Friday, June 16, 2017

Booknote: Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. New York: Random House Audio, 2007. ISBN: 9780307933386.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: cookery, food, biography, celebrity chefs
Format: audiobook
Source: Overdrive via my local public library, Madison County (KY) Public Library.

I have read some of Anthony Bourdain's later writings, such as  The Nasty Bits (link to my review). I kept hearing that I needed to read Kitchen Confidential, so when I saw my library's Overdrive system had it on audio, I took the chance. Anthony Bourdain reads the book. Note also that this is an unabridged edition. For me, I tend to prefer when an author reads their own book, assuming they have a good reading voice and their personality comes across in the reading. If you have watched Bourdain on television, then you are familiar with his narrative style, and you find that in this book.

I am going to note that this was written before he became the TV traveler personality he is now that does not really cook anymore. Heck, in a later episode of "No Reservations" when he cooked in some other celebrity chef's kitchen, he admitted how out of shape he was in terms of pulling a full shift. So in a way this is him before he really hit it big. Interesting that he says he hopes to be cooking and working after the book. He is working now well after the book, but I am betting he is not cooking as much these days.

He starts by saying he will tell you of the life as he has seen it, and while he has no intention to skewer the more famous, he will if he gets the chance. And yes, horror stories will be included too. Just remember not to order the fish on a Monday and learn not to order well done steak.

His first job was as dishwasher, because, like many young people, he needed some spending money. Plus, like many young men, he needed money for the girlfriend; yes, women can be expensive at times. On a side note, his childhood description of privation of good food as the moment of epiphany is well written and very evocative. He gets to work, acts like a jerk, gets humbled, then strives to do better and makes right, and in the process learns all the secrets, some of which he tells us in this book.

Bourdain does have a good evocative voice, and his story of youth does  have some very moving moments. That is a strength of the book. In addition, there are some horror stories and revelations, such that for some readers they may seriously reconsider if they want to eat out or not again. However, Bourdain would argue that you need some common sense, and in some cases, especially when you travel, taking the risk on some hole in the wall place that does not look "too sanitary" may be well worth a little food sickness the next day. Your mileage may vary.

Overall, I really liked the book, and I did enjoy having him read it to me.

4 out of 5 stars.

* * * * *

Additional reading notes:

  • CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in the 70s was very different than the elite institution it is  now.  
  • Who actually cooks the food?  Not the chef. Most likely young, ambitious, mercenary, and very likely not American (migrants). The cooks may still be foreign, but not as exploited (or as illegal). It is a competitive field, and now (at least in the quality places), they do get paid well for their work. Many are still Ecuadorian. 
  • As many misfits and outlaws and prima donnas cooking can attract, character still counts. You can teach someone to cook; you cannot teach them character. This is applicable to many other career paths. 
  • Here is why you don't order fish on Mondays. It is likely to be at least four days old. They got it the previous week, and if they still have fish on Monday, it means that fish has sat around all weekend. 
  • Not only is Monday fish bad, mussels can be worse unless you know exactly where and when they got them, their freshness. Otherwise, food poisoning is likely.
  • Cooks also hate brunch. Often, the food is made by whoever is available; the best cooks were on Friday and Saturday night; they are not getting up on Sunday, so it is the second string, or where they let the dishwasher start to learn his cooking chops. Not reassuring if you add the leftovers they use to make the brunch.
  • I just thought this was a really good line from the book: Vegetarians and their Hezbollah branch the Vegans. (Bourdain's disdain of vegetarians and vegans is well known).
  • Rotation of food is key. If the place is busy, and a particular food item flies out constantly, it is probably OK to eat since they sell a lot, they rotate a lot. If it is a slow place with a big overdone menu, forget ordering that fancy item; it has sat there for ages before you order it. Also, keep an eye on the waiter, he knows. More reason to be polite to the waiter. A waiter that likes you may be helpful and warn you of a bad fish. However, if he is under orders, well, his body language can still be a tell. 
  • Best times to eat then: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, when the cooks have had fresh delivery and time to be creative versus weekends when they rush, know it is just tourists they will never see again, and to be honest, could not care less about more than to turn those tables. This is why on rare times the Better Half and I go out to a nice place, we often do it in the middle of the week. Besides, the place is often glad to see you (since it is slow), so the service also tends to be attentive and more relaxed.
  • As for germs, a bit of germs won't kill you, but still avoid places of absolute filth. Much of his point is have some common sense, and be attentive. 
  • An interesting lesson. Sometimes it is  good to have enemies, even if you do not know who they are. It is  a sign you are important.  
* * * * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2017 Reading  Challenges:

No comments: