The new version includes handwritten updates
Wikimedia Commons/ Neeta Lind
When Anthony Bourdain released his memoir Kitchen Confidential in 2000, he was still an unknown chef running the kitchen at New York’s Les Halles. The book, which soon found itself on The New York Times best-seller list, rocketed the chef to stardom, and he’s since become a household name for his additional books and travel shows.
An updated edition of the book was released a few years later, but the chef has just released one of the more interesting book updates ever: he’s added hundreds of notes, anecdotes, and annotations, helping to flesh out and clarify the original concept, and it’s now available on Amazon.
For example, above the title of the chapter about his college years, he writes, "I left out a lot here. My college years are still too painfully embarrassing to remember." And on the bottom of the page where he states, "I won’t eat in restaurants with filthy bathrooms," he adds, "I have since learned that many of the best meals are in places with filthy bathrooms."
It’s certainly interesting to see what opinions of his have changed over the years, and reading the new version is like reading the old book with Bourdain himself over your shoulder, adding in witty asides and interesting personal notes to make it an even better read.
Kitchen Confidential (TV series)
Kitchen Confidential is an American television sitcom that debuted on September 19, 2005, on the Fox network, based on Anthony Bourdain's New York Times bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Bradley Cooper played the lead character, Jack Bourdain, inspired by Anthony Bourdain.
|Created by||David Hemingson|
|Based on||Kitchen Confidential by|
John Francis Daley
|Theme music composer||Mark Walk|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||1|
|No. of episodes||13|
|Executive producers||David Hemingson|
|Running time||22 minutes|
|Production companies||Hemingson Entertainment|
Darren Star Productions
New Line Television
20th Century Fox Television
|Distributor||Disney–ABC Domestic Television|
Warner Bros. Television Distribution
|Original release||September 19 ( 2005-09-19 ) –|
December 5, 2005 ( 2005-12-05 )
After the show's first three episodes aired on Fox, the show was put on hiatus due to Fox's coverage of the Major League Baseball playoffs. In November 2005, Fox announced the show would not air during sweeps and that only 13 episodes would be produced because it was only averaging 4 million viewers.  The show returned on December 5, 2005, with its fourth episode, but only received 3.38 million viewers. Four days later, Fox announced the cancellation of the series. 
Once Cynical, Bourdain Now Embraces Holidays
To commemorate a new annotated edition of his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain revisits the bleak holiday routines of his pre-fame life. Plus: The chef looks back on recipes from his classic 2004 Les Halles cookbook.
In this Article
For nearly 28 years, Christmas meant the busy season to me. It meant working longer and harder and serving more meals, office parties, so many turkeys going in and out of the ovens, it eventually felt like bowling ending, finally, after midnight on New Year’s Eve, me and whatever crew I was working with that year drinking Champagne from the bottle in our food-spattered kitchen whites, maybe a few spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, preferred dealer of the moment joining us in a toast. That was all the holidays meant, and little more.
I don’t remember ever serving anything particularly wonderful. The requirements of the “special” menu demanded certain sacrifices to the gods of speed and volume. On rare occasions, I might pull off something like a classic French soupe de poisson at Les Halles brasserie in New York City. It was garnished with rouille-laden croutons. But I don’t ever remember eating—or even bringing anything home𠅊ll those Christmases, all those New Years spent in kitchens.
On the rare occasions when I was lucky enough to be working for a restaurant that closed on Christmas, there𠆝 be Catholic Christmas Eve dinner with my then in-laws. A few fish dishes, then a ham at midnight. This was usually accompanied by long-spoiled white wines that my poor ex-father-in-law never quite got around to accepting were undrinkable.
The next day was Christmas with my family. A separate function. Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin chiffon pie. Basically a repeat of Thanksgiving dinner𠅋ut much welcomed, mostly for the leftovers. I looked forward to nothing more than the next day, safely back in my apartment, stoned immaculate, dressed only in underpants and a T-shirt, eating cold turkey and stuffing with, perhaps, a gob of cranberry sauce. With any luck, my mom had made butter cookies—there would be a nice supply tucked away in a bag in the freezer.
As I described briefly in Kitchen Confidential, there was, however, always the “tree disposal problem.” I worked a lot. And when not working, I was not disposed to be active outside of a narrow focus of activities. So our Christmas tree tended to stick around. It would lie on its side, needles turning brown, a rebuke and reminder of how dysfunctional things were—how far from the white picket fence or anything you𠆝 call “normal.” Eventually, in June or July, I𠆝 try and hack the damn tree up and stuff it into plastic bags. Failing that, I𠆝 drag it down to a lower floor, then hurry to clean up the incriminating trail of pine needles. But everybody knew. That things were not good in the Bourdain household was already abundantly clear from our intermittent ventures into street vending. We𠆝 haul our books and records up to Broadway, roll out a blanket and sit there. Our neighbors tried not to look.
Kitchen Confidential written and read by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain catapults us into the 'dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly' in New York - every drug-and-blood-soaked nook and cranny taken from his 25 years' experience of it, from dishwashing in squalid joints to preparing haute cuisine in expensive, celeb-frequented places.
The stories teem with cooks whose eyes roll from cocaine, their hands and arms transformed by blisters, sores and gashes into monster paws cooks who recycle cigarette-ash-spattered butter, and make plate leavings into galantines who cut off their partly severed finger to get the loss-of-a-digit insurance money serve stale fish masked with a bacteria-bath of hollandaise sauce and who work in kitchens where compacted sewage rises from the sink.
The kitchen is a place of violence - and not just the inevitable burnings and slicings. These guys are tough: Bourdain describes how, sick of the relentless physical attentions of his gay boss, he drove a carving fork between the offender's knuckles while a chef, unable to afford the time off to take his knife gash to the hospital, sewed it up himself. Drenched in these tales, reeling listeners may determine never to eat out again.
The fierce energy of this exposé is heightened by Bourdain's cracking New York delivery. He reads in the same way he works - at a run. But it's more than that: it's Bourdain's passionate, unquenchable love affair with the whole gruesome business.
3 Kitchen Commandments from Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain names the three sacred chef rules every serious cook should know.
Anthony Bourdain names the three sacred chef rules every serious cook should know.
I’m a big believer in lists, which focus the mind and serve as a reference point. When I worked in restaurant kitchens, the very first thing in the morning, I𠆝 write the day’s prep lists, go through the refrigerators and see what I had and what needed to be used quickly, and take stock of what was missing. I’m also a strong believer in forward motion. A less-than-great decision is better than no decision or endless dithering. Improvise, adapt, go forward. And remember that credit and blame accrue to the chef in equal proportion. If your subordinates fail, it’s your failure. To blame others is loathsome. That itself is failure.
I devoted an entire chapter of Kitchen Confidential to my old mentor, Bigfoot, whom I described as 𠇊 bully, a yenta, a sadist and a mensch…the most stand-up guy I ever worked for.” Bigfoot had a rule: Arrive 15 minutes early for your shift. The first time I was 14 minutes early, I was advised that the next time it happened, I𠆝 be sent home and lose the shift. And the next time after that, I𠆝 be fired. I was never late again for any job, and I instituted the same policy in my kitchens. To this day, I’m pathologically early to every engagement𠅋usiness or social. Arrival time is an expression of respect it reveals character and discipline. Technical skills you can learn character you either have or you don’t.
Knife skills are the first thing you learn in a kitchen. Whenever I saw cooks muscling a red pepper with a dull blade, I𠆝 put them on knife-heavy prep, doing basic cuts again and again and again until they got it right. Most of the really gruesome wounds I witnessed on the job (or wrapped up before rushing a bleeding cook to the ER) came from rotary slicers or can edges—not knives. I made sure my cooks had a good chef’s knife, a flexible fillet knife for fish, an offset serrated knife and a paring knife. Some butchering hotshots also had the super-skinny remnants of a knife they𠆝 ground down to a thin jailhouse shank and were using to scrape meat off the bone.
Bourdain’s do chua salad is a quick-pickled crunchy Vietnamese side dish that can also be used as a dressing for pork and lamb. It looks like one of those dishes you can learn in a snap and show off with until the end of time. Good lookin’ out, sir.
French master chef and prolific restaurateur Joël Robuchon is considered one of the godfathers of the modern culinary world. Bourdain spins his version of Robuchon’s dreamy, buttery mashed potatoes (half-butter, half-potato to be precise) in a fraction of the time. Once you’ve had these, you’ll never be satisfied with another recipe.
Spend $49 on print products and get FREE shipping at HC.com
An updated and revised edition of Anthony Bourdain's mega-bestselling Kitchen Confidential, with new material from the original edition
Almost two decades ago, the New Yorker published a now infamous article, “Don’t Eat before You Read This,” by then little-known chef Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain spared no one’s appetite as he revealed what happens behind the kitchen door. The article was a sensation, and the book it spawned, the now classic Kitchen Confidential, became an even bigger sensation, a megabestseller with over one million copies in print. Frankly confessional, addictively acerbic, and utterly unsparing, Bourdain pulls no punches in this memoir of his years in the restaurant business.
Fans will love to return to this deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine—this time with never-before-published material.
Anthony Bourdain Calls Out Toxic Kitchen Culture in Speech to Culinary School Grads
The Parts Unknown host addressed the newest crop of Culinary Institute of America graduates before receiving his honorary doctorate.
Anthony Bourdain gave the commencement speech at the Culinary Institute of America graduation ceremony last night. Bourdain, who graduated from the institute in 1978, gave his remarks before receiving an honorary doctorate from the cooking school’s president, Tim Ryan, who called Bourdain an “industry icon.”
In his remarks to the newly minted class, Bourdain invoked a refrain that has become common when he speaks in public these days. He starts off gently, reminding the future chefs that they are 𠇎ssentially in the business of nurturing” and—never one to miss a chance to be self-deprecating—quips that he spent 30 “not particularly distinguished years” in the industry. However, he quickly changes the topic to the work that made him famous, Kitchen Confidential. Repeating a line he’s mentioned before on Late Night with Seth Meyers—he says that he “wrote [the] book intending to entertain a few line cooks,” but that it became 𠇊 meathead bible.”
“It has been dismissed many times by women in this industry and rightly so as the bro bible,” he adds. “If there’s a harasser in the kitchen who’s a jerk at work, chances are he’s got my book at his station, and I am going to have to live with that.”
Here, Bourdain’s speech turns serious. He calls the way kitchens often operate as an usive system,” where “hazing and pushing and pressure” are commonplace.
“This is why so many people in our industry are fucked up,” he says, to laughter and cheering from the audience.
This system, Bourdain insists, can’t last.
“The quality of life has to, has to, improve,” he says 𠇊s chefs, as leaders, as employers, we are going to have to address this in a serious way.”
Bourdain then shifts his focus 𠇎specially to the men in the room,” by asking them to recognize that “giant empires vaporize overnight because of really hideous behavior from a few people,” a thinly veiled reference the recent slew of sexual harassment allegations against former leaders in the industry like Ken Friedman and Mario Batali, who has since stepped down from his businesses.
Finally, Bourdain calls on the students and all cooks to ount for ourselves,” by asking, “What kind of a place do we want to work in? What kind of behavior will we accept in our presence?” He tells them—likely speaking from his own experience—that they may look back in years and think, “I saw a lot of ugly behavior and I did nothing.”
𠇍on’t be that person,” he says, finishing the speech with a call to action for this new generation of cooks to enter the industry and fight to change its seemingly toxic culture.
'Fresh Air' Remembers Anthony Bourdain, A Chef Devoted To Global Street Food
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's away this week. Like so many, we were shocked today to learn of the death of Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain took his own life in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France, where he was on a shoot for his series "Parts Unknown" in its 11th season on CNN. Bourdain was 61. Before becoming one of the world's best-known food and travel journalists, Bourdain spent decades in the restaurant business, becoming the chef in what he described as a working-class brasserie in New York.
Then he discovered he had a gift for writing and storytelling. He wrote a best-selling book, "Kitchen Confidential," then several others. Eventually, he found television, hosting two series on the Travel Channel before launching "Parts Unknown" on CNN. The show took viewers to places all over the world, exploring local cultures and cuisine and offering Bourdain's unique commentary on the experience. A memorable found him eating a $6 bowl of noodles with President Obama in Vietnam. Bourdain was also a guy who'd tell you what he thinks, which led to some public battles with others in the food world. I spoke to Anthony Bourdain in 2016 when he'd published a new cookbook called "Appetites." It focused more on family meals than professional cooking because he was the father of a 9-year-old.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVIES: Well, Anthony Bourdain, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin with a reading from the book. Share this with us.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: (Reading) What is it that normal people do? What makes a normal happy family? How do they behave? What do they eat at home? How do they live their lives? I had little clue how to answer these questions for most of my working life, as I'd been living it on the margins.
I didn't know any normal people. From age 17 on, normal people had been my customers. They were abstractions, literally shadowy silhouettes in the dining room of wherever it was I was working at the time. I looked at them through the perspective of the lifelong professional cook and chef, which is to say as someone who did not have a family life, who knew and associated only with fellow restaurant professionals, who worked while normal people played and who played while normal people slept. To the extent that I knew or understood normal people's behaviors, it was to anticipate their immediate desires. Would they be ordering the chicken or the salmon? I usually saw them only at their worst - hungry, drunk, horny, ill-tempered, celebrating good fortune or taking out the bad on their servers.
What they did at home, what it might be like to wake up late on a Sunday morning, make pancakes for a child, watch cartoons, throw a ball around a backyard - these were things I only knew from movies. The human heart was and remains a mystery to me, but I'm learning. I have to. I became a father at 50 years of age. That's late, I know, but for me it was just right. At no point previously had I been old enough, settled enough or mature enough for this, the biggest and most important of jobs, the love and care of another human being.
DAVIES: Thanks. And that's one of the reasons you wrote a cookbook about normal food and normal, everyday stuff.
DAVIES: You seem like you had a normal life. You grew up in Fort Lee, N.J. Your parents sounded like normal people. Why didn't you get along with normal people?
BOURDAIN: I don't know. I was an angry kid. I think I grew up, you know, as a child of the Kennedy years. The Summer of Love I missed. I wasn't old enough for everything that was happening with that subculture. So when I became an adolescent, I was disappointed, very disappointed, bitterly disappointed with the way the country was going, with the kind of entertainment and adventures that seemed to be on offer. I seemed to have missed the good times. For whatever reason, I was definitely a very angry, bitter, nihilistic, destructive and self-destructive kid.
DAVIES: You did acid when you were 13. Is this true?
BOURDAIN: Yeah. To the extent that I identified with anyone, it was - I pretty much defined myself and my - I was - you know, I was, like most 13-year-olds, I think - 13-year-old boys in particular - you know, I was awkward. I lacked confidence. I was looking for some kind of a template for a personality. And I guess like a lot of people of the time, I found that in drugs. I defined myself by the drugs I was taking, and I identified with people who did similar drugs. And the people who were doing LSD and marijuana and other drugs - those were the people I wanted to hang out with.
DAVIES: You found a home in - among restaurant people, right? You dropped out of college, went to culinary school.
BOURDAIN: Yeah. Well, I started working as a dishwasher one summer, and it was really a big event for me because up to that point, I was lazy. I was - I was the kid that if you hired me to shovel your walk in winter, I would really do a terrible job of it and probably find a way to weasel out. I just - there was no group - there was no club to which I wanted to be a member.
This was the first discipline, the first organization because it is a very militaristic organization, the kitchen brigade, the first people whose respect I wanted and the first time in my life that I went home feeling respect for myself. I mean, I'd work - it was very hard work. You had to be there on time. There were certain absolute rules. And for whatever reason, I responded to that. It was a mix of chaos but also considerable order that I guess I needed at the time. You know, there's a joke - or the old, you know, I found a home in the Army.
BOURDAIN: . Or I found a home with a circus. I met circus folk who I felt - it was a subculture I wanted to be part of. And I was willing to work very hard to be part of it.
DAVIES: It's interesting that you describe the discipline because a lot of what people think of when they think of restaurant people is a really wild, hedonistic lifestyle, the hour - after-hour stuff that goes on forever.
BOURDAIN: At its root, it is factory work in the sense that the religion of any successful or busy restaurant is consistency. You have to do the same dish the same way and on time. I was a happy dishwasher. I jokingly say that I learned every important lesson, all the most important lessons of my life as a dishwasher. And in some ways that's true.
Thomas Keller, the great chef, talks about how happy he was as a dishwasher. And he talks about the magic of discovering that you put those - you line the dirty dishes up, you push them in the machine. And they come out clean every time. There's something very comforting about that.
And, you know, there was something - there were things I just had to do. And when I did do them well enough, I received approval. And I liked being - I still like being at the bottom of a steep learning curve. I liked being the worst in the kitchen and struggling every day to earn respect, you know, and status within that hierarchy. It was - but it is a very organized thing. I mean, no one lasts in the restaurant business who does not present their part of an order, which requires many people on time. You - it's a - it's not a team sport, but it's a team activity. And if you let the team down, everybody crashes.
DAVIES: Your big breakthrough came with the book "Kitchen Confidential," huge best-seller, started with an article you wrote. Tell us that story.
BOURDAIN: Well, I wrote a piece intending it for a free paper called the New York Press that they give out of little boxes on the corner. You know, they offered me $100. You know, I figured their standards were low enough that they would take it. And my intention was to entertain a few other people in the restaurant business in the New York area. I thought that would be really cool.
I was a fan of George Orwell's "Down And Out In Paris And London." And that account of another dishwasher's life had thrilled me. And I kind of wanted to evoke that response in a few other cooks.
DAVIES: And for people who don't know.
DAVIES: . What's the kind of the substance of the story you were writing about?
BOURDAIN: I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction, honestly. I didn't - maybe - I didn't mind goosing the general public, horrifying them a little, but that was not the intention. I wanted to just write about our thing, our life the way we spoke in the same sort of over-testosteroned, high-speed, hyperbolic prose that I was familiar with in the kitchens. But the customer, the intended reader, was always a fellow professional who would get it, and I hoped they would get it and respond.
So I wrote the piece. They said they'd take it, and they kept bumping it. Every week, I'd run to the box on the corner and open the magazine - open the paper. And I wasn't in that issue. And eventually at a moment of frustration, I think my mom said to me, well, you should send it to The New Yorker. You know, I know someone there. They'll read it. And I thought, OK, great, you know, of course, The New Yorker, the possibility of - the likelihood of ever being published for it over the transom piece there is astronomical.
DAVIES: Doesn't happen. Yeah.
BOURDAIN: So I sent it along, and to my surprise a few weeks later, phone rings in the kitchen. It's David Remnick on the phone. They ran the piece, and, I mean, I had a book contract - a book deal within days. And when the book came out, it very quickly transformed my life - I mean, changed everything.
DAVIES: How - what did it feel like? How did it change everything?
BOURDAIN: At first, I was distrustful of what was happening. I say freely it's an unreasonable attitude to think that you could ever make a living writing. And I'd been in the restaurant business long enough where there are so many failed writers and actors and performers and artists and playwrights. So even after the book came out, even after it hit the best-seller list, I was distrustful. I thought I better keep my day job. And I continued, you know, making steak frites and salads and working in a busy kitchen until it just got crazier and crazier. And I got offered a TV show. And I just went to work one day, and there were like 20 journalists in the restaurant waiting to talk to me. And I said, you know, I might actually be able to milk this scam for a few more months (laughter).
DAVIES: Now, the book and the article is this, like, grab-your-attention look at things you don't know about what goes on inside the restaurant and all kinds of things. But, I mean, it's - the writing is powerful. Had you been writing while you were cooking? Creative workshops, creative writing classes?
BOURDAIN: I had done a writer's workshop with Gordon Lish, the notorious creative writing teacher, at one point many years earlier. But I'd never actually written. I was - I never had the time to sit there in my garret, you know, writing unpublished novels. I just didn't have the time, and I think to a great extent, the reason "Kitchen Confidential" sounds like it does is I just did not have the luxury or the burden of a lot of time to sit around and contemplate the mysteries of the universe.
I had to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning, write for an hour and a half. And then I had to go to work to a real job. So I - here I was. It was liberating in the sense that I had no time to think about what I was writing. And I certainly had no customer or reader in mind because I was quite sure no one would ever read it. That was, in many ways, a very liberating place to be. And I've kind of tried to stick with that business model since.
DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain died this morning in Strasbourg, France. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO SONG, "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)"
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're remembering food and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in his hotel today in Strasbourg, France. CNN, which aired his show "Parts Unknown," confirmed the cause of death was suicide. I spoke to Bourdain in 2016, when he'd published a new cookbook.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVIES: You're now on your third television show.
DAVIES: You did a show called "No Reservations" for the Food Channel, right?
DAVIES: And then "The Layover," 48 hours.
BOURDAIN: And actually before that there was "A Cook's Tour," so.
BOURDAIN: Third network, fourth show.
DAVIES: Right. And now you're traveling around the world visiting places in "Parts Unknown." And I thought we'd begin with the clip. This is the beginning of your trip to Borneo on this series. Let's just listen - how it starts.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN")
BOURDAIN: When I first went up this river, I was sick with love, the bad kind, the fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me up river all the way. That was 10 long years ago - a previous episode of a previous series in a previous life. Yet here I am again, heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.
DAVIES: And that's from your series "Parts Unknown." You know, these are part travelogue, part personal essay and a lot about food. This seemed really personal. What did you want - why did you want to go back to this little village in Borneo after 10 years?
BOURDAIN: I kind of - I think I wanted to see how things had changed. I think someone said - some travel writer said that, you know, you - what you're really looking at when you travel is inward all the time. I think in a lot of ways, the first time I went up that river, the Skrang river from Kuching up to a Iban longhouse in the jungle, I was heartbreaken (ph). I was coming off of a love affair that did not pan out the way I had hoped.
I think in a lot of ways, the motivation for the show - the second one - was to see if it still hurt, you know, to see how I felt. So it was very personal. I thought I was going to go right back to the same longhouse. Yes, let's see how that community has changed. Let's do a better job with better cinematography, bringing to bear all of the things that I've learned and my crew has learned in the intervening years. But really, it was revisiting an old wound to see if it was OK now.
DAVIES: There's a moment in this powerful scene in there - I mean, in this episode, where you're standing in pouring rain with a spear in your hand. You've been granted an honor by the village. Explain this.
BOURDAIN: Well, both times when I went to the village as the guest of honor, you know, they kill a pig for the feast. The whole village eats. There's an equitable division of pig parts. It's a big deal. But that first time, I don't think I'd ever killed an animal before. I mean, I'd been ordering them up as a chef over the phone, so I was culpable in the death of many animals. But here I was being asked to physically plunge a spear into the heart of a pig.
It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy, however uncomfortable I might have been with that, to put it off on somebody else. You know, I'd been responsible for the death of many animals. Here I'm being asked - I didn't want to let the team down. I didn't want to dishonor the village or embarrass anyone. The first time was very, very, very, very difficult. My camera guys almost passed out. It was certainly very difficult for me.
The second time, as much as I'd like to say that it was still really hard - and I think I said in the voiceover I don't know what it says about me, probably something very bad, that I'd become - you know, I have changed over time, I like to think in good ways for the most part. But I've also become more callous. I've become able to plunge a spear into the heart of a screaming pig and live with that much more comfortably than I did the first time. And I can lie and say it tormented me forever and since. But, you know, I felt that ugly emotion or lack of it. And I thought I should mention it.
DAVIES: Yeah. You said, I did it this time without hesitation or remorse.
DAVIES: But it was a relief when the screaming stopped.
BOURDAIN: Well, yes, no one - no good person likes to hear or see an animal in pain. That is monstrous. I mean, I tried very hard to do a good job quickly. Yeah, exactly right.
DAVIES: You had a memorable episode recently where you went to Vietnam. And you - I can't remember whether you said this in an episode or whether I read it somewhere else - you said the world tilted for you in a Vietnamese rice farmer's home.
BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think the first time I went to Vietnam, I just - I remembered coming away from it thinking, I just - I have to have more of this. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.
DAVIES: More of Vietnam or more of that kind of travel?
BOURDAIN: I want to be able to come back to Vietnam again and again and again. And if this place is so wonderful, the world must be filled with many more wonderful and interesting and challenging and heartbreaking and inspiring and beautiful places, as it turned out to. But I really got - the first time I went there, I think I found myself sitting in a - yeah, it was a rice farmer's home in the Mekong Delta. At the time, they were a little more suspicious of Westerners with cameras, so the people who I was allowed to eat dinner with were all former Viet Cong with impeccable revolutionary credentials, the sort of people who you would think would be hostile to Americans, particularly in that area where they caught a lot of ugly action.
I got just hammer drunk and had this sort of wonderful bonding experience. I remember this 85-year-old former Viet Cong - I asked him, aren't you angry about anything? And he looked and with amiable contempt, said, look, buddy - basically in Vietnam - don't take yourself so seriously. Before you, there were, you know, the French, the Japanese, you know, the Chinese, the Cambodians. Since you, there's been - you know, I've been fighting - this country's been fighting for 600 years. Don't take it personally. Now drink.
And I just had this wonderful time. And Vietnam is a country that I go back to at every opportunity, meaning as soon as I can make another show, getting away with making another show there, I do.
DAVIES: I want to listen to another clip. You know, as we said, the show is part personal essay. It's part about travel in the countries and about food. And this is a moment in your trip to Borneo before you go up the river, where you sit down in a noodle house. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN")
BOURDAIN: If I look at my life as a continuum, a trail of noodles going round and round the world until it comes right back to the same spicy bowl. Oh, yeah, that is - can I say tumescent on CNN? Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can.
BOURDAIN: Oh, yeah, baby. This is just a magical dish. I don't know. It's like two types of noodles, I think, chicken, prawn, coconut, chili. You know, the main event of this is the broth. The wisdom of the ages is contained in there. It's, like, super complex.
A truly happy moment (laughter).
DAVIES: Can you taste that stuff now?
BOURDAIN: It is, in fact, a constant - it is a reliable source of happiness for me, a bowl of spicy noodles or actually - or a bowl of, like, decent pasta in Italy - both. There's something there that I'm always able to respond to in an emotional way rather than, like, a critical way, and that's important.
DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France, this morning. CNN said in a statement that the cause of death was suicide. He was 61 years old. We'll hear more of my conversation with Bourdain after a short break. And TV critic David Bianculli marks the anniversary of two of the earliest and most significant shows in TV history. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're remembering food and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in his hotel today in Strasbourg, France, where he was shooting an episode of the CNN series "Parts Unknown." CNN confirmed the cause of death was suicide. I spoke to Bourdain in 2016 about his life, travels and a new cookbook he'd published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVIES: You go to some far-flung, exotic places and some places that are a lot closer to home. And I wanted to play a clip. This is from your visit to a place in Camden, N.J.
DAVIES: Donkey's - that makes cheesesteaks. It's right across the river from Philadelphia.
DAVIES: . Known for cheesesteaks. And you're sitting down to enjoy one with the owner. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN")
ROBERT LUCAS: Pleasure to meet you.
BOURDAIN: So this is the place? The best cheesesteak in South Jersey, unless I'm mistaken?
BOURDAIN: In New Jersey, period?
BOURDAIN: Is there a difference between Jersey style and Philadelphia style?
LUCAS: Yeah, we do ours on a round poppy seed Kaiser roll.
BOURDAIN: Really? I'll have one of those. What's the way to go? I mean, anything I need to know or just.
LUCAS: . No, a regular, cheese and onions.
BOURDAIN: A beautiful thing.
LUCAS: I need one, Paulie (ph).
BOURDAIN: It's round. It's got steak, spices, browned onions, real American cheese, such as it is, and a poppy seed roll.
LUCAS: That's hot pepper. Yeah, a little bit of that won't hurt.
BOURDAIN: A little bit? Oh man, I drove a long way for this. I've been thinking about it the whole way.
BOURDAIN: Man, this should be, like, a national landmark right away. This sandwich is unbelievably good.
BOURDAIN: Really a thing of beauty.
BOURDAIN: Worth driving across the state in a blizzard for.
LUCAS: Well, we get a lot of people from Philly.
BOURDAIN: Wow, that's treason. Do they, like, change the plates on their car and, like, wear a disguise? I mean.
LUCAS: It's different. the poppy seeds help.
BOURDAIN: Yeah, and I like this roll. It's awesome. That's delicious. Well, I think we've learned something here today. Jersey cheesesteaks - I'm not saying they're better than Philadelphia - yeah, I am, actually. So there. This is great.
LUCAS: Glad you enjoyed it.
DAVIES: That's fun. That joint's about five miles from here. I'm going to get over there.
BOURDAIN: Yeah, it's good stuff.
DAVIES: I'm going to get over there. Do you care about the reactions you get from the locals after the episodes appear?
BOURDAIN: I care about the - yes. I - what I want to happen ideally - and it's so weird. It's a double-edged sword. Ideally, I'll go to a place like - I'll find a little bar in Rio, let's say, some little local place that perfectly expresses the neighborhood. You know, it's not on the - it's not a tourist-friendly place. It's, for lack of a better word - I hate this word, but I'll use it anyway - authentic. I'll feature that on the show. The response I'm looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It's, you know, a - truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood.
But on the other hand, that's kind of a destructive process because if I name the place - and I don't always when it's a place like that - I've changed it. The next time I go back, there's tourists. There's people who've seen it on the show. And then I might hear from the same person from that neighborhood say, you ruined my favorite bar, (laughter) you know? All the regular customers have run away. And it's filled with, you know, tourists in ugly T-shirts and flip-flops.
DAVIES: You're known for being willing to eat just about anything. What's some of the most intimidating or nasty stuff you've been offered?
BOURDAIN: I don't know. I mean, at this point, if freshness and hygiene is a question - I mean, generally, it's tribal situations that are problematic where the whole tribe - the chief is offering you something. That's what they have. And often, they don't have refrigeration. It's often old. Their tolerance for meat that's even spoiled is higher than my relatively sensitive stomach. Often these dishes are eaten in one large bowl with the whole tribe jamming their fingers in.
So yeah, rotten food, food that's clearly not clean, water that's clearly not good - those are a challenge. On the flavor spectrum, I'm pretty good with just about everything. There are a few dishes that are - you know, when you get to, like, rotten shark in Iceland, that's - I mean, I could do it, but I'd rather not be doing that again.
BOURDAIN: Yeah. Yeah. It's unpleasant, but, I mean, it's not the end of the world. I don't know, for sheer, soul-destroying misery, like the - you know, if you're talking about a bite of food that just makes me question the future of the human race, I think eating at an airport Johnny Rockets pretty much would be the nadir.
DAVIES: (Laughter) That's as bad as it gets. In a circumstance that you just described, where there's food that's rotten or not clean, how do you handle it?
BOURDAIN: You take one for the team. And you hope for the best and hope that you have a good supply of antibiotics. I've lost three days of work in 16 years. Three or - I think only three days that I've been, you know, down for the count and confined to bed and desperately, horribly ill. Generally speaking, if it's, like, a street food stall that's busy, even if it looks dirty as hell, if there are a lot of locals there, they're eating, and they're happy, my crew will always eat at that place. You know, eating a Caesar salad at the major chain hotel in, you know, Central Africa or the Middle East, these are - that's where you run into trouble stomach-wise, generally.
DAVIES: You must have a heck of a microbiome.
BOURDAIN: I would think so. I think everyone on our show, all of our veteran crew, are pretty good about that. We have pretty good resistance. We don't get sick easily. And when somebody new joins the team, you know, we tell them the rules of the road. But if after we've told them general do's and don'ts, if we find ourselves sitting at a - as happened in, I think, Kurdistan, in Iraq, and where some new member of the team says, oh, look, zuppa di vongole. Like, seafood - you know, like, a seafood stew. And we're awful far from the ocean right now. And we all looked at each other. And we're like, should we tell him? Should we say something? And we all just sort of - nah (ph), let him learn.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Is it true in Namibia you were offered an unwashed warthog rectum?
BOURDAIN: Yeah. Well, they killed a pig, and apparently that was the - you know, the chief yanks that part out and throws it on the grill and grills it medium rare and splits it with me. And I look - (unintelligible) the whole tribe is watching. He's offering you what he sees as the best part. That's a clear take-one-for-the-team situation.
What am I going to do? Refuse him? Embarrass him in front of his people? Look ungrateful? That changes the whole tenor of the relationship. I mean, when somebody's offering you food, they're telling you a story. They're telling you what they like, who they are. Presumably, it's a proud reflection of their culture, their history, often a very tough history. You turn your nose up at that important moment - the whole relationship changes, and it will never be the same.
DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain died this morning in Strasbourg, France. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN SONG, "LOW GRAVITY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're remembering food and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in his hotel today in Strasbourg, France. CNN, which aired his show "Parts Unknown," confirmed the cause of death was suicide. I spoke to Bourdain in 2016 when he'd published a new cookbook called "Appetites."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVIES: This is an interesting cookbook to look at and to read. You write in it there's nothing remotely innovative in the recipes. You're lifting them from imperfect memories of childhood favorites. Why this kind of book?
BOURDAIN: Well, I wanted it to be useful, approachable, reflective of the life I've lived over the past eight or nine years as a father, as opposed to a professional trying to dazzle with, you know, pretty pictures and food that's different than everybody else's. But as far as the recipes, you know, when I cook at home, it's with a 9-year-old girl in mind. I mean, she's who I need to please. And if she's not happy, I'm not happy. The whole house revolves around her and her friends, so it's reflective of that.
It's also reflective of, I think, age and all those years in the restaurant business. Most chefs I know after work do not want to go out to dinner and be forced to think about what they're eating in a critical or analytical way. They want to experience food as they did as children, in an emotional way, the pure pleasure of that bowl of spicy noodles or even a - you know, a bowl of soup that their mom gave them on a rainy day when they'd been bullied in school. I mean, that's a happy time when you can escape this world, you know, and lose yourself in food. So these are recipes that hopefully - where I try to evoke those kinds of feelings and emotions.
DAVIES: You reluctantly address the subject of breakfast. You said.
DAVIES: . As a professional, the smell of breakfast was the smell of defeat.
BOURDAIN: . You know, I did not have a particularly prestigious or notable career. And for much of the time as a chef, I was unemployable by respectable businesses. And the only people who would hire me would hire me for brunch shifts because most cooks hated doing brunch for very good reasons.
I was good at it, but it was the only work I could get. And I came to hate the - you know, when you're cooking 300 omelets a day and, you know, scraping waffles out of the waffle iron and making French toast and pancakes and, you know, cooking hundreds of pounds of home fries, those smells, those associations - those were very painful times - you know, addiction, post-addiction. You know, I was a desperate man, often working under a pseudonym when I was cooking brunch. So I really hated it, and I also hated the whole concept of brunch.
And later as a chef, I hated it because it was a huge profit center that caused problems for me as an employer because all my cooks hated to do it. But it was such a moneymaker because people are so foolishly happy to pay $22 for the same two eggs and bacon, you know, that they have during the week for $7 or even - or $3. You know, give them a free mimosa and a little strawberry fan, and, suddenly, they're happy to - I just had utter contempt for the entire enterprise. But now that I'm the father of a little girl.
DAVIES: You're happily throwing pancake parties for her and her friends.
BOURDAIN: Well, that makes me happy - seeing the look of delight in my daughter's eyes and her friends when her daddy offers an entire pancake bar with options for blueberry, chocolate chip, teddy bear or regular pancakes. I'm feeling pretty good about myself with those customers.
DAVIES: All right. So back to the cookbook. You tell us about breakfast. One of the things I was shocked to read is you don't fry bacon. You cook it in the oven?
BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think it's a - first of all, it's nicer. I mean, you know, you stink up the whole - I live in an apartment in New York, so frying bacon, first of all, is going to stink up the whole apartment. And it's just not the best way to evenly cook bacon. Most of us like crispy bacon or at least evenly cooked. And the best way to do it in my experience and the way we always did it in restaurants was to lay it out on a baking parchment and put in the oven and cook patiently but evenly, turning occasionally because there are hotspots in ovens. You get a much better product.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're remembering food and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in his hotel today in Strasbourg, France. When I spoke with Bourdain in 2016, his CNN series "Parts Unknown" was in its eighth season.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVIES: Some of the episodes - a lot of them were about food, some about travel, some about, you know, your personal feelings. And sometimes - the episode on Congo - a lot of that is about just the history of that nation and it being brutalized by Westerners and their.
BOURDAIN: That was - there was no expectation that - it would be obscene to go to the Congo looking to do a food show. We do many food-centric shows. We do comic shows. But some shows are agenda-driven. And I had an agenda here. And that was to, for an hour of television, talk about the history of this tragic - incredibly tragic, afflicted history that most people are unaware of. This wealthy in natural resources - this massive country, such a - I was sort of obsessed with this - the tragically little-known history of this very complicated country. And I wanted to talk about it. I also have long - it's a repeating theme on this show, both "Apocalypse Now" and Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness," so that was an irresistible impulse to go up the Congo River.
DAVIES: As you've traveled around the world so much, and you love street food - but you've - so you've seen kind of cheap, authentically made food. And you've seen a lot of poverty and what - how people get by. Has that made you less interested in high-end dining?
BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think - because on one hand, I'm happiest in experiencing food in the most purely emotional way. And it's true of most of my chef friends, as well - when it's, like, street food or a one-chef, one-dish operation where they're just somebody who's really, really good at one or two or three things that they've been doing for a very long time that may be reflective of their ethnicity or their culture or their nationality. Those are the things that just make me happy. And I'm - you know, I'm spoiled like a lot of fellow chefs. We get a lot of fine wines and dinners thrown our way. And you do reach this enviable point where you just don't want to sit there for four hours with course after course after course. It's too much, first of all. It doesn't feel good at the end of all that time, and it's not interesting.
And you don't want to - you know, if it's - if the waiter's taking 10 minutes to describe each dish, you know, it only took you three to eat it - something's really wrong. I mean, I think people lose sight of the fact that chefs should be ultimately in the pleasure business, not in the look-at-me business.
DAVIES: You sometimes visit places where there are really contentious political issues.
DAVIES: You say you're not a journalist. You're a storyteller. But you must think carefully about how you deal with that stuff.
BOURDAIN: Well, there's nothing actually more political than food - I mean, who's eating, who's not eating. Also, it's - I found it's just very, very useful to not be a journalist. I mean, journalists drop into a situation, ask a question. People sort of tighten up, whereas if you sit down with people and just say, hey, what makes you happy? What's your life like? What do you like to eat? More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.
So yeah, we've shot in some pretty contentious places. We shot in Beirut during the war and since Congo, Gaza, post-Benghazi Libya. I'm not a journalist, but I think it is useful as an addition to journalism to have seen what people are like in Libya, for instance. I mean, who are these people we are talking about when we talk about Benghazi or Libya? Is it not useful to see them with their kids, to see how their lives, their everyday lives are doing - seemingly ordinary things or trying to do ordinary things, to show what people actually live like in Iran who may not support their government at all? What are ordinary people like in Iran? We seem all too eager and willing to ignore those things.
I think in southern or, you know, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, we are - seem to be so used to seeing people of color in these disastrous situations, that we become inured and callous. So it's always useful to, especially in Africa, say, look. You know, there are lives happening here. This is what's involved in getting water for the table. You know, this is how nice people can be or how gentle or complicated - it just seems to me the more you are able to show people's everyday lives, often as they revolve around food and daily tasks, when something happens in the news, you have a better idea who we're talking about here.
DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain, thanks so much. It's been fun.
DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain took his own life in his hotel room is Strasbourg, France, where he was shooting an episode of his CNN series "Parts Unknown." He was 61. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli marks the anniversary of two of the earliest and most significant shows in TV history, one hosted by a newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR&rsquos programming is the audio record.
Share All sharing options for: Difficult Man: ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and the Early Days of Anthony Bourdain’s Legend
As late as 1999, Anthony Bourdain’s principal vocation remained his position as executive chef at the venerable but self-consciously middle-brow steak-frites joint Les Halles, on Park Avenue between 28th and 29th streets in Manhattan. Always a blessing and a curse, Bourdain’s restless mind continuously kicked the tires on other career avenues—Random House had published his Elmore Leonard–style culinary crime novel Bone in the Throat a few years previous—but by no means was he walking away from his calling in the kitchen. He was 43 years old, rode hard and put up wet, a recovering addict with a number of debts and a penchant for finding trouble in failing restaurants across the city. At Les Halles—at last—he had found sustained success and something resembling stability. This is what Anthony Bourdain would have had us believe.
But in the spring of 2000, his sublimated literary ambitions suddenly caught up with and then quickly surpassed his cooking. Brought forth by the boutique publishing house Ecco Press, Bourdain’s long-gestating, industry-disrupting, love-letter-cum-horror-show-confessional Kitchen Confidential became an immediate sensation. Flippant and funny, but vested with a deep reverence for his chosen field, the memoir tapped into a rich vein of industry lore and personal history. Bourdain’s prose was robust, witty, gossipy, outrageous, and informative. All at once, the possibilities were endless, the implications exhilarating and terrifying. He was a world-building raconteur, whose handsome visage and wiry 6-foot-4 frame seemed factory-assembled for the biggest stage. He was a ready-made star of the book tour circuit with a clear path forward. The Tony Bourdain show was headed for television.
In the just over two years since his tragic death, Bourdain has taken on a near-mythic stature as an emissary for food culture, an individual whose far-flung televised travelogues evolved over time from carousing misadventures into full-blown celebrations of genuine cultural exchange. By the time of his death, Bourdain had played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming and democratization of food culture, essentially bulldozing centuries-old elitist notions of fine dining by dint of his fierce advocacy and boundless enthusiasm. Bourdain’s overarching hypothesis—that political and social inequality could be both better understood and significantly redressed through an investigation of what and how we eat—has become so widely accepted that it can be strange to reflect that just two decades previous these ideas were largely alien. His big move from workaday chef to revolutionary frontiersman began in earnest 20 years ago, and the journey it would take him and his audience on was breathtaking.
Tony’s Compass: How Anthony Bourdain Became the Food TV Star of a Generation
Our Great Ambassador: In Memory of Anthony Bourdain
Parts Known: Anthony Bourdain and the Passage of Time While Living on TV
Eating, Talking, and Listening: The Final Season of ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’
By the time Kitchen Confidential was published, the modern food-media-industrial complex that had elevated cooking shows and celebrity chefs to household-name status was well under way, embodied by ubiquitous Food Network personalities like Emeril Lagasse and, later, Rachael Ray. Indeed, it could be argued that Bourdain undertook Kitchen Confidential as a kind of insurrectionist rebuttal to what he perceived to be an unacceptably false narrative that was cropping up about the industry he derived so much of his identity from. For Bourdain, the Food Network was an all-consuming bête noire, one that he complained about incessantly and with seemingly endless rancor in his writing and during his early forays on TV (a brief, unhappy stint on the network only added napalm to this fire). Like David Letterman or Steve Allen before him, Bourdain was driven by a pathological impetus to define himself against some real or perceived existing order.
If his journey from the kitchen to the TV screen was practically preordained in the immediate aftermath of his literary triumph, Bourdain’s persona was still a work in progress. So often in Kitchen Confidential, the keen intelligence of his observations are undermined by a transparent coarseness meant to burnish him as a rough-and-ready punk rock chef. Forced efforts at tough-guy panache often come off as needlessly demeaning and bullying, in the form of stipulations like: “Women who can survive and prosper in such a high-testosterone universe are all too rare.” Kitchen Confidential is very much a contest of wills between the avuncular, compassionate persona Bourdain would eventually embody and the shitty, Vassar-dropout rich kid overly proud of his drug habit and record collection.
In a recent phone conversation, GQ food writer Brett Martin, who also authored the excellent 2013 survey of the early days of prestige television Difficult Men, reflects on this through the lens of two decades of hindsight: “I think people forget, in the sanctification that’s followed Bourdain’s death, that his persona early on was really sort of an asshole, shot through with this adolescent, faux-gonzo narcissism. He and [creator of The Wire] David Simon shared that weakness. But they also shared a clarity of vision and this jubilance and brilliance.”
Martin believes that Bourdain embodies many of the contradictions common to the group of driven male auteurs of his era, men like David Chase of The Sopranos and Simon, whose self-styled machismo and obsession with perceived authenticity could periodically obscure their well-intentioned progressive views.
“You can’t read Kitchen Confidential without seeing how deeply a kind of damaged manhood was baked into restaurant culture. Kitchens are the most Freudian places in the world,” Martin says. “With all three—Bourdain, Chase, and Simon—their work is about men who remain essentially unknown to themselves, who are deeply fucked up by the neuroses of modern masculinity. I think Bourdain spent a lot of his later years recognizing and repenting for that.”
Kitchen Confidential also mirrors some of the former newspaper reporter Simon’s uncanny talent for explaining complex hierarchies and ecosystems. Just as Simon laid bare the Byzantine world of Baltimore’s drug trade and the futile attempts at policing it, Bourdain’s rogues’ gallery of investors, managers, food purveyors, inspectors, underworld operators, and rank-and-file staff involved in a typical restaurant venture is an exhilarating window into what civilians might have misconstrued as prosaic. Little wonder that Simon would eventually hire Bourdain to write multiple episodes of his post-Katrina, New Orleans–set HBO drama, Treme.
Conscious of his influences and the inheritance of a specific literary legacy, Kitchen Confidential is often cannily referential. Martin correctly points out how closely Bourdain follows the beats of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a 1933 social-realist depiction of the anarchic and frequently thrilling life of restaurant staff laboring in a pitiless metropolis, which doubles as a Marxist critique of the desperate and even inhumane conditions encountered by those workers.
“Like Orwell, Bourdain renders this incredibly compelling, romantic account of that life,” Martin observes. “But he never really gets to the Marxist part. Instead, he flips the script into a celebration: ‘We’re not drones or slaves we’re pirates! We’re not being oppressed it’s the squares in the dining room that are the losers!’ It’s this incredible seizure of power.”
Both in print and on television, Bourdain was rarely more appealing and articulate than when emphasizing the intrinsic role of immigrant labor in fine dining, and the stinging irony of frequently marginalized and persecuted populations rendering the three- and four-star meals so complacently received by more well-heeled diners. His profound esteem for the overlooked backbone of American restaurant culture resonates even more powerfully in the current moment when the demonization of Hispanic and Latinx immigrants has become a favored tactic for the country’s most cynical and toxic political entities.
“No one understands the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards more than a non-American,” Bourdain writes. “The Mexican, Dominican, and Salvadorian cooks I’ve worked with over the years make most CIA-educated [Culinary Institute of America] white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks.” There is little doubt that Bourdain understood that the “CIA-educated white boys” epithet applied to himself.
Inevitably, Bourdain’s complicated relationship to his own privilege serves as a crucial subtext to both Kitchen Confidential and the work that would follow it. Raised under well-to-do circumstances in the New Jersey suburb Leonia, he bristled against the placid stability of his upbringing, and clearly carried the self-applied stigma of his white-shoe circumstances with a modified shame throughout his life. A dedicated scion of punk rock and ’70s-centric notions of antiauthoritarianism, Bourdain’s privilege and access only accelerated his hatred for all things bourgeois. No amount of his gutter-dwelling enterprises ever seemed to fully remove the self-perceived residue of weakness. In an unsettling essay, “The Happy Ending,” which appeared in his Kitchen Confidential follow-up Medium Raw, Bourdain writes: “I bridled bitterly at the smothering chokehold of love and normalcy in my house … I’d wanted to be a junkie, after all, since I was 12 years old.”
It was a form of self-loathing that seemed to never fully leave him, one equally apt to manifest itself as reckless behavior or extraordinary art. It may ultimately explain why he left the kitchen, a venue he zealously romanticized as a purifying and meritocratic proving ground. As his media profile increased and his obligations as a chef wound down, Bourdain’s writing became littered with references to his soft hands and fraying work ethic. This was a bit unfair—Bourdain’s astoundingly prolific world traveling and television-making undertakings would have promptly broken a brace of lesser-driven individuals—but on some level he seemed later in life to regard himself as the man who couldn’t cut it as a cook.
Hiding in the final third of Kitchen Confidential, the travelogue “Mission to Tokyo” quietly represents the full flourishing of Bourdain’s gifts while subtly implying a shift in destiny. Sent to Japan to consult on the opening of a Tokyo-based branch of Les Halles, he proceeds to render the experience in all of its jet-lagged, native-terrified, migraine-experiencing, drunk-on-novelty-and-alcohol mania appropriate to the occasion. It’s mesmerizing.
“Mission to Tokyo,” ever more discernibly with the passage of time, is the functional first episode of the global travel adventure series No Reservations and Parts Unknown, which would ultimately account for the lion’s share of Bourdain’s legacy. There may be no other voice to date that has migrated so easily off the page and onto the screen.
Things were moving fast in his world. In Kitchen Confidential’s Proustian final chapter, “Kitchen’s Closed,” which advances his story right up to the fateful moment of the book’s publication, Bourdain is wrenchingly caught in mid–spiritual crisis—seeming to simultaneously pledge his devotions to a chef’s life while desperately appealing for parole. He enumerates his accumulated injuries in florid detail (“Trying vainly to reattach a flap of skin that was destined to become necrotic …”) and attempts to track down the lost old friends from early in the book, largely unsuccessfully. The reflective tone resembles Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves, the 1974 album that presaged the end of a long-tenured marriage at the start of an endless tour. Bourdain had long persuaded himself that his authentic place was cloistered among the unseen misfits and degenerates and idiot-savants of the restaurant world. Now it transpired that his true talent was something like the opposite: He was an unlikely global ambassador. But he was the best ambassador.
The “Aftermath” addendum included in the 2007 edition of Kitchen Confidential is sadder still, composed by an addled Bourdain checking in from his TV tour: “Bali, Indonesia, following a long swing through Seoul.” Obviously his days as a chef are done, replaced by the jungle-cat world traveler that was his invention and burden. And then Bourdain says this: “I once felt safe and at home in the kitchen. I knew the rules—or thought I knew the rules. It was a life of absolutes—of certainties—and that comforted me in a way nothing since has.”
And nothing ever did. For the first time but not the last, Bourdain was saying goodbye.