My Summer Reading List: Kitchen Confidential

Originally published on June 17, 2009.

Last time on My Summer Reading List I reviewed Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, the beautiful story of a little girl in love with food who grows up to be a renowned food writer. Tender is a romantic telling of a life spent in food. Kitchen Confidential is a whole other beast.

Kitchen Confidential BourdainSemi-retired chef Anthony Bourdain shocked the world with his tome on the inside workings of the restaurant industry, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. As the story goes, Kitchen Confidential blew the lid of the industry upon it’s release in 2000 by revealing the drunken, drug-laden debauchery that exists in American professional kitchens. I question how many people were genuinely surprised by the revelations in Bourdain’s work, after all the restaurant industry employs more people than any other industry in the nation, save the Federal government, over 12 million jobs nationwide.

I believe that most of the hullabaloo was feigned. After all, of those in the media not currently employed in the Life (as Bourdain calls it) most at least used to be employed in it. To a lifer like myself the book was comfortable. It was like sitting down with an old friend over a bottle of Johnny Walker getting three sheets while reliving memories and swapping tales.

Bourdain paints a perfect picture of life in the kitchen, testosterone driven trash talking, seducing servers and drinking way too much. But what surprised me was the author’s love of food. Images sketched in words of his first raw oyster freshly plucked from the brine while only a lad to his experiences with the amazing creations of Scott Bryan, Eric Ripert and Ferran Adrià. Throughout the text I was constantly reminded of both Bourdain’s love affair with food and his sheer talent for the smithing of words.

Anthony Bourdain Medium RawThe boy’s got chops. At the time of its publishing I don’t think Bourdain knew just how good a writer he was. The book was so explosive, so popular that it actually was made into a television series, all though it was a short lived one. Fast forward nearly a decade and Tony is no longer commanding the kitchen at Les Halles, no longer going on three-day coke benders (I hope) and no longer chasing tail. He has become what he loathed and found it’s a pretty nice gig, this celebrity chef thing.

I made sure to put Kitchen Confidential on my summer reading list because I knew how important a book it is. What I did not expect was how much I would learn from it. In fact, I have gotten a whole new reading list from it. Bourdain emphasizes how important it is for any chef to read the classics, if you will, of our profession.

In sports the greats of the game are known by just one name: Hank, Bo, and Michael. Sports fans know of whom I speak. The culinary world is no different and it is these chefs of which Bourdain speaks. Works of literature produced from chefs so revered that they are known by just one name, Escoffier and Bocuse. So thank you, Tony. Not only have you penned a great book, but you have also made my summer reading project a little longer.

Next: Heat by Bill Buford.

Diary of a Wannabe TV Chef Pt. 12

This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career,” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most important elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

So twice now I have been the victim of cutbacks that resulted in my losing a dream job.  What’s worse, to pay the bills I am having to work as a server at one of the very corporate cookie cutter restaurants that has ruined the dining experience in this country.  Why this particular restaurant?  Because it is the most popular restaurant in the city and that means more money.  Why is it the most popular restaurant in the city?  Sure, the food is bad and the management treats the customers like cattle, but I love the salad and bread sticks.

So day in and day out I put on their goofy outfit.  I hock their mediocre wine and do my best to describe the trans fat laden food so that it sounds enticing.  The conventional wisdom is that you cannot describe a dish unless you taste it, but this is one of the dirtiest restaurants I have ever seen.  I am genuinely apprehensive of putting anything in my mouth while at work save water from a drink-and-drop cup.  Rather than lie, I sidestep:

Customer: How’s the rollatini?

Me: It’s one of our most popular specials.  There’s been talk of putting it on the menu full-time.

I am miserable.  To make matters worse, my pal Wade and his TV production crew have abandoned their small screen projects (like my cooking show) in lieu of making independent movies.  It can’t possibly get any worse, can it?

Apparently the answer to that question is always yes.

The recession that has been quietly building momentum becomes a tsunami.  Gas prices sky-rocket.  Many people stop dining out; those that don’t, stop tipping.  I go from making $75 – $100 a shift to making $10, but since I used to make more Uncle Sam keeps taxing me like a beast.  The paltry hourly wage that servers receive in this country ($2.13/hour) doesn’t cover their tax burden, even during a good economy.

Convinced I have to get out of this crappy job, I start scanning the classifieds.  Two years earlier, the restaurant jobs took an entire page.  Now you can count them on one hand.  Day after day, nothing.  I am getting desperate.  A month goes by with no chef positions available, then two, then six.  Now I am willing to take anything to get away from stupid salad and bread sticks.

One day there is an ad for a cook at a struggling café not too far away.  On Wednesday, I e-mail my resumé.  On Thursday, I get a phone interview.  On Friday, I get a sit down interview.  And on that Saturday, I start my new job as the Executive Chef of Mars Hill Café.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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