Book in review: Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’

Written in 2000 and updated several years later, Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” is well worth revisiting from time to time. It’s hilarious, wild and informative. He just may be, as I note in this review written in 2009, the Hunter S. Thompson of food. That’s a compliment, by the way.

I wrote this as an online post in 2009 as I was helping the Burlington Times-News staff fill out the old Alamance Foodie blog, which was a collective effort. I read the book for the first time after finding it on a bargain table. Two years ago, I bought a first edition hardcover of it at the Friends of the Library Book Sale. I found this old review by looking deep into the online site Wayback.com for something I wrote while working for the Jacksonville Daily News in 2004. Sadly, I never found that old column about being in the same Christmas Parade with Gary Sinese. I’m still looking for it now that the actor and musician will be grand marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade in January.

In the meantime, I offer this for a Throwback Thursday this week. Bourdain’s book is still the funniest thing I’ve read in several years.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyAnthony Bourdain, Harper Collins, 312 pages. UPDATED EDITION, includes 22 more pages of interviews and excerpts from other books by Bourdain.

bourdain

This is why it pays to check the bargain table at Barnes and Noble.

A couple of months ago I made nighttime pass through the massive bookstore at Alamance Crossing and found “Kitchen Confidential” on the buy three, get one free table. I’d seen Anthony Bourdain in his role as host of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel and knew the man would eat some seriously strange food. His yearly caustic romps on the Bravo reality show “Top Chef” let me know he has a singular wit — one that can cut like a paring knife. Apparently he’s one helluva chef, too.

But I had no idea that “Kitchen Confidential” with the subtitle “Adventures in the Culinary Underworld” would be the funniest nonfiction book I’ve read since Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972.” And Thompson had Nixon to work with. Nothing beats great material.

While  Bourdain doesn’t have Nixon to kick around, he does offer the kind of riotous observations and pungent commentary that sticks with you for a long time. Who knew cooks could be so … well … crazed?

Bourdain was hardly famous when “Kitchen Confidential” was first published in 2000. The book would be life-changing, vaulting him from working chef to something all in the restaurant world covet or detest — celebrity chef. The updated paperback includes a new afterward by Bourdain, outlining what’s happened since “Kitchen Confidential” rocked the restaurant world not only in America but globally. A lengthy question and answer session is also included in which Bourdain talks about changes in restaurants, dining out, why chefs eat better than anyone else and the growth of the celebrity chef industry.

In many ways, he says, the food business is a better one today than the one he wrote about in 2000.

It would have to be.

Equal parts autobiography, confessional and cultural expose, Bourdain describes a murky world populated by clueless owners, mob bosses, drug-addled, alcoholic and egomaniac chefs, drug-dealing sous chefs, Ecuadorian line cooks, illegal alien dishwashers, psychotic bread savants, culinary school washouts and thieving bartenders. Bourdain is quite comfortable with all of that. In fact, he is one of them — a former heroin-using, boozing wretch who worked endless hours often dissolving into madness.

Food is the bond that ties these frayed pieces together. And even that isn’t always enough when the bills come due and not enough plates are going out the door.

Bourdain’s path starts him at a pretty standard seafood restaurant in a tourist town to culinary school and then to New York where he moves from one place to another working his way up the line. He careens from one hilarious adventure to another as he navigates the quirky people drawn to a job that starts at 10 in the morning and often doesn’t end until the last bars are closed.

“Kitchen Confidential” lives up to its name in every way. While Bourdain didn’t set out to be a whistle-blower on some pretty shoddy food and business practices, he finds them anyway. It’s a riot to read but also a warning for unsuspecting diners. For example, if fish is the special on Monday, avoid it. In fact, steer clear of fine-dining restaurants on Monday as a general practice. It’s leftover day. And chefs at fine dining establishments save the best specials for Tuesday through Thursday, preferring not to waste their efforts on less discriminating weekend customers.

Anyone serious about dining out should read it and not only be delighted but educated.

Bourdain may indeed be the Hunter S. Thompson of food. If so, then that’s a good thing for the restaurant world. Someone needs to be the one to say filet mignon, lobster and truffle oil are overrated.

Now if I could just find his other books on the bargain table …

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