Thoughts on Kitchen Confidential

Having finally, triumphantly, finished Middlemarch, I decided to read something lighter for a break from the heavy duty stuff.  Kitchen Confidential was the first book I thought of, and given my natural interests in books, food, and the restaurant industry, I’m surprised I didn’t check it out earlier.  Once I started reading, I barely stopped until I was finished, feeling compelled to continue even in an intoxicated, spicy nacho-ed out state.  The last book I remember devouring this voraciously was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  While not a suspense thriller, it is nevertheless thrilling in the sense that it often invokes horror and disgust.  I think KC borrows a lot conceptually from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Both are composed of experiences of and reflections on life on the margins.  Both find great, rich material in the characters and circumstances the authors encounter, and for both, description is key: infusing details with vitality and significance, whether it is the size of a rat or the flavor of fresh pasta.  They also share a similar, straightforward narrative style, not nonchalant, just no bullshit.

For Bourdain, life as he knows it seems to start with the taste of his first raw oyster in France, which opens up a lifetime of adventure, chaos, and belonging.  His tales are entertaining, and for a food-interested person, the specificity with which he discusses dishes and ingredients is an added bonus.  But the book really is about his journey of self-discovery — and in all its fucked-up craziness, there are, one must concede, discernible slivers of inspiration, ambition, and passion.  And aside from his excessive fondness for the phrase “such as it was,” the book is inoffensively written, even lyrical at times, as when he compares the innumerable, overlapping scars on his hands to layers of an ancient city.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when he discusses the kind of bantering that filled the kitchens where he worked.  Vulgar would be a timid way to describe the kitchen talk he describes.  Every other word is “dick” or “fuck,” usually followed by [insert minority of choice].  But, he points out, the verbal spewing really is only chatter, a sort of patois — in the kitchen, as long as you can hold your own, it doesn’t matter what you be, who you are, your criminal record, your citizenship status, your sex preferences — all that matters is that you can do your job.  Chances are, everyone around you is a misfit, too, as arguably only a misfit would willingly endure the hellish quality of life that comes with working the line.  A misfit, or someone demented enough to follow a dream.

Along the road, Bourdain also offers insider tips on restaurant dining –i.e., what not to order (seafood on Mondays, steak well-done), what things are pre-cooked or rip-offs ($8 garlic bread)– and hates on many a food celebrity.  It appears that the likes of Sandra Lee and Guy Fieri are a plain embarrassment to food culture, criticized perhaps for taking food too lightly, in his eyes.  Part of me agrees that food lacks meaning, or something like gravitas — and I, too, abhor Sandra Lee’s food personality, though for different reasons.  But surely we can’t all exalt food the way he and his brethren do, and can ill-afford to, in terms of time or money or emotional investment.  In recent weeks I’ve been wary of the extent to which I prioritize food, even idolize it, I suspect, and regular readers will probably have intuited the effects of this recognition on my blogging output.  It’s sad but true that for most people, many waking hours are spent trying to realize, and then maintain, a balanced appreciation for it, an appreciation that is susceptible to the cyclical and seasonal nature of our lives.  For those of you who identify with what I’m saying, know that you’re not alone, and that acknowledging the struggle is not an admission of defeat, that we are all, like Bourdain, on our own twisted paths of self-discovery.


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