a year in food and life

Kitchen Confidential February 6, 2007

Filed under: Books,Diversions,food — superspark @ 9:06 am

kitchen-confidential.jpgI’m not a person who likes to join clubs. Most of the things I like to do in my spare time are not activities that I want to do with a whole host of people, many of whom are virtual strangers. Yes, I gave in and joined some clubs in high school, told that I wouldn’t get into college unless I relented. But they only reinforced my perceptions that clubs are kind of a waste of time and ineffective. And if I’m going to waste my time, wouldn’t I rather do it among friends, without having to meet under some pretense?

Then in the last ten years the whole book club phenomenon erupted and finally, I saw a glimmer of hope for a club that I might actually want to join. Reading is one of my favorite things to do and I liked the idea of being introduced to some books, authors, or genres that I might otherwise not give a second thought. Plus I also really like drinking wine, which seems to be a requisite of any bookclub aimed at 20- and 30-somethings.

So somehow I find myself having joined not one, but two bookclubs in the last year. As I had imagined, I have read a lot, both good and bad, that I would never have picked up before. But wow, trying to keep up with two bookclubs a month doesn’t leave a lot of time for other recreational reading. It is a rare and delightful moment when I find myself caught up with the bookclub selections but with a week or two before I get roped into the next month’s “required” reading. This past month, in a fortuitous coincidence, not only did I find myself with extra time, but my friend Amanda (who loves to pass along books and magazines and is one of the postal service’s most frequent and dedicated patrons) had just sent me a shipment of books including Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Fast-paced and punchy, with no actual plot, it seemed the perfect antidote to an overdose of high-minded literature.

Kitchen Confidential will be most interesting to those who have worked or aspire to work in the food business. I certainly don’t fit into that category, but as someone who is interested in food in a more general way, I still found the book entertaining. Some parts were certainly better than others…I loved the early chapter about what chefs order (or don’t order) in restaurants and why. Did you know that brunch tends to be a way for restaurants to get rid of the old food that they haven’t yet sold over the weekend, covering up the age of the food with sauces? Or that swordfish is so often riddled with three-foot parasitic worms that many in the industry avoid it? Yeah, I had no idea either. Equally interesting was the chapter entitled, “How to cook like the pros,” in which Bourdain discussed the techniques, tools, and ingredients that you really need as an at-home chef. The list is shorter than you might think and he even gives recommendations as far as brands that are best for an interested amateur.

I was less interested in the “color” of the book than I might have imagined. There were many chapters chronicling Bourdain’s rise in the cooking industry, from culinary school to early kitchen jobs to head chef. I definitely have a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, but after reading several chapters about sex, drugs, and the rock n’ roll lifestyle of chefs, I got the picture and wanted to move on. I think I was just less interested in this as a biography than as an expose. But that might just be because I get the impression that I wouldn’t really like Bourdain a lot as a person. (That said, I thought he was a terrific guest judge on Top Chef this past season and would love to see him return as a permanent fixture, in place of Gail Simmons from Food & Wine, who really doesn’t do a lot for me.) The swaggering, macho, over-the-top persona that he adopts in Kitchen Confidential became almost too overbearing and calculated for me at times. Still, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in food, restaurants, or cooking.