Editor’s note: This article, an interview with Anthony Bourdain promoting his cookbook "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," originally ran in Newsday on May 31, 2000. The late chef died June 8, 2018. He was 61.
Others have already compared Anthony Bourdain’s new book, "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" to George Orwell’s classic "Down and Out in Paris and London."
It’s a natural connection.
Bourdain, the chef at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue, is, it is clear, one literate chef. As he ate lunch — beer, wild mushroom ravioli with pungent truffles, the thick part of a skirt steak, which he ordered by the French name onglet, frites-at the restaurant across the street from his job, Park Bistro, he talked about "Down and Out" and other books that had influenced him.
"When I was starting out as a line cook, that book was a revelation to me," Bourdain said. Orwell’s look at the seamy side of kitchen life, he said, meant to him "that we cooks were part of a continuum."
He went on talking of books that inspired him: Nicolas Freeling’s "The Kitchen Book," about "street-level cooking;" "Flash in the Pan" by David Blum, about all that could and did go wrong in the opening of a restaurant on Varick and Van Dam Streets; "The Belly of Paris," an 1873 book by the French master of gritty realism, Imile Zola, for which he paid $125. (And that was the paperback.) And the works of Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer whose collected books have been published as "Up in the Old Hotel."
"I use books like drugs," Bourdain said. The drugs, he kicked. Nowadays, in the deep nights after work, he eats and drinks at sushi places and smokes Lark cigarettes. While he’s cooking, a margarita in a mug takes the edge off.
Bourdain’s voracious reading shows in his writing. In "Kitchen Confidential," he has changed a few names to protect the guilty, but otherwise he has pulled out all the stops about what goes on behind the swinging doors. (Bourdain has two earlier books to his credit, "Bone in the Throat," a restaurant novel, and "Gone Bamboo," which he describes as his "dysfunctional beach book.")
Nowadays, Bourdain admitted, he probably could get by without cooking for a living, but he doesn’t want to give up the frenetic rush of the kitchen because "I’m in the best situation of my career." The menu-fabulous meat, great frites-at Les Halles is "soul food for chefs," he said.
"Everybody orders meat rare," at Les Halles, he said, and that’s a chef’s dream job. "It’s a vegetarian heart of darkness."
"Kitchen Confidential" begins with a vacation his family took the summer after he was in fourth grade. Some background is in order: Bourdain’s father, Pierre, was a record company executive (classical music, Columbia). His mother, Gladys, works on the metro desk at The New York Times, and his younger brother Chris’ job as a grown-up has "something to do with currency." The family sailed on the Cunard line’s Queen Mary to his father’s ancestral homeland, France.
The soup in the cabin-class dining room was cold.
"It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying, " he writes of that bowl of vichyssoisse.
Bourdain’s proudest moment, however, was yet to come. On an oyster boat, he, alone of his family, rose to the challenge of tasting a silt-covered oyster straight from the brine.
"And in that unforgettably sweet moment in my personal history," he writes, "I attained glory." Bourdain took the "glistening, vaguely sexual- looking object, still dripping and nearly alive." He tilted the shell back into his mouth and "with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater … of brine and flesh … and somehow … of the future."
Bourdain’s life as a chef had begun.
That oyster was the first of many. It was also the beginning of a culinary odyssey that took him to a dishwashing job in Provincetown, Mass., where Bourdain admired the cooks who had "style and swagger," seemed afraid of nothing and carried big knives, "which they kept honed and sharpened to a razor’s edge." He wanted that world, and eventually, with stops in a lot of kitchens, he got it.
Along the way, there was "fornication, free booze and ready access to drugs," writes Bourdain. Call it the underbelly of the book’s subtitle, and if you shock easily, this fascinating tale may not be for you.
If you have the stomach for it, however, you will learn why you should never order fish on a Monday (it’s old), why you should avoid seafood medleys and the like on brunch menus (it’s stuff the chef is trying to use up) and why it may not be a good idea to order mussels unless you know the chef personally (one bad one and there’s hell to pay).
This is straight stuff. "Pigs are filthy animals, say some, when explaining why they deny themselves the delights of pork," writes Bourdain. "Maybe they should visit a chicken ranch." He says America’s favorite menu item may also make you ill. Care to know why? Keep reading.
Along the way, Bourdain acquired cuts, scars and calluses he wears with pride. Cooks have a saying, he said, that until a knife tastes blood, it is not really one’s own. He has seen lemon squeezed into cuts to disinfect them, and wounds wrapped in caul fat. Anything to keep working.
"The guiding philosophy is not what makes you feel better, but when will I be back?" he said. There’s no pay while cooks are out.
"A lot of us," he added, "find scars sexy and attractive."
"I always love shaking hands with a chef," he went on. When he shook hands with Jean-Louis Palladin at a 10th anniversary party for D’Artagnan, the purveyor of foie gras and other specialty items, Bourdain said, "it felt like a field hand’s paw." (Palladin, once the youngest two-star Michelin chef in history, was chef at his restaurant Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., and is now executive chef at Napa Restaurant in Las Vegas.) Bourdain has shaken hands with the legendary Paul Bocuse, and with Mario Batali of Po, Babbo and other restaurants. His chapter on why Scott Bryan of Veritas is a better chef than he will ever be, in his own estimation, has him wondering if he should answer an ad that trumpets "Drive the Big Rigs!"
Meeting Andre Soltner, whose Lutece was the pinnacle of New York dining for years, was "like meeting Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig at the same time."
Scars aside, Bourdain said he has heard that 55 is now the average life expectancy for a chef.
Some day, Bourdain, who also writes for Food Arts magazine and has had several excerpts from "Kitchen Confidential" published in The New Yorker, would like to earn his keep by "traveling around, writing about culinary exotica." For example, "I want to eat giant beetles roasted over coals."
Yet in some ways Bourdain is a self-described "wuss." Buying a live chicken and having it killed to order in Chinatown "was deeply disturbing," he said. In the future, "I want to do it over the phone."
This is a simple, satisfying meal that recalls a primal one Bourdain had in his Provincetown days. By eating fish on the bone, he said, "you are showing your fellow wise guys that you know how to cook a fresh fish to its best advantage."
Whole Striped Bass With Basil Oil
1 striped bass (or red snapper, or dorade), about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, gutted, scales and gills removed
Sea salt and crushed black pepper
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh sage
1 wedge lemon
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 ounce basil oil, or extra-virgin
1. Season body cavity of fish with salt and pepper. Stuff thyme, rosemary, sage, lemon and garlic into the cavity, lay fish on a lightly oiled pan and roast at maximum temperature (500 degrees) in the oven until skin is crispy and flesh is cooked through.
2. Place on a warmed plate and drizzle with a little high-quality basil oil or olive oil. Serve with roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables such as fennel and asparagus. Makes 1 serving.