Kitchen Confidential

By Anthony Bourdain

I know that I’m basically the last person alive to read ‘Kitchen Confidential’. I know that everything that needs to be said about Bourdain, his life, his legacy, his death, his synthesized voice for use in documentaries, &c…, has already been said, and, honestly, I have nothing to add.

I knew all that when I picked up ‘Kitchen Confidential’ – my reading it was informed by all the news around Bourdain, not the other way around. Of course, all that context probably blunted my reactions to his book; I suspect that, if I had read it back, before Bourdain was famous, I would have been as fascinated and titillated as everyone else.

But, perhaps because ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is too famous to be surprising anymore, I had a very different reaction to it: I found it needy, and sort of poignant.

‘Kitchen Confidential’ is the book that made Bourdain famous, his memoir of becoming and being a chef in various New York City restaurants. Bourdain framed ‘Kitchen Confidential’ as an exposé of his industry: a peek into the kitchen. The book is filled with juicy little stories and reveals all sorts of mini-non-scandals, like that uneaten bread from bread baskets is recycled, or how long fish is actually kept in restaurant fridges. It emphasizes the culture of kitchens: the vulgarity, the sexual frenzy, the pressure.

But what ‘Kitchen Confidential’ really is, is one long brag. Bourdain’s loving lists of hardships won’t fool anyone: ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is about how grueling, ferocious, and elite Bourdain thinks his profession is. It is a book-length treatise on why chefs are the baddest of the bad. Lest you think that chefs are just people who cook for a living, Bourdain is here to convince that they are actually warriors.

The book is replete with passages like this:

“So you want to be a chef? You really, really, really want to be a chef? If you’ve been working in another line of business, have been accustomed to working eight- to nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off; if you are used to being treated with some modicum of dignity, spoken to and interacted with as a human being, seen as an equal – a sensitive, multidimensional entity with hopes, dream, aspirations and opinions, the sort of qualities you’d expect of most working persons – then maybe you should reconsider what you’ll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with.” (p. 289)

This sort of goading braggadocio is typical, and absurd. This passage would be melodramatic from a recruiter for the Marine Core – from a New York City chef, it’s fucking ludicrous.

It is also familiar to me, because, like Bourdain, I work in a specialized technical field characterized by indecipherable argot and mock-heroics: science.

Much of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ felt evocative to me of my own professional world. Scientists also use a jargon-laden dialect designed to be understood only by people in the know (and exclude everyone else). They also pride themselves on pain-points: where Bourdain brags about his cooking injuries, abusive head chefs, and crazy hours, scientists swap war stories about arduous experiments, cruel PIs, and crazy hours.

Scientists are often expected to put in grueling hours; their labor belongs to someone else (in their case, the head of their lab); they spend significant amounts of their careers in apprenticeship positions, where their low pay is justified by the idea that they are learning from a master. They are un-unionized, often at the mercy of tenured ego-maniacs who can be (I promise) as psychotic as any chef Bourdain ever encountered.

And, like Bourdain, for many scientists this suffering becomes a point of pride, something which distinguishes them, makes them tougher and more worthy than people who had have not had to make such sacrifices for their career. Like Bourdain, they come to feel that their ability and willingness to withstand this suffering is a virtue, and that people who are not so willing are therefore weaker and less deserving than they.

Bourdain doesn’t apologize for this kind of culture; on the contrary, he clearly glories in it. Like a lot of people who came up in cultures like that, he feels that it makes him gritty and rugged, “the real deal”, that it taught him the virtues of hard work and expertise, and that younger people should feel privileged and lucky to have the opportunity to be subjected to it.

Ultimately, this machismo, this need to be seen as tough, began to feel desperate. Is it not enough to be an excellent chef? Why do we all have to pretend that being a chef (or a scientist) is basically the same as being Rambo? ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is less a book than a masculine performance, an anxious plea for the sort of macho glamour that normally belongs to fighter pilots and gunslingers.

When someone feels the need to tell you how very manly they are, it never ends up being convincing. It’s not convincing when Bourdain does it, and it’s really not convincing when scientists do it. And, while I understand desire the share how difficult your job can be, when that description becomes celebratory, when you start to defend the behavior simply because you had to endure it, it perpetuates the conditions you should never have had to endure in the first place.

Books like Bourdain’s make their subject professions worse. It is not reasonable that Bourdain once had a fellow chef grope him every day – bragging about how well he took it entirely misses the point. Bourdain sets these challenges up as rites of passage, something you should have to go through if you want to do what he does. A better, more humane approach would be to decry them and hope that they don’t happen to younger chefs.

While there are winning passages, and while Bourdain can be extremely charming (and funny!), the essential posture of the book is problematic. Ultimately, it feels driven more by Bourdain’s need to be seen a certain way than anything intrinsic to cheffing. While parts of it are really entertaining, I doubt that ‘Kitchen Confidential’ will age well, and, frankly, I kind of hope it doesn’t. It represents a set of values and needs that I think would be better left behind.