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Kitchen Confidential

Thursday, March 10, 2016

This week I finally got around to reading a book that's been on my shelf for way too long:  Kitchen Confidential.  For those who aren't familiar, this is the book that transitioned (the now famous) chef Anthony Bourdain from the kitchen to the spotlight.  Since its release in 2000, he's hosted a variety of shows including A Cook's Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown.  As some of you may recall, I'm pretty judgmental when it comes to cooking-related shows.  Most shows today exist purely to gain a strong following and to make money in the short-term.  With Bourdain though, it's different.  He actually had a career in the restaurant industry for nearly three decades before he gained his celebrity status fifteen years ago.  So whether reading or watching something produced by Bourdain, it's evident that he knows what he's talking about.  In addition to everything you can learn from him on a culinary level, a huge amount of readers have been drawn to him due to his honesty about the culinary world.

And it's his honesty that's made people either love him or hate him.

Kitchen Confidential received some negative attention initially because it gave restaurants a bad name—specifically in the kitchen cleanliness department—and made it hard for everyday people to now trust their favorite restaurant.  While some of what he talks about still exists in some restaurants today, it's largely a thing of the past.  Between the fact that kitchens must undergo rigorous annual health inspections as well as the fact that there's a new generation of cooks who are motivated to be in this industry for the right reasons, I (and Bourdain through recent interviews) can safely dismiss many of the things that were brought up in some of the early chapters when comparing it to today's kitchens.

[Side note:  If you're not familiar with Anthony Bourdain, here's a nice clip that illustrates his personality while (surprisingly) keeping everything pretty clean.]

Reading on, I quickly was able to relate to so many topics that come up when you're working as a cook.

He starts off writing to homecooks about all of the tools of the trade, which include a decent chef's knife, metal rings for plating, pastry bags, heavy-bottomed pots and pans, and so on, as well as key ingredients like shallots, butter, roasted garlic, homemade stock, and demi-glace.  Pertaining to knifes, Bourdain states that he wishes "that [he] could go through the kitchens of amateur cooks everywhere just throwing knives out from their drawers—all those medium-size 'utility' knives, those useless serrated things you see advertised on TV, all that hard-to-sharpen stainless-steel garbage, those ineptly designed slicers—not one of the damn things could cut a tomato.  Please believe me, here's all you will ever need in the knife department:  ONE good chef's knife, as large as is comfortable in your hand."  This is so true, too.  With a few obvious exceptions (like filleting a fish), you rarely see chefs transition through various knives throughout the day.

Halfway through the book, you get a taste of the downsides to moving up on the management side of a restaurant and having to face the constant issues that come with being both over and understaffed.  Being the one to tell cooks that they're either going to get significant hours cut or lose their job completely gets to you pretty fast.  "Every day, [he'd] stay in bed later and later, paralyzed with guilt and self-loathing."  And then "when [he] finally had to start messing around with some loyalists' schedules, giving them split shifts for no additional money, and [he] saw the terrible look of betrayal in their eyes...[he] could take no more."  Unfortunately he was spot on with this one.

Further through the second half, you get a taste of how long hours, the stress of lunch and dinner rushes, and a lack of an HR department promote a unique environment that you can't help but fall in love with.  "As an art form, cook-talk is, like haiku or kabuki, defined by established rules, with a rigid, traditional framework, in which one may operate."  There were a couple pages that I probably shouldn't restate on the blog to keep this post PG, but I will say that the conversations he repeats (both in English and Spanish) from his cooks are spot on.  He had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion.  "The goads, curses, insults and taunts of [his] wildly profane crew are like poetry to [him], beautiful at times, each tiny variation on a classic theme like some Beat-era jazz riff:  Coltrane doing 'My Favorite Things' over and over again, but making it new and different each time."  I don't know how well this will make sense to readers who don't come from commercial kitchens, but it was one of those odd, laughable topics that I was able to relate to more than you might think.

In the same chapter, Bourdain brings up the importance of positions in the kitchen other than the cooks.  The one that I connected to the most was your food runners and/or expediters.  "Runners are the chef's Imperial Guard: halfbreeds who dress like waiters, are paid out of front-of-the-house payroll, but whose loyalties lie (ideally) with the chef and the kitchen."  In his eyes, "a really good runner is a rare and beautiful find.  In the best cases, there is a near-telepathic relationship between chef and runner, requiring only a glance or a facial expression to communicate scads of information.  A really good runner will read the dupes over the shoulder of his master, between orders, immediately identifying what will likely come next and where it's going."  I can't stress enough how true this is.  When you're in the middle of a rush, wondering if the printer is ever going to stop spitting out tickets, hearing that a 15-top just came in followed by a 20-top, it's easy to be tempted to walk out.  But if you have an experienced line crew and an expediter who keeps their cool and keeps everyone on the same page, it's the best feeling in the world to get through the rush.

He ends the book with some advice to culinary students and to "the growing number of people who are considering becoming a professional chef as a second career."  Followed by explanations to each piece of advice, Bourdain suggests the following to those who understand but welcome the unglamorous life of a cook:

  1. Be fully committed.
  2. Learn Spanish!
  3. Don't steal.
  4. Always be on time.
  5. Never make excuses or blame others.
  6. Never call in sick.
  7. Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad.
  8. Be prepared to witness every variety of human folly and injustice.
  9. Assume the worst.
  10. Try not to lie.
  11. Avoid restaurants where the owner's name is over the door.
  12. Think about that résumé!
  13. Read!
  14. Have a sense of humor about things.

It was refreshing to hear so many relatable stories from another chef and see that we're not alone.  Rather, that we (fellow co-workers and I) are part of a crazy spread of individuals who may seem like opposites at first glance, but when you get to know each other, you realize how similar you are.  As cheesy as it sounds, the restaurant world is like a giant amusement park where it's mandatory to try each ride at least once.  It takes guts to start that first kitchen job (or get on that first ride), but you quickly learn what to expect and start building up your confidence.  As soon as you get comfortable at a job, that huge plunge comes out of no where and gets you out of your comfort zone.  You learn from it and move on to the next ride, constantly picking up tools of the trade.  You eventually get used to the fact that controlled chaos becomes both the day-to-day norm as well as the long-term picture.  I've only been in the kitchen for four years, and I already have quite the collection of stories—many that have yet to be told.

Although I will recommend this book to all readers as I did for the last review, I especially recommend this read to people in the trade.  Bourdain even ends his preface by saying that "this is for the cook".  There are so many stories that I didn't touch on in this post being that they were a tad too colorful, but they're stories that I know for a fact that fellow cooks will instantly nod their heads to and laugh at.

If you have a cooking-related book that you want me to add to the list, please comment below or send me a message!

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