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A couple of years ago we were told that cooking was the new rock'n'roll. If Anthony Bourdain is to be believed, it's the new punk - it's in your face, sharp as a Sabatier knife and it makes no apologies. "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" is a rollercoaster ride through his career from the lowly days as dishwasher in Provincetown, Cape Cod to the rocky heights of the Rockerfeller Centre's world famous "Rainbow Room". It's a story that sees him travel as far as Tokyo and back to New York again, manage restaurants where he is responsible for everything from the hiring and firing of the waiting staff to creating every dish on the menu.
Bourdain is refreshingly honest. His story is told almost warts and all (he can't spill all the beans - there are some people who are just too dangerous to risk angering) and he offers some expert advice for anyone thinking it's a profession they might like to try. He engages the reader from the outset and is captivating throughout.
The story is told more or less chronologically but each chapter also makes a particular point about the culinary world in general. Sometimes it's a piece of advice, sometimes an appraisal of one aspect or another of the profession but always informative and incisive.
It is not really necessary to give a precis of Bourdain's book but there are a couple of examples I want to use to give an impresssion of what the book is like.
Bourdain's love of food started during a family trip to Frane when he was in fourth grade. It was while on the Queen Mary that he tasted the first food that made him realise that food is much more than simply a fuel we take on board to replace energy: it was vichyssoise - a chilled leek and potao soup. When he describes it you can almost taste the smooth, chilled liquid yourself.
However, Bourdain was not especially excited by the rest of the food during the holiday - the butter tasted "cheesy", he didn't like the milk and he quickly tired of the fact that lunch was, more often than not, a ham sandwich or "croque monsieur".
One day, though, something happened to make him change his mind. Fed up with their children turning up their noses at the food, Anthony's parents pulled up at a restaurant, got out of the car and went inside, leaving the two boys in the car. Anthony was devastated. He felt that secrets were being kept from him, he kept remembering the vichyssoise, he wanted to be a aprt of what was going on insdie the restaurant. Anthony vowed that from that day on he would outdo his "foodie parents". There was also the added bonus of being able to horrify his younger brother by eating smelly cheeses, horsemeat and sweetbreads in his presence.
Even more significant than the vichyssoise was his first oyster. This episode is narrated as part of an beautiful and idyllic memory of the holiday in France. Bourdain recalls an early morning trip on a small fishing boat with Monsieur Saint-Jour. Looking back, Bourdain sees this as a turning point in his life.
This opening chapter is charming and inspiring, evoking images of carefree childhood holidays, illicit cigarettes and endless summer days. It made me yearn to know what Bourdain would do next to pursue his new passion.
Next stop is Provincetown and finds Bourdain washing dishes in a typical New England clam restaurant, the Dreadnaught. Despite his humble position Bourdain loved working there over the summer. The management didn't interfere and the waitresses were easy on the eye - that wasn't the only easy thing about the waitresses! However it was the cooks that really grabbed Bourdain's attention; he portrays them as being like pirates "...chefs' coats with the arms slashed off, blue jeans, ragged and faded headbands, gore-covered aprons, gold hopp earrings, wrist cuffs, turquoise necklaces and chokers, rings of scrimshaw and ivory, tattooes...". He admired the way they swaggered around the kitchen, their drinking skills and their unending sexual conquests. Bourdain conjures up images of hot summer nights with impormptu barbecues held on the beach stocked with steaks and beers illlegally libereated from the restaurant kitchen. He writes "the life of the cook was a life of adventure, looting, pillaging and rock-and-rolling through life with a carefree disregard for all conventional morality". Anthony thought that this was an appealing prospect and when, one evening, a wedding party descended upon the restaurant something happened which confirmed once and for all that this was the route he must take. The grill chef suddenly asked Anthony to keep an eye on his station as he had important business to attend to. All summer Anthony had watched the grill chef with envy, hoping that one day that job might be his. Now that the time had come he wanted instead to find out what matter was so pressing that the chef had left his station. Looking out of the window he saw the grill chef giving the bride a far from orthodox send-off over the bins. He writes "And I knew for, dear reader, for the first time. I wanted to be a chef."
Another section of the book which highlights the excellent writing is when Anthony is asked by his boss to go to Tokyo to train the chef of a sister branch of the New York restaurant, which is just about to open. In a fantastic scene the proprietor of the restaurant takes Anthony for the sushi experience of his life. The restaurateur seems to be challenging Bourdain, each time Bourdain eats the dish just put in front of him, something more unusual is put in it's place culminating in a piece of raw sea eel. In a scene reminiscent of the recent movie "Lost in Translation" which is also set in Tokyo, Bourdain accepts each challenge, filling his cup with icy sake after each dish. In a short chapter Bourdain magnificently captures the spirit of this strange country: "I wandered Roppongi's early-morning streets, tortured by the delicious smells emanating from the many businessmen's noodle shops, intimidated by the crowds...I didn't want to stare. I didn't want to offend. I was acutely aware of how freakish and un-Japanese I looked, with my height, in my boots and leather jacket."
When I said that Bourdain is honest I meant it. He describes without any sentiment, blaming of others and without preaching, the problems he has had with drugs, mainly cocaine, and alcohol. He shows how it has affected his career and expresses his regret that things might have turned out differently without the drugs.
The advice Boudain offers should certainly be heeded. Ignore it at your peril. Restaurants tend to place the meat and fish orders on a Thursday for delivery on Friday ready for the busy weekend. Many restaurants in New York do not open on Sundays so you really should avoid the fish on Mondays - it's likely to be left over from the weekend - especially if it's on the specials board or it's described as being served "vinaigrette" - a probable method of disguising less than fresh fish. With meat avoid any chilli or shepherds pie specials - these are dishes designed to use up leftovers.
I wouldn't say that this book put me off eating out. I love eating out, I suppose that's what made me so keen to read this book. It's just made me think more about what I order and when and it's made me think about how I recognise what is and isn't fresh. It did make me reconsider my perceived ideas of the restaurant business. I'm not a bad cook and my friends often compliment me on meals I've prepared for them. I've often thought that if I could change my career and run my own business I'd like to cook. Bourdain points out that it's not just about cooking - you need a good relatinship with your suppliers to get the best prices so you can actually make a profit on what you're selling, you need plenty of spare cash to pay for emergency repairs to your range - without it you're out of business, you have to make sure the linen comes back on time,, you have to manage your staff and make sure they don't steal from you - it is never-ending!
The cover of this book shows three chefs, long straggly hair, brandishing severe looking knives, standing in fornt of a grafitti covered wall. It totally sums up this book. Bourdain describes a cut-throat world but one where you can make friends for life - and need to. There are romantic sections in the book but Bourdain does not romanticise his profession. The language is sharp and street, easy to read and perfect for the telling of this particular set of tales. My favourite quote on the jacket blurb is from the noted food critic AA Gill: "Elizabeth David written by Quentin Tarantino". I have to agree whole heartedly!
Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 7.99Pounds (can be found cheaper on amazon.co.uk