Kitchen Confidential (Review)


Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Anthony Bourdain, 2000
312 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September, 2014
Bourdain is bad-ass. At least he was 30-some years ago; now he's a grey-haired eminence of the culinary world with several books and TV series under his whites. And it's hard to believe that Kitchen Confidential is closing in on 15 years.

But what a book! Gossipy, deeply personal, always witty and sometimes shocking, it manages to be instructive for both professional cooks and the dining public. Cautionary advice for budding chefs? "Show up on time." For diners? "Nix the Eggs Benedict" (come to think of it, skip Sunday brunch altogether).

The book is part-memoir, part-essay-collection, with some previously-published articles thrown in. The memoir part recalls Bourdain's drug-and-alcohol-infused rise through the ranks of dishwasher to executive chef. In the testosterone-driven, trash-talking, sub-criminal world of his choice, it's sometimes luck and sometimes a trusting mentor that end up saving Bourdain from himself.

Nor is Bourdain's voice necessarily generous. He can oscillate between affection when speaking of the most brutal of kitchen bosses and arrogance, even meanness, when it comes to unsuspecting "country rubes"—the Saturday night diners, vegetarians, chicken eaters, and well-done beef lovers. Isn't that a lot of us?

At other times he reveals an open hostility, as when he talks about his restaurant's human relations director. "Listening to this witless [woman] was to dream of smacking her stupid face with a pepper-mill." Hmm.

But to give Bourdain his due, when it comes to his own flaws, he wears no blinkers. He devotes an entire chapter paying tribute to one of his idols: a younger chef who sacrificed higher pay and faster glory for low level jobs so he could learn every aspect of the trade. It was something Bourdain admits he couldn't have done.

The result for 34-year-old Scott Bryan, by the way, is a stellar resume and even more stellar results—his food. Bourdain is so admiring, even envious, that he takes his own staff, one by one, to Bryan's restaurant simply to taste it.

When it was published, Kitchen Confidential gained a wide, immediate following and made Bourdain a celebrity—it even generated a (short-lived) sit-com. Today the book is a near classic, de riguere for young wannabes in the restaurant world. But it's also an addictive, often times hilarious read for anyone who loves cooking and dining out. Sadly, though, no recipes!

See our Reading Guide for Kitchen Confidential.

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