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Book Review: Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

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It’s oxymoronic that the ancient philosopher Epicurus (the man behind the term “epicurean”) didn’t really promote a wide appreciation of food. In fact, he espoused the inarguable tenet in his philosophy that the more mundane and modest the food the better. One can just picture Epicurus back in food-loving Greece hopelessly caterwauling about how eating bland food should be written into law to a crowd of affronted red-faced food aficionados and cooks, who all demand that Epicurus stop his blasphemy and return to their palaces and houses to sample the best food in the land for reconsideration. Epicurus would then reluctantly follow the most outspoken in the group to their home and, after copious amounts of feasting and spirits, he would loosen his tightening toga, wrap his arms around two buxom chorus girls, and resignedly apologize to the flustered host about his previous overestimation regarding dull food. What a racket.

Gross speculation maybe, but good old Epicurus reminds me of another philosopher – Benjamin Franklin – who once testified: “to lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.” However enduring the aphorism sounded at the time, this was declared before mister Franklin moved to France as a American ambassador where he discovered delectable French grub and mysteriously contracted the gout. You can’t blame him for his edible complex though. His stomping ground – Philadelphia – hadn’t even conceived of the Philly cheese steak sandwich yet, and the rest of the grub in embryonic America was as puritanical as it gets.

While the old chestnut of “eating healthy” is still being relentlessly mumbled today – and probably will be into perpetuity – modern epicureans have helped to transform the philosophy of food from one of meager utility to an honestly inspiring experience. With assistance from modern mutinous epicureans, food is huge now. Some of the most famous restaurants in the U.S. are harder to get into than an Ayn Rand novel. Some eateries are so hot they have actually have groupies and followings. Consequently, chefs have become celebrities, and a few have achieved rock star-like status.

Speaking of rock stars, celebrity chefs, and French cuisine, need I remind you that there is an updated version of the classic memoir and restaurant tour: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly that was released two years ago? Probably not, but here it goes.

Maybe you were introduced to the Master Chef Anthony Bourdain as I was: flipping through the channels on some weekend and, suddenly, on the Food Channel, there is some dude from Jersey sitting in a restaurant on the Mekong Delta eating a fetal duck egg. Or maybe you saw him on other programs eating a beating snake heart or chomping down on an assorted selection of eyeballs? Horror d’oeuvre culture shock moments aside, what is the show about? It’s a travel show; it’s a food show; it’s a show with attention deficit disorder. What’s the payoff of the show? It’s authentically entertaining while being disguised as semi-educational. What’s best of all is that it’s hosted by the Sid Vicious of what’s delicious: a chef whose motto would be that life can be fare, it just depends where you eat.

In this updated version of his bestseller by the man with the panache for the nosh – Tony Bourdain – forks over the knowledge about the secret life behind the swaying impact doors of an everyday restaurant. It’s not merely a insider revelation about the cooking profession as the title might have you assume (because that would make a pretty thin book), but it’s also part autobiography and part war stories — as well as being an exposé on restaurant realities with a pinch of cooking hints and restaurant tips added for flavor.

This gastronomy anomaly is a meaty romp through the soup and salad days of chef Tony Bourdain. For those who were too young to remember the indulgent and drug-addled 1970s and 1980s, don’t feel bad because many people who lived in those decades don’t remember much of them either. Luckily, Tony does, and those transformational decades for American food-dom provide the first backdrop for the chord-strikingly soulful and occasionally profane contemplated life of this master chef.

His formative experiences in the commercial kitchen? Let’s say he was expecting a kitchen and crew à la Wolfgang Puck, but reality fleshed out something more like Blackbeard the pirate’s. And you guessed it, many parts of Tony’s life can be rated “aaargh!” His gang jump in into the kitchen ecosystem accordingly shapes his unique take on the profession, and it additionally serves as a general parable to budding chefs and random gawkers out there who might discover to their terror that the chef’s life can be more like a dysfunctional version of the TV show Hell’s Kitchen than they imagine it to be. There is real indispensable value of the travails of Chef Bourdain. It’s a sauce replete with cooking wisdom mixed with the hard scrabble epiphanies of a chef whose rich observational gifts and searing use of humor come across as effortless with the signature conversational narrational quality that he is known for in his TV show.

Order up.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is presented by HarperCollins Publishers. His fictional works include Bone in the Throat, Gone Bamboo, Bobby Gold, and The Bobby Gold Stories. His nonfiction works include The Nasty Bits, A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles Cookbook,” and No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. His television show No Reservations can be seen on the Travel Channel, and his show is also now available on DVD.

If you found this article about food culture intriguing and want to venture further down the eatery rabbit hole into the life of the restaurant wait staff please read our review of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping by Phoebe Damrosch.

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About James O'Neil

  • ryan

    yeh stick to the formula HA 🙂

  • James,

    Loved the Ayn Rand bit, the buxom chorus girl bit and, actually, the whole article. I think you have a great writing style.

    Tony is a favorite in our home. My husband happens to be reading this book at the moment. We were lucky enough to catch a show he did in Atlantic City last year. It was his first live show I think, he said he was nervous.

    I saw Tony’s Laos show the other day, where he dines with a man who has lost both a leg and an arm to American land mines that were left behind. He raises awareness about the 100 people killed each year by these mines and the many others who are injured.

    To watch a man who is supposed to be a TV entertainer, become so touched by the circumstance of people, that he wants to use his show to inform the world is an amazing rare thing, I think. I like Tony very much.

  • Victoria Ann

    I stopped reading at “buxom chorus girls.” There is no room for that on the internet.

  • O. Rangatan

    And as long as we’re picking nits I didn’t care for that Ayn Rand comment. She wanted to write a book and she did. End of story.

  • Susan

    Epicurus wrote of “simple” food. Not necessarily bland food. But it’s refreshing to see him mentioned at all.

  • Teri Tactile

    I agree. You really need to spell out your reviews to us slow people.

  • Teri

    While I was reading the review I found it disappointing to have to wade through all the beginning text that in the end to me did not seem all that relevant to the review, let alone having to wait until page 2 to get to the actual review.