Kitchen Confidential

It seems like everybody and her brother has read and reviewed this memoir, but I only completed it last week, and it left me charged enough to want to write about it here, so that, in and of itself, makes it more successful than my first book of the year, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which, while clever, very little actually seems to happen.

I nearly forgot to pack a book for my trip early last week, and right before S. had to drive me to the airport I found myself examining my shelves, trying to discern what I was in the mood to read. S. grabbed Bourdain’s book and shoved it in my hands. “It’s an easy plane read,” he said. “And it’s very fun.” Good enough for me.  He was right – I completed the book during my two day trip, and I found it utterly readable and entertaining. As I noted above, it left me with a lot to say, so I think for the sake of some organization I’m just going to bullet-point the rest of this review:

* On Memoir – I spent a LOT of time in graduate school discussing the various merits of memoir – who should write one, does good language transcend story-telling, is memoir a valid literary form, how do we keep from coming across as self-indulgent if we want to write memoir, etc. etc. I also spent a LOT of time reading memoirs, and in my opinion Kitchen Confidential is one of the most successful memoirs I’ve read. It deals primarily with Bourdain’s experiences in kitchens throughout his life, working through one particular prism. The woman at the airport last week who wanted to know about his wife? Well, maybe that’s for ANOTHER memoir, but Nancy had little place in this book. Bourdain sticks closely to his subject matter, shows the reader a glimpse of a life and lifestyle they know little about, and he educates his reader on a subject matter while doing so. Bam, successful memoir.

* On Language – While much of the memoir is made up of cursing, Bourdain writes some truly beautiful passages. One of my favorites comes in the chapter entitled “The Level Of Discourse” where Bourdain reflects on why he so loves the hodge-podge language of the kitchen. This paragraph, in particular, moved me:

I wallow in it. Just like all the other sounds in my life: the hiss and clatter and sprayof the dishwasher, the sizzle as a fillet of fish hits a hot pan, the loud, yelping noise – almost a shriek- as a glowing sizzle-platter is droped into a full pot sink, the pounding of the meat mallet on a cote de boeuf, the smack as finished plates hit the “window.” The goads, curses, insultts and taunts of my wildy profane crew are likepoetry to me, beautiful at times, each tiny variation on a classic theme like some Beat-era jazz riff…

*On educating the reader: I will never ever ever in my wildest dreams ever order swordfish or hollandaise sauce (even if A. tells me it’s safe). As much as possible, I will restrict my dining to Tuesday-Thursday. I want to one a chef’s knife. I never have ordered my beef anything but medium rare, so I’m okay there, I think. I will never order off a special menu again (although my brother says his restaurant doesn’t work in this manner,and coming up with specials in his kitchen is a point of pride, having everything to do with the excitement of creating a new menu and nothing to do with trying to get rid of old food, so I will order specials at his restaurant). I’m a little disgusted, though, that taking a sick day is seen as so horrible, because while I understand the kitchen can’t function if one person goes missing, it’s sort of  gross to think of all those sick people around food. I feel like a fool for adoring Sunday brunch as I do, but as with the disgusting story about mussels, I don’t think I will forsake it. For some things, life is too short.

*On empathy – My brother co-owns an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh. While Bourdain’s book makes relentless fun of owners, I think he would approve of my brother’s style of management, which is to be there ALL OF THE TIME. Last week I told him while I always knew he worked hard, I didn’t really  GET his job until I read this book – didn’t fully understand why he forced the hours he put in. I never not respected my brother – I adore him – but I understand him more, after reading this book.

* On the Hemingway factor – I don’t necessarily think Bourdain tries to glamorize his drug use, although it can’t help but come across that way in places, but the one thing that struck me most about this book is how it captures the spirit of writers like Thompson and Hemingway – that free-spirited, adventure-seeking, come-what-may spirit. In graduate school, at least, in graduate school for writing, one comes across many many male writers who desperately want to not only write like Hemingway, but become him.  Hemingway seems to have somehow captured the imaginations of every writer that has come since and it can be infuriating, sometimes, to sit in a class and read yet another reference to white elephants, but I admit in my twenties I much too hastily dismissed his influence over writers.  I’m not sure if this is a gender thing or not, but I can say this: while I admire Bourdain’s book, there is not one single aspect of his life that I covet – not one. I prefer safety and order and following the rules and I honestly don’t think I could live Bourdain’s life for one day. BUT. His lifestyle certainly appealed to the men I spoke with at the airport – and it certainly appealed to other men I know….the traveling, the eating, the drinking, the smoking, the company of other men who are traveling, eating, drinking, smoking and swearing with you – well, there’s something there.

Yesterday I spent some time after my writing group perusing the bookstore in search of my new read. I looked for Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box but couldn’t find it anywhere. I then considered Alice McDermott’s That Night, but it seemed too slender for what I was looking to read. I finally settled on Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and even after the first couple chapters I can tell I’m going to love it. Just the way he uses language is remarkable, but even without that already there is a dead body and an insomniac policeman. Good stuff.

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9 Responses to Kitchen Confidential

  1. Lovely review – I’m sure this is a book both my husband and I could read. I like the idea of literate chef. As for the Chabon, I’ve been dying to read it so please come back and tell us all about it.

  2. Sarah says:

    Oh I loved The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It seemed like the cadence of the sentences felt like Yiddish sounds. That’s a crappy way of describing it, but, well, that’s why I read books but can’t write them! And I haven’t read Kitchen Confidential, but now I’m intrigued. I get annoyed with his take on vegetarians, but I can’t help but be drawn to his brashness. Great review!

  3. A. says:

    I seriously wouldn’t worry about Bourdain’s weekend warnings, brunches, and specials. Almost all food will have over a week shelf life and most restaurants who get Monday deliveries also get Thursday or Friday deliveries. Brunches are planned in advance and specials are designed to rip you off, not to use old food. They want to make a dish using all the stuff that they already buy (fresh, not old food) and make it more interesting than their regular menu offerings. That way they can charge you more because it is “special.” Old food is used in soups and that is about it. At the bottom of it all, restaurants do not want ANYONE to get sick, it would put them out of business. Trust me I know!

  4. Noble Savage says:

    Sounds like a fun read. As a former waitress I know the restaurant life very well and am always interested to read about others’ take on it.

  5. Cam says:

    I hate all of those celebrity cooking shows but I love Anthony Bourdain. I haven’t read this, although my husband read lots of it too me when he was reading it a few years ago. Nasty Bits is sitting on the shelf and I’m waiting for husband to read it first as it is his book and I’m so hard on paperbacks that it will be evident that I’ve “borrowed” it.

    Chabon is on my TBR list, but hasn’t surfaced near the top yet. Will be interested in hearing more about the book.

  6. Andi says:

    Fantastic job discussion my crush…Mr. Bourdain. Do you have any plans to read his other stuff? While I adored Kitchen Confidential, I adored A Cook’s Tour even more. It’s an nice dose of his reverence for food and culture.

    Now you’ve made me want to re-read Kitchen Confidential, and I only read it mid to late 2007. 🙂

  7. Make Tea Not War says:

    Sounds fantastic- I love cooking memoirs. Heat which is about Mario Batali is good too.

    Strangely I’ve come across more young male wannabe Bukowskis than Hemmingways. (I have to say I haven’t liked a single one of them.)

  8. Emily Barton says:

    Great review. I love the way you divided it into different sections. Bourdain is one of those very interesting combinations of chef and writer (I happen to believe there is a HUGE connection between love of food/cooking and love of books/writing). You might enjoy his mysteries, of which I’ve read one. It was fun.

  9. Courtney says:

    Charlotte – so far, the Chabon is wonderful but complicated enough that I really need to spend a couple of hours digging in to it, to get to know the characters and plot.
    Sarah – I get exactly what you mean about the cadence…it’s rhythm absolutely matches the subject matter, which is so hard to do!
    A. – good to know! And I know you are THE source for these matters. That’s interesting about the specials…
    Cam – I was just discussing with a friend yesterday how hard I, too, am on paperbacks, what with taking them to the tub with me…
    Andi – Hi! I didn’t see this post originally. I thought of you most of the time I was reading him! Yes, I will definitely read his other stuff.
    Ms. Make Tea, so, are Bukowskis the Hemingways of your Hemisphere?
    Emily…well, hmm. I love mysteries. I like Bourdain. So he must be one of these people who just does everything…

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