“No, I want to tell you about the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly – a subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy and ethos of ‘rum, buggery and the lash’ make for a mix of unwavering order and nerve-shattering chaos – because I find it all quite comfortable, like a nice warm bath. I can move around easily in this life. I speak the language. In the small, incestuous community of chefs and cooks in New York City, I know the people, and in my kitchen, I know how to behave (as opposed to in real life, where I’m on shakier ground). I want the professionals who read this to enjoy it for what it is: a straight look at a life many of us have lived and breathed for most of our days and nights to the exclusion of ‘normal’ social interaction. Never having had a Friday or Saturday night off, always working holidays, being busiest when the rest of the world is just getting out of work, makes for a sometimes peculiar world-view, which I hope my fellow chefs and cooks will recognize. The restaurant lifers who read this may or may not like what I’m doing. But they’ll know I’m not lying.”
Before No Reservations, there was Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s straightforward, occasionally too-honest account of the restaurant industry and the demented geniuses who make their living from it. Although there are plenty of meditations on food (the very first section describes the moment when Anthony Bourdain first fell in love with food) and cooking, this is first and foremost a book about restaurants: what kind of people work there, what sort of people should and shouldn’t own one, and what goes on behind the scenes. This really functions more as a collection of essays rather than a straightforward memoir, because although events happen in mostly chronological order, there are large gaps missing (for instance, in one chapter Bourdain discusses the time he worked at an Italian restaurant and learned to love Italian food, and in the next chapter he’s describing a typical day at his job as head chef of Les Halles) and there’s no clear narrative arc. It’s a good, in-depth look at the inner workings of restaurants, well-written and brimming with Bourdain’s signature no-bullshit piss-and-vinegar tone that I love so well:
“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is not a life worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all that I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
I’ve worked as a waitress for about two and half years now, so most of the things Bourdain reveals about the food service industry weren’t all that shocking to me (people working in a restaurant are often drinking and/or on drugs during service? yawn.) but the book was still able to give me a new perspective into a part of the restaurant industry that I was unfamiliar with. In a restaurant, working the floor and working back of house are two very different worlds, and it was cool to get a look into how the other side lives. It also gave me more sympathy to how damn hard the cooks have to work – after reading sections like the description of Bourdain working as the head chef during the dinner rush, I will never complain again about the cooks where I work taking twenty minutes to make two burgers in the middle of Friday night dinner rush:
“The printer is going nonstop now. My left hand grabs tickets, separates out white copy for grill, yellow copy for sautee, pink copy for me, coffee orders for the busboys. My right hand wipes plates, jams gaufrette potatoes and rosemary sprigs into mashed potatoes, moves tickets from the order to the fire positions, appetizers on order to appetizers out. I’m yelling full-time now, trying to hold it together, keep an even pace. My radar screen is filled with incoming bogeys, and I’m shooting them down as fast as I can. One mistake, where a whole table comes back because of a prematurely fired dupe, or a bad combination of special requests ties up a station for a few critical seconds, or a whole roasted fish or a cote de boeuf has been forgotten? The whole line could come grinding to a dead stop, like someone dropping a wrench into a GM assembly line – utter meltdown, what every chef fears most. If something like this happens it could blow the whole pace of the evening, screw up everybody’s heads, and create a deep, dark hole that could be very hard to climb out of.”
Required reading for anyone who plans to eat at a restaurant in the near future.
Verdict: four out of five stars
SIDE NOTE: Does anyone remember the short lived sitcom based on this book? I saw one of the episodes back when it originally aired and forgot about it until I read this book and realized that the two were connected. A look at the show’s IMDb page reveals a delightful assortment of “Hey, they’re kinda famous now!” casting – Bradly Cooper played the Anthony Bourdain stand-in!