Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
320 pages
Published: US, May 2001, The Ecco Press
Genre: Documentary, Biography, Memoir

I'm at best an indifferent cook; I make mean quesadillas (with 'shrooms, onions, salsa and black beans) and my sandwiches are quite aesthetic, but that's about it. I'm also not a big biography/documentary reader, usually preferring the total disconnect of sci-fi and fantasy.

But I like good writing. And Tony Bourdain has that strange gift for making his runaway train of thought collide with his penchant for colourful phrases and explode into a goulash of words that are funny, meaty with content and informative enough that you feel like you've walked away sated.

There's some stuff about food, too.

The book is composed of a series of vignettes, a sort of dim sum offering that gets better with each bite. While it is autobiographical and chronological, Tony's personal life serves mostly as the background to the topics discussed. Throughout the book Mr. Bourdain covers everything and anything you ever wanted (or perhaps needed) to know about the restaurant business, in the context of his own experiences. He doesn't hesitate to break off the personal to talk about the generic, and vice versa - a particular business practice he's discussing may be spiced up with a personal take, so he'll fill in with that. Let's put it this way - if this book was a dish, you'd want to eat it, then ask for more.

Tony doesn't pull any punches in talking about his own experiences; as you'll find out very soon into the book, a cook is part construction yard tough, part maximum security inmate, part crazed junkie, part perfectionist and part proud craftsman. While some cooks have more of one aspect than another, any particular kitchen will contain quite a motley crew. Add to that the pressures of working for people with dubious pasts or questionable legal status, purveyors that are trying to rip you off as much as you're trying to rip off them, your bosses constantly trying to cut costs in ways that are more harmful than helpful, all the while juggling the actual function of the ongoing struggle between the customers' demands and the kitchen's ability to satisfy them ... well, in the chapter "A day in the life", we find out that Tony's 11th cigarette occurs before the earliest of the staff comes through the front door of Les Halles, and a solid chunk of work has already been done (which isn't to say that any less will be done later).

So! To sum up; you get an autobiography of a very interesting type of man; you get several stories of the shadier side of the kitchen business, written quite well; you'll find out more than you ever wanted about the "standard" practices of kitchens that you should be aware of (but probably don't want to); how to detect a doomed restaurant venture ahead of time, and finally, you may get a new appreciation of the cooks that make your food. Or you may just become appalled at the practices, behaviour and language of the same people.

One of the blurbs on the back says: "This is the kind of book that you'll rush through in one sitting, then go around spouting off entire passages to anyone who'll listen". It's true.

This book noded as a contribution to The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.