I begun working in hospitality at the ripe old age of 18 – young, (moderately) innocent and entirely unsure of myself. I was sucked in immediately by the late nights, fast talk and endless supply of expensive alcohol.
While the rest of my Law class of 2006 were learning about Torts and Legal Process I was busy learning which wine to match with seafood, which nightclubs stayed open the latest and how to open a cartouche with one hand. I watched well known football players take ecstasy in front of their minders, I saw $20 000 worth of Dusk candles in one place, and I discovered what Barry Humphrey’s eats for dinner while he is on the road performing as Dame Edna. I learned how to exist without sleep, I learned how to throw up hungover on shift and still look presentable at tables, and I learned how to sweet talk filthy old men in order to get better tips.
I dove headfirst into the decadent cesspool that is hospitality and didn’t emerge until eight years later; battered, broke and confused. Anyone who has ever worked in hospitality will understand the love/hate relationship that you develop with it. I despised it for years, yet I still got a thrill whenever someone would tip me well or praise my recommendation. There is no greater feeling than a night when everything goes perfectly, every meal comes out on time and every customer leaves your section happy. But the nights when it doesn’t go well…to be quite frank, they make you want to kill yourself.
No one knows this, and writes about it, better than Anthony Bourdain. I am always on the lookout for a good hospitality read and I’m telling you, this is one of the best.
Kitchen Confidential is part autobiography, part guidebook, part gripping exposé. It is a self-written account of Bourdain’s own journey into what he calls, quite accurately, the culinary underbelly. Bourdain writes with a wit and flair that I didn’t know he possessed, having only previously watched him chain smoking and swearing his way across countries in his very famous culinary travel show, No Reservations.
The book begins with ‘A Note From the Chef’, which lays straight out exactly what you are going to find in these blood and sweat soaked pages.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the restaurant business. I’m not spilling my guts about everything I’ve seen, learned and done…because I’m angry at the business, or because I want to horrify the dining public…No, I want to tell you about the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly…because I find it all quite comfortable, like a nice warm bath.
What a guy. He’s been in this industry longer than I’ve been born, and yet he likens it to a warm bath. I’ve been out of it almost six months and I still have nightmares about it. Not hypothetical nightmares: actual heart-pounding, fist-clenching, soul-destroying nightmares. This guy is my hero.
Bourdain describes how he begun, as most chef’s do, in the dish-pit. There, he saw firsthand the rumble and roar of a professional kitchen, and there, I suppose, he fell in love with it. He describes the chef’s like rock stars:
They had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing. They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn’t nailed down, and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers and casual visitors like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined.
He captures perfectly the hustle and panic of a kitchen in full flight; the endless stream of dockets chattering from the machine, the hiss and clatter of pans dancing across the stove top, the constant sound of knives hitting chopping boards and over it all, the head chef calling orders in a calm, forceful manner. And he describes the intimidation and brutality that is part of every kitchen, the pain threshold you must develop in order to thrive or just keep up. One moment in particular stayed with me long after I’d finished the book:
I burned myself…
‘Whachoo want, white boy? Burn cream? A Band-Aid?’
I watched, transfixed, as Tyrone…reached slowly under the broiler and, with one naked hand, picked up a glowing-hot sizzle-platter, moved it over to the cutting board, and set it down in front of me. He never flinched.
I have seen, with my own eyes, the injuries that a chef will ignore and work with until the end of their shift. Cuts, scrapes, burns that would terrify you just to look at are all ignored in favour of getting that meal to the customer in time. If customers truly understood what pain goes in to their every meal I’m sure they would be slightly less eager to send them back to the kitchen with the scathing statement, ‘this isn’t medium-rare’.
It isn’t all blood, tears and technical terms in this book, though. There is one chapter in particular that I love Bourdain for including, called ‘How to Cook Like the Pros’. It has fabulous, simple tips on what you need in your kitchen (nothing you probably don’t already have) and how to use it to its best advantage. There are chefs out there who probably hold him in disdain for even suggesting that cooking isn’t all about skills and know-how, but simply about having a good knife.
You need, for god’s sake, a decent chef’s knife. No con foisted on the general public is so atrocious, so wrong headed, or so widely believed as the one that tells you you need a full set of specialized cutlery in various sizes. I wish sometimes I could go through the kitchens of amateur cooks everywhere just throwing knives out from their drawers.
This really is a book for everyone. You don’t need to have worked in a kitchen or even in a restaurant to appreciate this book for what it is; a hilarious and extremely well-written insight into the simple act of cooking food. You don’t need to know any fancy words and technical terms to understand Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain will explain everything to you along the way. And the next time you go out to dinner in a nice restaurant you won’t be intimidated by the stuck up waitress who rattles off specials full of French and refers to cooking techniques as if they were science experiments. But you will know just how bloody hard those chefs are working to put your meal on the table, and perhaps you will cut them some slack.
They’re doing it for the love, not for the paycheck.
I’ll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. Things got broken. Things got lost.
But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.