Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Foodie Central I: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain Reviewed

My journey to the kitchens of America begins in their seamy commercial underbelly. Chef cum author cum personality Anthony Bourdain writes a 300-page rant of a memoir of the pretty-good professional kitchen, complete with drugs, sex, cursing, alcohol, and what I came in for, the food.

The blessing and the curse of this book is, really, Anthony Bourdain. Maybe it's worse that I've seen him brooding on television a handful of times, a lanky bag of hung-over looking scowls. He describes himself as a mouthy punk at heart, a guy who learned workplace survival skills the way a teenager learns life lessons in an S. E. Hinton novel. His formative point as a cook, if you can call it that, is young Bourdain showing up for his first real gig, armed with the proverbial little knowledge, with a ton of smug in each of his 1974 vintage lapels alone. He goes on for another 250 pages about the colorful path down to humility and then back up, breaking the punk attitude and then owning it. The obnoxiousness is not something you miss. It never stops shining through even in the writing. But you have to give the man credit for self-recognition.

I enjoyed the kitchen scenes, and he captured the organized chaos, and the quick-fire mental organization, the commitment (he answered my question once and for all why chefs smoke), the loyalty. The scandalously delivered background sections were great too (why your food doesn't taste like his, revealing the dirty secrets of re-used bread and Monday fish specials). But the fundamental misdirection of Kitchen Confidential is that Bourdain isn't just a cook, he's a writer too. He's not half-bad at the job (for some reason, I've got a soft spot for self-deprecating wiseasses), but the writer in him can't hold back on the whole life's journey bit. He can't resist the urge to make a story out of it all, a rough tale of sin and redemption, but he fails to hit all the notes with the force that he's swinging for them. Love of food: check, but needed more of that, really. A bullshitter lets the coke and the booze get the better of him for a while as he chases a string of failures: yes, but okay already, and okay already. Rock bottom epiphanizing: it's not missing. Back to that basic foodie goodness and the balancing of the life: yeah yeah, now tell me more about the food in Tokyo.

I don't know how much I buy it all, really. I mean, I don't doubt that cooking, like any not-too-visible trade, attracts some rough practitioners, who are forgiven their sleaziness or extralegality for capability. I can't imagine your typical construction site has a significantly different cast of characters, nor your typical body shop. I even recognize some of these assholes from summers in the part-time dungeons. I don't doubt Bourdain's anecdotal veracity, but by his own admission, he's drawn to certain work environments, and, habitually, drags along the same talent from place to place to create them. But I also don't doubt that other people run a tighter ship. Hell, I know people who do.

...and the chefs are still stressed.


LentenStuffe said...

For some reason I think this post perfectly compliments your "Jesus is just right ..." one. Don't quite know the wherefore ...

Hey, would you say that all the best chefs are alive today?

(Trick Question)

And does the culinary art have anything to do with evolution?

Last Question: Is Gordon Ramsey a prick in your estimation? And what's up with all these surly British fucks, C. Hitchens; G. Ramsey, S. Cowell?

Keifus said...

Are the best chefs alive today? I'm not an authority, you see, but I imagine it's like asking if Newton was smarter than Einstein (or whatever). Is the best chef the guy who produces the most advanced (or even best-tasting) product, or is it the guy who worked out the first principles? I mean the nuances of egg and sugar chemistry are pretty amazing really, and that's the old-school stuff.

Top Chefs today have some good things going for them, though. Incredible access to ingredients (at least until the seas are fished out, etc) is one, and a smaller than ever international community, allowing access to and fusion of a huge library of traditional styles is a big other.

[Bourdain tells you that they're more craftsmen than artists though. At least in their day-to-day lives.]

Gordon Ramsey is the guy who shills Campbell's soup and had a sleazy talk show once, right? Gotta go with prick.

But I think the surly British fucks are clowns playing to type. It's a downgrade from the old stereotype, the pipe-smoking intellectual, which, if I were British, maybe it'd annoy me.

K (no idea how those two fit...)

twiffer said...

somewhat related. well, about books at least. recalling that you enjoyed anansi boys, so if you've not yet read it, i highly recommend picking up a copy of good omens, by terry prachett & neil gaiman. recommend in the sense of, go and buy it now.

the end of the world as devised and described in the hilariously absurd manner the british seem to have perfected.

Keifus said...

Oh hell, that was Gordon Elliot (who may be Australian.) Yeah, Gordon Ramsey's a douchebag, and hte comment about surly fucks stands.

Twiff, that one's a favorite. (okay, surly fucks or absurd humorists...).


twiffer said...

i believe it's actually surly fucks, absurd humorists and emotionless wankers.

i've gone on a bit of a gaiman kick, cause i also picked up fragile things by him as well. going to have to find a copy of american gods as well.

Keifus said...

I thought American Gods was good (well written), but had some fairly prominent defects. Let me know how the collection is.

Everybody's supposed to love Gaiman for his early graphic novels. I've never read them (and not even sure I care to).


rundeep said...

I loved this books when I read it a while back. I thought it was hilarious and sexy and I'd do Bourdain in a minute (okay, maybe two, if I got permission). I think the "journey" part of it isn't so much the result of a writerly disposition as it is a counterweight to the manly aroma floating around the book. He knows he's undertalented as a chef and lucky and wouldn't have been famous except for this book. And he doesn't want you to hate him for that, so he lets you see his tender side.

I'm a sucker for kitchen memoirs generally. Love Ruth Reichl's books ("Tender at the Bone" is especially lovely) and Buford's "Heat."

Nice review too.

twiffer said...

fragile things is pretty good. the poetry isn't strong, but he knows that and flat out tells you to skip it if you like (in the foreword). overall, very enjoyable. plus, i do enjoy short stories. often more than i do novels.

i haven't read his graphic novels either. just happened to pick up anansi boys because i'd remembered that american gods was supposed to be good (though i'd not read it).

tonight though, is reserved for brother cadfael, as i've finally gotten a copy of one of the two books in the series that i actually haven't read. yay!

Keifus said...

Ah rundeep, you see, I have a lifelong antipathy against men who can parlay annoyingness into success. Why? Because it never worked for me!

I think Buford was the book I was going to get originally. Daveto gave a rec for something by Michael Pollan, but I may make a substitution.

Thanks twiff. I like shorts too, which is one of several reasons book reviews don't appear more frequently here.