Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is as good as a lot of people say it is, which is pretty uncommon. It moves quickly and cleverly: as a young man, Bourdain observes an older cook’s hands, which “looked like the claws of some monstrous science-fiction crustacean, knobby and calloused under wounds old and new.” Notice that word, “crustacean,” and how well it fits, especially since the kitchen is making seafood. The memoir is filled with evocative and expressive moments like that. I’m tempted to start listing them. But that would spoil the surprising pleasure they offer on the page.
There’s a moment when Bourdain points out one of the problems with writing about something as sensual as food, since you can never taste the food through words:
. . . the events described are somehow diminished in the telling. A perfect bowl of bouillabaisse, that first, all-important oyster, plucked from the Bassin d’Arcachon, both are made cheaper, less distinct in my memory, once I’ve written about them.
But the problem of something becoming “somehow diminishing in the telling” or “cheaper, less distinct in my memory” are perils not only of the food writer, although he might be particularly sensitive to them, but to the writer of almost any genre. Tactile sensations like food, sex, water, and the like might be especially susceptible, but even our descriptions of our thoughts are probably different once we’ve “written about them.” But writing about them is the only effective way we have of communicating them to others. And Bourdain is very, very good at that communication. I never thought I cared about what it was like to work in a kitchen, or about the tribulations of the chef. I didn’t realize just how dramatic being a chief could be. Now I understand, and am slightly closer to understanding the fascination with cooking TV shows. I say “closer,” however because I’d still rather be in the kitchen with knife and spatula at hand than watching someone else in the kitchen, much as I’d rather be on the field with a soccer ball at my feet than playing the FIFA soccer video game.
I come out of Kitchen Confidential with a sense that I’ve read a religious story, in which the wayward one day finds God. Except most of us moderns don’t really find God, but we find something abstract to serve, and that something is greater than ourselves. For Bourdain it’s food, despite the many problems that come with it. For others it might be art, science, math, business, the ideal of the family. The things you can choose to admire proliferate. But most of us only choose one or maybe two things. Or the thing chooses us.
You have to love the thing, as Bourdain does cooking, but you can’t love it only for itself. I’ve read the unfortunate prose of plenty of people who say they love “writing” but don’t love it enough to learn basic grammar, expand their vocabularies, or think about the reader more than themselves (Bourdain holds chefs who cook attractive dishes that don’t taste very good in low regard, which is approximately how I feel about people who publish essays in novel format). Love might be necessary if you’re going to go to the distance, but a lot of people have this silly, romantic idea that love is all about the moment, dying for each other, crashing emotional waves, love-at-first-sight, tussles-in-the-bedroom.
And it is about that—we learn about Bourdain’s apprenticeship—but the part is relatively small: a lot of love is about persevering during the tedious, boring parts of life, learning one’s craft, and learning how to get along with others. People who cook because they think they love to cook, without having considered that cooking professionally might mean doing it six to seven days a week for years on end, haven’t realized that no, maybe love isn’t enough. Here’s Michael Idov in “Bitter Brew: I opened a charming neighborhood coffee shop. Then it destroyed my life,” which every aspiring coffee artist should read:
Looking back, we (incredibly) should have heeded the advice of bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain, who wrote our epitaph in Kitchen Confidential: “The most dangerous species of owner … is the one who gets into the business for love.”
Advice like this by its nature goes unheeded because most people probably can’t project themselves imaginatively into the mind of the advice giver. The advice is “diminished in the telling,” since we don’t have the sensory information and deep background that went into the person giving the advice. We’re bad at thinking about what doing something over and over for months or years at a time is like. We’ll probably never be good at it, but that’s not going to stop us from giving and taking it.
I like to cook and cook for myself and friends with what I imagine to be reasonable skill. If, for some unknown reason, Bourdain showed up at my apartment for dinner, I think I could make something he’d find passable, especially because he likes food you can eat better than food that’s designed to show off the chef’s smarts. But I probably don’t love cooking enough to do it as a pro. I don’t like it enough to put forth my best effort when I’m not in the mood. Maybe I once thought I liked cooking enough, because who hasn’t imagined themselves as a chef somewhere as they grease their pan with olive oil, knowing that an hour later perfect penne a la vodka and tender green beans with garlic will be served? We’ve all probably briefly imagined ourselves giving Nobel and Oscar acceptance speeches too.
But the gap between current skills and the social admiration can only be bridged by the long honing of skill that requires incredibly internal and psychological fortitude (or, possibly, dumb luck and not having anywhere else to go). Even if we do keep trying, the plaudits may never come. I know of Bourdain not because of his work as a chef, but because he’s so skilled a writer that I’ve seen him mentioned often enough to read his book. Which I will now recommend that you do too, because it’s fabulous. He probably could’ve amped up the sex part, though he does say that he doesn’t want the reader “to think that everything up to this point was about fornication, free booze, and ready access to drugs.” But for Bourdain it is, more than anything else, about the food. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to fake his level of enthusiasm for food. And when you have an enthusiasm that you probably can’t fake, you’ve probably also got a shot at being the best.
I also wrote about Bourdain in “So you wanna be a writer: What Anthony Bourdain can tell you even when he’s not talking about writing.” I like that he views cooking as a craft. “Craft” sounds intellectually honest, as opposed to an art that can fall prey to pretension, and even though all arts require some level of craftsmanship. He raises cooking to an art form without overdramatizing it.