What’s in it for me? A glimpse behind the scenes of the joys of professional food preparation.

Anthony Bourdain was a classically trained chef. This was his life – the only life he knew. And he loved it. In fact, he describes it as being comfortable “like a nice warm bath.”

Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential with two audiences in mind. He hoped restaurant professionals would, even if they didn’t like it, recognize his descriptions of kitchen life – and know he wasn’t lying. For other readers, we mortals, he wanted us to understand the look, feel, and smell of working in a busy kitchen. He wanted us to know that it’s fun.

In this Blink, we’ll find out how Bourdain became interested in food, exactly when he decided to become a chef, and a few of his adventures in the restaurant business that led up to the publication of Kitchen Confidential.

We’ll also discover that, although we’re unlikely to ever cook like a pro, there are some things we could do to spruce up our cooking right now. Finally, we’ll also get a few words of wisdom aimed at the wannabe professionals out there.

But a quick warning before we begin. This Blink contains depictions of drug use and sexual exploits so please take care while listening/reading.


Cold Soup and Oysters

Nine-year-old Anthony Bourdain is with his family aboard the Queen Mary, a transatlantic cruise ship. They’re taking a family holiday and are on their way to visit his father’s ancestral homeland, France. Sitting together in the cabin-class dining room, the waiter approaches and ladles soup from a silver tureen into their bowls and then garnishes the soup with chopped chives. Something magical is about to happen.

Anthony experiences the richness and creaminess of the leek and potato soup and the crunch of the chives. He’s pleasantly shocked to discover that the soup is cold! It’s right at this moment that he has a sudden realization: food isn’t just fuel for hungry faces. He asks the soup’s name: Vichyssoise. Later, he’ll recall this as the first food he actually enjoyed.

During his first few weeks in France, though, the young Anthony is singularly unimpressed with French food – the butter is cheesy, the milk undrinkable, and lunch is invariably a sandwich au jambon, or croque-monsieur. His parents try to interest their two sons in other food – but to no avail.

That is, until one day in Vienne, his fed-up parents decide to leave the two boys in the car for three hours with a hoard of Tintin comics while they dine at La Pyramide. This act of denial gets Anthony thinking: What’s inside that’s such a big deal? With vichyssoise still fresh in his memory, he realizes, that food is important. Later, of course, he’d learn that La Pyramide was like “Mecca for foodies” and that everyone in the culinary world had done their time there under the chef and restaurateur Fernand Point.

He’s angry and decides to try to get one up on his parents. He begins to try everything that’s on offer – including his first oyster. Anthony will later describe that first oyster as being more significant than losing his virginity.

The family moves on to stay with his aunt and uncle in La Teste de Buch, a small village in Southwest France. Their neighbor, Monsieur Saint-Jour invites the family out on his pinasse or oyster boat. They readily agree. During the trip, Monsieur Saint-Jour invites them to try oysters from his oyster parc. Anthony is the first to volunteer. Monsieur Saint-Jour takes an oyster from the sea bed, hands it to Anthony, and instructs him how to eat it – “one bite and a slurp.” It tastes of seawater, brine, and flesh. It also tastes of the future.


The Dreadnaught

It’s 1973. Bourdain is now 18 and has become thoroughly undisciplined. He’s graduated high school a year early and chased his girlfriend to Vassar College – which he promptly quits. He smokes pot, drinks, and becomes miserable, narcissistic, and self-destructive.

When the summer comes, he gladly accompanies some of his friends to Provincetown, Cape Cod. During the day, they smoke more pot, sniff coke, and drop acid on the beaches. Mostly by night, his roommates have jobs as waitstaff and dishwashers. The unemployed Bourdain becomes a drain on the household finances until he finally gets hooked up with a dishwashing job at The Dreadnaught – a ramshackle restaurant built out on stilts over the sea.

Bourdain enjoys his time here. He discovers that the cooks are like gods. They’re unafraid, drink every night, steal anything and everything, smoke joints, and have multiple sexual encounters with floor staff, customers, and casual visitors. Cocaine is also readily available. Bourdain sees the life of a cook as being that of an adventurer. What he sees looks pretty damn good!

That summer, a big wedding party arrives at The Dreadnaught. Members of the party are already high. The kitchen gets to work preparing and dishing out meals. At one point the bride leans into the kitchen to ask if anyone has any hash. Later on, she reappears and speaks to the chef, Bobby, and then leaves. Bobby, grinning, asks someone to look after his station and disappears through the back door. Moments later, the staff understand why. While her husband, friends, and family are happily eating in the dining room, just feet away, this young bride is getting it on with Bobby. It’s at that moment, for the very first time, that Bourdain decides he wants to become a chef!


Cooking like a Pro

Bourdain offers us a sad truth: we’ll never cook like a professional. But there’s nothing wrong with that. He rarely wanted to eat in a restaurant when it was his day off – he preferred to eat at somebody’s house and have some home cooking. That, to him, was pure magic. But he does offer us some guidance if we want to learn from the pros.

First up are kitchen tools. The most important of those is a decent chef’s knife. Just one. One that is comfortable in your hand. It should be lightweight, easy-to-sharpen, and relatively inexpensive. He suggests a vanadium steel Japanese Global knife which is not only a great knife but also looks cool. It should cut almost everything. Use the tip for small stuff, and the part nearer the heel for the bigger stuff. You might need a couple of other knives too – a flexible boning knife, a paring knife, and an offset serrated knife.

Continuing with tools, you’ll also need a plastic squeeze bottle. Yes, really. Essential for drizzling sauce around a plate. And toothpicks to drag through those lines to create an amazing effect in just seconds. If you want to create a cool tower of food, you’ll need a thin metal ring around two inches tall – excellent for mashed potatoes. Better still, use a pastry bag to pipe those spuds onto your plates.

There are a few more basic things you need such as a mandoline – basically a vertical slicer with adjustable blades. Then, some heavyweight premium pots and pans – you can even grab these second-hand – saucepans, sauté pans, and stockpots. Remember not to wash your nonstick pans, just wipe them clean and never ever use metal utensils in them!

Next up are some ingredients that can make all the difference.

First, shallots. Use these for sauces, dressings, and anything sautèed. Then, butter, mixed with oil, for sautéing to give things a nice brown color. Don’t use margarine! Keep roasted garlic handy. Don’t burn it. Smash it with a knife if you want, but never put it through a press. Roasting garlic gives it a sweeter mellow taste. Roast it whole. Never use garlic from jars! Chiffonaded parsley not only tastes good but it’s also a great garnish. Don’t chop it. Simply wash and slice thinly.

When it comes to stock, don’t buy the commercial stuff – make it. Roasted bones and roasted vegetables in a big pot with water will do the trick. Reduce it, strain it, and freeze it in small containers so you can use it when needed. And make your own demi-glace, too. Use reduced meat stock with red wine, shallots, fresh thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer, reduce, strain, and freeze in an ice-cube tray. Keep handy chervil, basil tops, chive sticks, mint tops, and so on. A sprig or scattering of these will garnish your food perfectly.

Finally, remember that some of the best food is usually a combination of only three or four ingredients. Always use fresh. And remember to garnish. Simple.


A Burned Hand, the CIA, and the Rainbow Room

Toward the end of the first summer at The Dreadnaught, Bourdain moved up the food chain, working first on the fryer and then on the broiler. He was determined to work on that the following season. It didn’t happen. Another restauranter bought the place and with it, his own crew. After interviewing for a job, Bourdain was assigned to trail the broiler man, Tyrone.

One shift, Bourdain grabbed a sauté pan and burned himself. He asked Tyrone – who he remembers as being nothing under eight feet tall and weighing 400 pounds – for a Band-Aid. It went quiet in the kitchen. Tyrone showed Bourdain his blistered hands and, as he watched, Tyrone proceeded to pick up a glowing hot sizzle platter with one naked hand. This humiliation did serve one purpose, though – Bourdain decided he’d go to school at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, the CIA, and he’d become a better cook.

During his time at the CIA, he returned to the Dreadnaught for a while, and also set up a business catering for wealthy families in Provincetown with the pasta chef, Dimitri. They had both success and failure during that time – but one thing was clear, Provincetown had become too small. They had their sights set on New York.

After graduating from the CIA, Bourdain landed a job at the Rainbow Room up on the 64th floor of the Rockefeller Center. It was his first taste of working in a big, busy, well-known restaurant. The kitchen served 200 seats in the restaurant and 150 in the Rainbow Grill, too. It was a sweltering madhouse. For the first few weeks, Bourdain had problems with Luis a Puerto Rican chef de garde-manger – or pantry chef, in charge of the cold food items and storage – who‘d taken to fondling his behind. Bourdain took it in good spirit at first but the grabbing eventually got too much until one day, Bourdain decided to fight back. When Luis lunged once more at his rear, Bourdain plunged a meat fork into Luis’s hand. The grabbing stopped. After that, Bourdain was one of the crew.


Work Progress

Skip forward to 1981. Sam G – a good friend of Bourdain’s from high school – has been made chef de cuisine at a once-trendy, fallen-on-hard-times restaurant called Work Progress. Bourdain gets on board with the project to share sous-chef responsibilities with another old friend, Dimitri.

The three round up as many potheads as they can who they’ve worked with to run the joint. They’re going to take the New York restaurant scene by storm!

Menu planning sessions are dope-fuelled. The new owners of Work Progress are totally naive and a pushover, too – the three chefs shoot down any and every idea they have. The kitchen develops into a recreation of all the chaotic kitchens the three have ever worked in complete with drugs, alcohol, and loud rock. Each shift starts with the opening sequence music from Apocalypse Now accompanied by the entire range being soaked in brandy and ignited, causing a scene reminiscent of the napalm setting fire to the tree line in the film.

Inevitably, the three fight constantly about the best way to do things. Decisions are almost always made while under the influence of drugs – pot, LSD, mushrooms, cocaine, you name it. They work hard, though – and they’re happy. After work, they go from club to club, and when the clubs close, to after-hours parties. They then take the train to the beach at 7:00 a.m. to sleep and burn under the sun before returning to work for more.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the restaurant begins to falter. The three blame the management, the waitstaff, the venue, and everything but themselves. They try some quick fixes, but the death bell has already begun to toll.

Bourdain moves on to new pastures. Tom H. comes first, followed by Rick’s Café, and then a succession of other restaurants. Each place already has the wolves at the door and each finally fails. During this period, Bourdain finds himself needing larger and larger doses of heroin.


A string of bad jobs later, Bourdain realized he was reaching rock bottom. He’d gotten off heroin, and no longer got high at work. But although he was still working, he didn’t feel like he could call himself a cook anymore. He realized that things had to change. It was time to climb out of the dark hole he was hiding in.

His career was finally rescued in 1996 after a stint as executive chef at a new venture, Coco Pazzo Teatro, New York. In 1998, Bourdain became executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, New York – a position he maintained beyond the publication of Kitchen Confidential.


Advice for Wannabe Chefs

So you want to be a chef? Are you really sure? Bourdain has seen many wannabe chefs come and go. They do a six-month course, find themselves in a kitchen, see what they really have to do, and run away like wildfire. But if you really really want to work in a kitchen, here’s a taste of his advice:

First, be committed and determined – no half measures. Be ready to follow orders, give orders, and live with the consequences of those orders. Never complain.

Second, learn how to speak Spanish. It’s essential. Much of the culinary world is Spanish-speaking. Learn about the cultures, histories, and geographies of the countries from where your coworkers originate. Show them respect.

Third, never steal from the restaurant, and don’t take kickbacks or bribes. Be honest and maintain your integrity.

Fourth, always be punctual.

Fifth, don’t shift the blame onto others, and don’t make excuses, either.

Sixth, you’re sick? Forget it. Unless you’ve been dismembered, have arterial bleeding, or one of your immediate family members has died, you’re at work!

Seventh, avoid working at restaurants where the name of the owner is over the door or any that will look ridiculous in your résumé. And keep that résumé in mind at all times. Avoid gaps, make sure you’ve worked in places for more than six months, and forget that time you made sandwiches in a kiosk for the summer, or had a part in a soap opera.

Eighth, read cookbooks and trade magazines. The latter will keep you up-to-date with the industry.

And finally, maintain your sense of humor. As Bourdain says, “You’ll need it.”


Final Summary

Anthony Bourdain’s rip-roaring tales of his experiences – from his realization that food is more than fuel to how he decided to become a chef to how his life unfolded in the restaurant industry – sometimes seem larger-than-life.

Kitchen Confidential was published in the year 2000. At that time Bourdain expressed his desire to remain in the business “until they drag me off the line.” He continued his association with Brasserie Les Halles even after he’d formally left their employment. In 2014, the restaurant referred to him as its chef at large.

Tragically, in 2018, Anthony Bourdain died by suicide while filming for his award-winning travel and food show, Parts Unknown.

Bourdain concluded Kitchen Confidential by saying that despite the casualties over the years, the breakages, and the losses, one thing was for sure – it was an adventure he wouldn’t have missed for anything.