On the anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s death, I wanted to share my “Kitchen Confidential” review, which I wrote shortly after his passing (but before I had a blog… in those days, my writing lived on way too many notes on my phone).
Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.Anthony Bourdain
The news of Anthony Bourdain’s death hit me like a brick — an unexpected and heavy blast of concrete from the sky, straight in my face. How could this uniquely relatable being who so poetically connects people, food and cultures into a woven tapestry of human stories be gone? How could he have made the choice to go? And of course, why?
As someone who mostly eats vegan and is afraid of mostly everything, the ever carnivorous and adventurous Bourdain has not been the most likely source of inspiration for me. As he said in “Kitchen Confidential”:
Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.Anthony Bourdain
But, that’s exactly what makes his presence so exceptional to me and his absence so heavy. We can agree to disagree, and that’s a-ok.
It comes down to this: when I want to know what a place is like, I check for a Bourdain television episode before I ever check Google or Yelp. That’s because he answered simple questions like, “What is it like there?” and “What should I eat there?” with depth about who people are and why.
And being open and understanding to others, and learning about others, are good things. They are very good things. I think Bourdain helped us do just that in a way that connected different people as one. Isn’t that what life is all about? Sigh. I’m being really sappy now.
The best way I can quantify his influence is to impart the story of a lunch we had in Rome. I had recalled that, eight years earlier, he had remarked about his favorite cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta) in Rome. And it took a fair amount of Google sleuthing to find the location, as he never mentioned the restaurant’s name on the show (he said it was so good he was calling it Restaurant X). We got there right as the restaurant opened. It immediately filled to capacity and I counted that about 90% of the dishes coming out of the kitchen were cacio e pepe.
That being said, after his shocking death, I was desperate and longing to hear his voice again. Like so many others, I grabbed an Audible copy of his first book from 2000, which catapulted him into the television career for which we all came to know him. And the voice of an old friend resonated again with stories new to me.
Let’s start this “Kitchen Confidential” review with the basics: it’s a memoir about Bourdain’s early life in the kitchens of the restaurant business, particularly in New York City. In my favorite chapter, he shared secrets and tips of the restaurant industry, and I felt like I was a secret agent hearing insider information for my ears only.
(This book is also on the Rory Gilmore book list if you are a Gilmore Girls fan doing this reading challenge.)
A few teasers: Chilean sea bass is usually frozen and not fresh. And there are particular days on which you should not order fish at a restaurant. Cooking everything (and he means everything) at a restaurant starts and ends with adding butter, and this probably includes times when you request “no butter.”
According to Bourdain, you only need one good multi-purpose knife to be a respectable chef, and it should be Japanese — not a German knife, which are difficult to maintain. A mandolin slicer and a thick pot also help, but most other tools are not necessities. And when he imparts this same wisdom, he does so in a uniquely Bourdain way.
Whereas I might say, “Garlic must be handled with special care to extract the best flavor,” he says:
Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime…Please, treat your garlic with respect…Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screwtop jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.Anthony Bourdain
See what I mean?
I simply couldn’t wait to share all of these golden nuggets with others over coffee talk! I beamed with pride for already owning a mandolin slicer, and I started planning my trip to Williams Sonoma to search out the perfect Japanese knife. Home cooking is one of my passions and greatest releases of stress. A glass of wine, a bit of jazz and an open cookbook make for the most delightful of evenings.
I also felt a sense of peace when he wrote about travel. It’s simply where he is his finest and truest self, and it’s palpable. I looked back at this early pre-television work of his with a 20/20 vision of what was to come of his life, and it was, quite simply, nice to think about.
However — and I truly hate to say however here — I struggled with many other portions of the book. They were abundantly overflowing with fast-talking people and the chaos of their lives in the kitchen. For that reason, everything and everyone felt overwhelming and repetitive to me.
There were too many supporting characters, and too many arguments, and too many long nights, all of which overlapped. At the end of the day, I didn’t have a solid understanding of who these people were, which I believe was ultimately the greatest ability of Bourdain to convey through television.
I could sum these many chapters up with one sentence: Life in the kitchen is crazy, and so are the people who work there!
I realize that those who actually work in the restaurant industry probably appreciate these sentiments more than I.
Overall, I thought this book would have been better as a shorter magazine piece. Maybe that’s because this book was preceded in a similar way.
Bourdain’s first major piece of journalism was a sensational piece in the New Yorker in 1999. You can, and should, read it. And if you are still hungry for more, pick up an Audible copy of “Kitchen Confidential” and hear his voice just once more.
[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.Anthony Bourdain
You are missed, Anthony.