No one writes about cooking better than Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential is basically the first Black Sabbath album of food writing. There should have been a generation of writers following him, basically the punks of the genre, but it hasn’t happened. I guess there’s Lucky Peach, but that’s just Bon Apetit with stick-and-poke tattoos and an ironic taste for fast food.
My friends that cook usually say the kitchen demands too much time and punishes any who flirt with another mistress. I think a lot of people attracted to the fame of the writing side probably don’t have what it takes to suffer in obscurity on a line. I certainly don’t.
There is a danger in reading Kitchen Confidential at a certain age. It can give the reader a taste for the same intoxicating bad decisions that can be found in Hunter S. Thompson’s work. I went hard in an attempt to emulate my booze soaked heroes when I was young. It was fun, but I have no work to show for my efforts because I did almost no writing while I was partying.
Bourdain certainly isn’t the only hard drinking kitchen veteran who’s about that life, but he is one of the extreme few who can write. In the intro to the version of Kitchen Confidential I own he talks about getting up at 5 or 6am with a cigarette and cranking out a couple of hours of work on the book before hitting his kitchen. This daily practice is how it’s done. Even William S. Burroughs discussed how little he wrote as an active junky.
If you want to be like Thompson or Orwell or Kerouac or even Bourdain, you have to live hard, but you have to write hard too. You have to familiarize yourself with the greats and put in time on your skill set. To be able to do both is shockingly rare and accounts for why there has not been a food book as good as Kitchen Confidential published since. When you do have a chef with a big personality, they usually get a ghost writer. That shit never produces anything good. If the person can write, they’re probably some East Coast academic with a parachute made out of their parent’s money. Those people have no heart.
From a craft perspective, his writing is legitimately great. He asserts a worldview, uses a phenomenal mix of high and lowbrow descriptions and always keeps the heroically flawed humanity of his subjects in focus. I don’t think you could pull this off without having a foot in the aristocratic and working class worlds. It’s the same formula George Orwell used in Down and Out in London and Paris, the only book about the back of house I think is better than Bourdain’s.
If I was in charge of high school curriculums, I might switch out 1984 for Down and Out. Animal Farm, if taught correctly, will inoculate young minds against the dreary lies of socialism and communism. Most kids will end up working low wage jobs, not living in a North Korean style dystopia. I think Down and Out would do a better job preparing them for what awaits. The service industry is more or less unchanged since Orwell’s time.
I spent a long time in the service industry. I was born into it. I was a heavy hitter. As a bartender I often had the highest rings, the biggest tips, and a drawer that was always accurate. My station was clean and I worked through insane injuries and sicknesses. When you work for tips, there is no PTO.
The only real hole in my bar game was I quit drinking early on. While owners loved that, it kept me from evolving into what bartending became. People aren’t into bartenders that can dish out venom and violence anymore. They want esoteric cocktails and theatrical shaking. It’s easy to despise that stuff when you’re a salty old hater, but when it’s done well it’s legit.
You can make an argument that Yelp and social media ruined the front of house. As someone who flowed free drinks to the kitchen with an alarming level of irresponsibility, I always had admiration for the insurgents in the kitchen, but it seemed like madness to work that hard for 1/5th as much money. But kitchens crews still get to be pirates whereas servers, even bartenders, have to be on their best behavior lest some blogger snitch on them to the Huffington Post.
It was good that I got out when I did, but I dearly miss the camaraderie and mayhem of the industry. After all these years, Kitchen Confidential still manages to capture that indescribable feeling you get at the end of shift when you’re smoking anything that’s combustible, stealing booze, and trying to nail co-workers.
It’s a fucking classic and it always will be for connoisseurs of chaos.