When The New Yorker excerpted chef/writer Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in two issues over the past year, the magazine committed the crime of many movie previews--it gave away all the money shots. "From Our Kitchen to Your Table" and "A Day in the Life" served up all of Bourdain's best stuff: the contempt chefs have for vegetarians; the questionable hygiene practiced by restaurant staffers; the reasons you should never order the seafood frittata at brunch; the fact that all restaurant food is laden with butter, no matter how many little hearts dot the menu.
That doesn't render Kitchen Confidential irrelevant, but it does mean that much of the book's shock value is gone. What's left is a testosterone-laden but well-written and occasionally heartfelt chronicle of one life spent behind the swinging doors.
Bourdain, now the executive chef at New York's Brasserie Les Halles, treats the book as something of a confessional. He goes into surprising detail on his own drug-ridden, restaurant-closing past, and those self-serving sections tend to be the weakest. (Baltimoreans will be particularly underwhelmed by the section in which Bourdain discusses his time as a chef in a Harborplace chain restaurant: "Baltimore sucks. If you haven't been there, it's a fairly quaint excuse for a city.") He claims to be somewhat ashamed of his past behavior, but Bourdain's writing belies too much enthusiasm and affection for those years to convince readers that he wouldn't do it all again.
The book shines when Bourdain focuses on the food, on his own love of preparing it and his genuine respect for those who treat it well. Early in these pages he offers readers advice on improving their own cooking (use fresh herbs, good tools, and a lot of squeeze bottles), but all too soon he returns to the swaggering tales of drug use and knife fights in his hopelessly volatile kitchen. He eventually redeems himself with "Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown," a humorous chapter on the best baker he's ever employed, and "The Life of Bryan," a visit to the kitchen of renowned chef Scott Bryan, who manages to run a quiet, well-coordinated kitchen that turns out vastly more creative cuisine than Bourdain's famously anti-social staff can manage.
Regardless of the quality of the book itself, Bourdain has displayed his own marketing savvy just by writing it. Who else would have thought to tap into our national hysteria for both life-or-death adventure books and the Food Network?
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