A book review by BPL team member, Leann.
For a long time, I didn’t *get* Anthony Bourdain. I thought he was just one of those machismo-fueled, egomaniacal celebrity chefs, who chose to be mean instead of having a personality. I finally picked up Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and decided that I wasn’t wrong. But, I wasn’t right either. After reading Kitchen Confidential, which is part memoir, part restaurant-world-exposé, I still think Anthony Bourdain was a lot of those things. He was also, however, an incredible writer, a loyal friend, a champion of the underdog, hard-working, cutting, clever, and harshly self-effacing. He wasn’t mean to anyone who didn’t deserve it—at least by his piratical professional kitchen standards—and he definitely had a personality.
As is often the case with memoirs and non-fiction, it’s not so much the topic that is important, but the way in which it’s delivered. It seems unfair that someone should be so gifted: a world-class chef who was able to write both pointedly and poignantly about his halcyon childhood, smoking cigarettes on the beaches in France, while relaying deplorable details about the seedier side of the restaurant business. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain ties his stories together successfully into a narrative package that isn’t so much poetic as it is earnest, insistent, and fun. Between sizzling commentary on dining dummies who order fish specials on Monday and damning indictments of kitchen tools like the garlic press, Bourdain’s passion for food, but also for people, shines through.
It’s Bourdain’s personality, in the end, that will keep you reading. The book was written in 2000, so some of the “culinary underbelly” is now common knowledge, but Bourdain’s trajectory to the top and his frank recounting of his journey there is fascinating even to those with only a mild interest in food or restaurant life. The knowledge of Bourdain’s death by suicide in 2018 throws a lot of Kitchen Confidential, and especially Bourdain’s opinions about himself, into sharp, tragic relief.
It was a special treat to listen to Bourdain narrate Kitchen Confidential on Libby. You can almost hear his spit fly at the mic in disdain when he describes hoity-toity restauranteurs who disrespected his Honduran kitchen staff or the calamity of an incompetent vegetable guy. I recommend Kitchen Confidential to anyone who loves food, restaurants, travel, and for those readers who liked Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler or gritty, darkly funny memoirs. If you like Ruth Reichl, and especially her memoir Save Me the Plums, I would cautiously recommend Kitchen Confidential to you, especially if you’ve been meaning to read Anthony Bourdain. I read the books back-to-back and I’d say they are two sides of the same, extremely well-written, well-fed, coin.
Below are some discussion questions about Kitchen Confidential. Spoilers ahead!
Bourdain has a lot of advice about cooking and eating in the book. What were you inspired to do when you were reading or after you finished the book? Throw away all your knives? Run out and try something new? Never go to a restaurant again?
How did Bourdain, as a character, grow throughout his life / the book? What were some of the themes throughout that propelled him, or alternatively, held him back?
How have American attitudes toward food and dining-out changed since the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000?
Which were your favorites of the colorful characters that Bourdain introduces in the book? Which of the kitchens he worked in would you most or least like to experience for yourself?
Bourdain talks about the first time he realized food was more than sustenance. Do you agree? What role has food played in your life? Are there any special meals you remember? What makes the meal stick out for you?
If you’ve ever worked in the food and restaurant industry, would you agree with Bourdain’s assessments? Do you have any war stories you want to share?
Who from the book would you most want to punch in the face?
Was there any piece of advice that Bourdain offered to home cooks that you found useful?