuts. For example, your bread is likely recycled from a previous table, he says, but so what? You’re accepting the same contamination risk when you get on a subway or eat a rare steak.
Kitchen Confidential also contains plenty of practical advice that all readers can benefit from. I especially enjoyed Bourdain’s striking portrait of successful leadership. According to Bourdain, the chef is a dictator in charge of his own sovereign nation, and he will take no prisoners during the campaign to culinary excellence. He examines the chef’s need to hire superb employees based on merit and rule them with an iron fist for best results. It’s a pleasant contrast to the softened, friendly world full of easy money and second chances so often depicted in the modern media, and the lesson behind the bluster is that doing your best will pay off.
The text also openly acknowledges that anyone entertaining the idea of getting into the restaurant business or the culinary trades must be crazy, since 4 out of 5 restaurants fail financially and the kitchen is truly an awful place to work, even if you happen to really love food. Even Bourdain can’t deny that most of the delusional cooks and crazy grillmasters in his current and past kitchens couldn’t work anywhere else, and by the end of the book, it seems as though even he has left normal society behind and can’t really exist outside the kitchen anymore.
He also has an entire fascinating chapter devoted to what home chefs need to have and do differently if they want to cook like the real pros, not the as-seen-on-TV chefs. (I’ll give you a hint: shallots!) He reveals that the entire industry considers weekend diners second-class citizens, that chefs will serve anything they think they can get away with, and that you really want to go to a restaurant during the week for the best meals. And finally, behind all the crass kitchen antics and multilingual cursing, Bourdain concludes that simple ingredients prepared into no-frills “mother and grandmother” meals are the very best kind, practical advice that we all can take to heart.
While all the history, name-dropping and insider restaurant advice makes Kitchen Confidential an obvious must-read for anyone in the culinary world, it’s these sentimental little tidbits and tips from Anthony Bourdain’s inner self that make it a worthwhile adventure for the casual reader as well. If you don’t mind a few problems with pacing and a considerable amount of coarse language,Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is an excellent read that I found instructive and inspiring.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, there is a collection of links about Biographies happening right now at Carole's Chatter. It would be great if you linked up a post or posts you have done on Biographies that you enjoyed. This is the link - Your Favourite Biographies