Book Review: “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, Revisited

Although there are very few books that I’ve ever read more than once, I decided to re-read “Kitchen Confidential” this week, just to see how well the book has held up since I had first read it, almost 10 years ago. In this case, revisiting Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 best-seller seemed like a fitting exercise for me: I had just returned to the professional kitchen last month, after a three-year layoff selling wine at Nickel & Nickel. Naturally, with that much time away from the kitchen, I’ve come to view my current job at Étoile as a new beginning, and in many ways, cooking on the line these last four weeks has been almost like starting over, although the timing and the moves are quickly returning. Similarly, I had first read “Kitchen Confidential” back in 2002 when I really was starting over, at a time when I was first contemplating chef school, still reeling from the dot-com crash, and working my first job as a prep cook in Los Angeles.

Back then, “Kitchen Confidential” proved to be an inspiring call to action, and one of many factors that helped push me towards a career in food and wine. I finished the book in less than two days, as I remember just buzzing through the text, probably over the course of just three or four sittings. Subsequently, I did something that I never do, which was loan the book to someone else. I actually gave my copy to a server at Houston’s Santa Monica named (and I’m not making this up) Karma. I told him that when he was finished reading it, just to loan the book to someone else in the business. Ideally, I’d like to think that the book has changed many hands since then, but who knows? As a former English major, I usually go well out of my way to hoard books, but for some reason, I felt almost evangelical about this one. Or perhaps it was because I knew that I would soon be leaving Los Angeles, and one more book would just be one more thing to pack.

• • •

My decision to revisit “Kitchen Confidential” occurred while I was at a barbecue last month, having spotted a dog-eared copy on a friend’s bookshelf. I was with all my new co-workers, on our first day off since I had started at Chandon, and after flipping through the text, I wanted to compare notes with my own experiences in the business, now that I was further along. Having borrowed the book and now finished it, I discovered that “Kitchen Confidential” struck me much differently on the second read. For one thing, the book is now laden with dramatic irony, especially whenever Bourdain mentions that he is forever entrenched in the restaurant business, or that he really wouldn’t have it any other way. By telling his story, and putting pen to paper, Bourdain had unwittingly reinvented himself. I certainly don’t blame the author for leaving the restaurant business, but it’s definitely poignant to read these former moments of happy resignation, now that Bourdain has stumbled upon fame and fortune elsewhere.

More than the irony, however, what really struck me about “Kitchen Confidential” was that it’s not nearly as universal as it once seemed. I think that when the book was first published, many people assumed that it represented the restaurant industry at large, when it was actually nothing more than the memoir of one (formerly) anonymous insider. I had chef-instructors at the CIA who dismissed the book for its gritty portrayal of the industry, and who refused to consider Bourdain a chef, even as he made guest appearances on campus. Although I do feel that “Kitchen Confidential” can often capture the spirit of the kitchen, I’ll also acknowledge that Bourdain’s own New York-centric tales from 30 years ago don’t really mesh with anything that I’ve experienced in California within the last 10 years. Of course, Bourdain does spin a good yarn, certainly, but the overall insight of “Kitchen Confidential” seems to have diminished for me, while the occasional hyperbole of story-telling seems to have become all the more glaring.

As it is, I’m not so sure that I can rally behind “Kitchen Confidential” as much as I once did, although I don’t want to knock the book, either. Perhaps it’s due to my own experience in the industry, but “Kitchen Confidential” seems to have become less of a curiosity than it once was. I now view it more as a “New York City” book, something very specific. That being said, I can still appreciate the way in which Bourdain wryly recounts his own personal journey, which is rife with drug use, shady characters, and mediocre employment. If nothing else, “Kitchen Confidential” is exactly as honest as it needs to be, as least as far as memoirs are concerned.

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