The last book I read before attending chef school was “Kitchen Confidential,” Anthony Bourdain’s quasi-autobiography about (as he puts it) life in the culinary underbelly. To say that this book was inspiring would be an understatement. It was, in fact, a call to arms, a rally cry. Bourdain’s memoir made cooking professionally seem like rock and roll, and in many ways, that’s exactly what it turned out to be: closing down bars, staying up after hours, sleeping all day, battling through a dinner shift. To anyone who has ever asked me why I no longer cook, I tell them that cooking is more of a lifestyle than it is a profession.
There’s a creative element to cooking that ultimately draws people into the restaurant business. It is definitely what prompted me to change careers years ago (that, and some post-dotcom bitterness). I suppose that creative satisfaction may be the only justification for the long hours and the low pay that cooks typically endure. Fortunately, despite living paycheck to paycheck, cooks can never really go hungry, since food is their medium. This is one of the few saving graces of a business with very few perks.
Despite cooking’s many drawbacks, its inherent rewards do exist, although they are often fueled by anxiety and stress. It takes a unique individual to thrive within this type of environment, and I am certain that most people simply lack the capacity to cook professionally. Even so, many of the people who do work in kitchens are somewhat difficult to grasp, while others seem perfectly normal. Cooking means working alongside both types, and often wondering where exactly you fit in. I’ve heard some profoundly dysfunctional people say that they didn’t feel normal until they started working in kitchens. This is a telling observation, to say the least.
Looking back upon my own experience in the business, I have to say that “Kitchen Confidential” remains a stunningly accurate portrayal of restaurant life. It’s all in there, explained in lurid detail, with many insightful passages ringing true throughout the text. I am fairly certain that no book will ever document the life of a cook with as much proficiency, since Bourdain’s perspective proves to be pitch-perfect. At a time when America’s gastronomical interests were growing profoundly, “Kitchen Confidential” set the record straight, removing much of the perceived romance from the profession.
In many ways, “The Nasty Bits” reads like a loosely constructed sequel to “Kitchen Confidential,” with many of the same themes emerging throughout. What I found most revealing was the fact that Bourdain’s life has not become any more sane since leaving the kitchen. Now that he has become a celebrity, his travel schedule seems grueling, and it appears to offer him very little time to enjoy the exotic locations he visits for his television series. For better or worse, Bourdain has traded one hectic lifestyle for another, which makes perfect sense: it seems to suit his slightly masochistic nature.
Aside from some of the gruesome details surounding his life as a television personality, Bourdain also includes many food-specific essays within “The Nasty Bits,” which should appeal to all of the folks who helped to make “Kitchen Confidential” a best-seller. Bourdain’s narrative voice is as unique as ever, and his writing contains an engaging cadence which is distinctly reminiscent of his television voice-overs. Although “The Nasty Bits” lacks the continuity and the focus of “Kitchen Confidential,” it never purports to be anything more than a simple collection of essays. For that, “The Nasty Bits” succeeds on its own merits, and is definitely worth a cursory read.