As he moves up the ladder and acquires a savings account, mortgage payments, a semi-regular slot on a morning show and even a publicist, your typical chef becomes a sober, ass-covering member of the professional classes. But not Anthony Bourdain, chef of Les Halles in New York and author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
Like Bull Meacham, the colonel hero of The Great Santini whose secret is that he is a drill sergeant at heart, Bourdain is a chef who has retained the worldview of a line cook.
Written for the "gracious living" industry, most chefs' books portray restaurants as clean, organized, sane places to work; the typical chef's memoir, usually in the form of a preface to his cookbook, relates a few early food epiphanies followed by an account of a career with an unbroken upward trajectory.
Bourdain's book, which alternates memoirs with rather sobering accounts of typical, often disconcerting, kitchen practices and reportage about other chefs and other food cultures, portrays a career warped by arrogance, paranoia and constant drug use. A well-born misfit, he came up in the '70s, a time of genuine anarchy in the restaurant business. Hunter S. Thompson was an early role model, and Bourdain recounts his own excesses with real Gonzo verve:
When the restaurant opened, we'd begin every shift with a solemn invocation of the first moments of Apocalypse Now, our favorite movie. Emulating the title sequence, we'd play the soundtrack album, choppers coming in low and fast, the whirr of the blades getting louder and more unearthly, and just before Jim Morrison kicked in with the first few words, "This is the end ... my brand-new friend ... the end," we'd soak the entire range-top with brandy and ignite it, causing a huge, napalm-like fireball to rush up into the hoods -- just like in the movie.
Bourdain spent years working in the culinary wilderness, "in a series of 'wacko, lamebrained, one-lung operations" -- as the chef of a Bogart-themed restaurant, a "jewel-box" that catered to wealthy older homosexuals and their pickups, and then as the chef of a Mafia-run chicken joint bought as a favor to a crazy associate who had gone to prison rather than testify against the Syndicate:
Guys I'd read about later in the paper as running construction in the outer boroughs, purported killers, made men ... carried brown paper bags of chicken sandwiches up three flights of stairs to Greenwich Village walk-up apartments to make deliveries; they slathered mayo and avocado slices on pita bread behind the counter ... I have to say I like them for that.
In the chapter "From Our Kitchen to Your Table," which was originally a notorious article in The New Yorker, Bourdain discloses some less-than-savory restaurant practices: Table bread and butter are often recycled; sanitation and first-aid practices are usually ad hoc; the oldest, grisliest cuts of meat are saved for well-done. But for the author, life, and going out to eat, are all about risk:
Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes or McDonald's? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble tacqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?
Although Bourdain takes the opportunity to settle a few scores, Kitchen Confidential is not You'll Never Cook Lunch in This Town Again. Bourdain considers himself a lifer and loves the buzz, the stress and the extreme personalities that the business breeds. And, of course, it all comes back to the food:
I enjoy the look on the face of my boss as when I do a pot-au-feu special. ... It's a gaze of wonder; the same look you see on small children's faces when their fathers take them into deep water at the beach. ... For a moment ... the pinched expression of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we've all had to become disappears when we're confronted with a something as simple as a plate of food.
John Broening is a freelance writer and the chef at Primitivo.