For a Hospitality Intro class, I wrote a piece on the kitchen culture’s bad boy:
An Appreciation of Anthony Bourdain
Early in the 21st century, Anthony Bourdain became the Quentin Tarantino of the kitchen. Tarantino’s breakthrough film, “Pulp Fiction,” had looked way too closely at the mobbed-up lowlifes behind the romantic “Godfather” movies.
And in “Kitchen Confidential” six years later, Bourdain stepped away from the calm, quiet cooking of Julia Child and Craig Claiborne to show the horrors going on in mid-level Manhattan restaurants.
His kitchens were all rock-n’roll, and sex, and drugs. The most potent of drugs was testosterone.
These are his culinary beginnings:
“Waiters were screaming. Chefs were shouting in impenetrable codes, while flames were shooting three feet high out of pans. The grill was crammed with a slowly moving train of orders. Pasta was being transferred to steaming colanders, some falling on the floor.
“I was in deep trouble. Then I grabbed a pan of osso bucco, and burnt myself, dropping the pan on the floor and yelping as a small red blister began to raise itself on my palm. I turned to Tyrone, and asked for some burn cream or a Band-Aid.
“Suddenly the kitchen went quiet. All eyes were on the big grill man and his hopelessly inept assistant. For a long moment Tyrone turned slowly, looking through bloodshot eyes, the sweat dripping off his nose.
“‘Whachoo want, white boy? Burn cream? A Band-Aid?'”
“And then he raised his own enormous palms and held them close to my face so I could see properly: the hideous constellation of water-filled blisters, angry red welt from grill marks, the old scars, the raw flesh where steam or hot fat had simply made the skin roll off.
“They looked like the claws of some monstrous science-fiction crustacean.
“Then Tyrone reached slowly under the broiler and with one naked hand, picked up a smoking hot sizzle platter and laid it down in front of him while the rest of the kitchen cheered, hooted and roared. It was total humiliation for me.”
And it was good-bye to the food writing of the previous century, which had been steeped in the sweet humanity of M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard, with Vivaldi playing in the background. Bourdain unplugged the violins and plugged in The Ramones.
As sociologist Dr. Krishnendu Ray wrote in the journal Gastronomica:
“His writing is not only a retort to Juliaesque domesticity but also a mirror image of the somber masculinity of the ‘professional chef,’ played with swagger and sardonic irony. His act is as much a caricature of masculinity as is Emeril’s. Bourdain’s conceit is a modernist celebration of the bad boy, a rock star mocking himself.”
Bourdain’s first non-fiction book, “Kitchen Confidential,” was a love letter to the harsh side of the chef-coat culture. He thought it might become a cult classic in New York. Instead, it went to the heart of cooks and customers and the New York Times best-seller list.
Bourdain didn’t grow up in a foodie family. He found his own palate as a teenager on holiday in France, on a small boat, eating a freshly caught oyster.
Then it was vichyssoise. Soon the little rich boy was leaving New Jersey every summer for the greasy delights of Cape Cod fish-fry shacks, where he washed pots and pans for several seasons “before getting the chance to move up to the fry station, when I dunked breaded clams and shrimps into hot oil and occasionally got a shift on the mighty grill.”
He dropped out of Vassar and head for the Culinary Institute, then got a great job in New York and started doing cocaine – and drifting downward, job to job, until he was chopping and frying in mob joints staffed by ex-cons. Finally, his wife Nancy turned him around and he rose again, this time to executive chef at Les Halles.
In the meantime, in his spare time, he was writing. He started with a couple crime novels based on the lower-end kitchens he’d worked.
Fiction worked, but his food writing wouldn’t sell. Then he pitched a short piece to the New Yorker, called “Don’t Eat Before You Read This.” That started him on a new career, and began what became a famous line of New Kitchen Wisdom.
— A good line cook never shows up late, never calls in sick and works through pain and injury.
— A cook is not meant to be an artist or an innovator.
— Do not show off or seek the spotlight, it makes the chef unhappy.
— Love mindless tasks with unvarying repetitions at great speed in a hot and dangerous work space.
— Don’t order fish on Monday, it was probably delivered last Thursday;
— Avoid lukewarm, bacteria-enriched hollandaise sauce at a brunch buffet.
— A restaurant with filthy restrooms probably has a filthy kitchen;
— Eat out in midweek for the freshest food and best cooking.
The success of “Kitchen Confidential” took Bourdain out of the kitchen and on the road as a diner.
His schtick was like a realization of Jeffrey Steingarten’s hyperbolic promise in “The Man Who Ate Everything.” While Steingarten, preparing to becoming the food writer for Vanity Fair, tried all the foods he thought he didn’t like, Bourdain did both books and television series based on, well, eating everything.
Raw seal. The hearts of live cobras. And in Namibia, wart hog complete with sand, fur and fecal matter.
“The chief is there in front of his whole tribe offering you his very best,” Bourdain said. “Show respect. I’m lucky to be there. I’m lucky to see that. I’m lucky to have that experience. Chewing some antibiotics is a small price to pay.”
Eating on camera in “A Cook’s Tour” and “No Reservations” is one thing. But cooking on camera?
No way, not for Bourdain.
He wrote in “Kitchen Confidential” that he wouldn’t be caught dead on the Food Network, and he continues with the most scathing indictments of its current crop of home-ec teachers, who have replaced the Rabelaisian Mario Batali and pushed Emeril out of prime time.
Bourdain remains pushed out of his own kitchen at Les Hales in New York, and he says his hands are getting soft. His own cooking isn’t wart hog or cobra, it is classic French.
While doing the TV travel tales, he produced a thick volume on the cooking side, based on the menu at Les Halles. He described it as “Julia Child meets Full Metal Jacket.”
Les Halles is meant to be a classic bistro, a restaurant you don’t have to dress for, where you can drink too much, talk loud and enjoy friends. His cookbook details the classic dishes: Boeuf Bourguignon, Coq au Vin, Onion Soup Les Halles, Steak au Poivre, Chocolate Mousse.
The recipes are demanding but not beyond the reach of a decent home cook. Duck fat and foie gras come up a lot, as does dark veal stock. Most are leavened with profanity. Bourdain said he wanted to create a guide to bistro cooking, something useful in the kitchen, not a coffee-table book.
But then, he probably doesn’t own a coffee table.