Almost 20 years later and this book is still the most honest look at the life of cooks and chefs, and an account, in Tony's words, of how not to behave in life. Bourdain was gifted with being able to speak plainly about the crude, the rough, the ugly, and the very beautiful without over dramatizing it. Being a cook is probably the hardest lifestyle one can choose, and Kitchen Confidential gives it to you burns, drugs, dicks and all.
I feel sometimes, like I’ve lived three lives. If so, this would be one of them. Maybe one and a half. Looking back, re-reading this, it seems that no what I thought I knew at any given moment in my life, I never knew shit about shit. Not about the important things anyway. That’s still very much a work in progress, I guess-figuring out the important stuff.
One of the comforts of cooking professionally is that end up knowing some things absolutely. You know that plates go into the dishwashing machine dirty and tend to come out clean. You know how best to cook an omelette. When risotto is done right and when it’s done wrong. You know that showing up on time is an absolute virtue and that being late is always, always bad.
In an imperfect and ever changing world where few things are for certain, that’s pretty satisfying still—to know that SOMETHING is for sure.
I wasn’t intending to write an exposé, didn’t want to “rip the lid off the restaurant business” and frankly couldn’t have cared less about recycled bread or the whole “fish on Monday” thing. I was not—and am not—an advocate for change in the restaurant business. I like the business the way it is. What I set out to do was write a book that fellow cooks and restaurant lifers would find entertaining and true.
I’m asked a lot what the bets thing about cooking for a living is. And it’s this: to be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society withs own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands—using all one’s senses. It can be, at times, the purest most unselfish way of giving pleasure (though oral sex has to be a close second).
A three-star Italian chef pal of mine was recently talking about why he—a proud Tuscan who makes his own pasta and sauces from scratch daily and runs one of the best restaurant kitchens in New York—would never be so foolish as to hire any Italians to cook on his line. He greatly prefers Ecuadorians, as many chefs do: “The Italian guy? You screaming at him in the rush, ‘Where’s that risotto?! Is that fucking risotto ready yet? Gimme that risotto!…and the Italian… he’s gonna give it to you…and An Ecuadorian guy? He’s just gonna turn his back…and stir the risotto and keep cooking it until it’s done the way you showed him. That’s what I want.”
Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for the cash and do it well. Cooks who, thought they have little love or natural proclivity for cuisine, do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it—and because they are professionals. Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman—not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen—though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying. And I’ll generally take a stand-up mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When I hear “artist,” I think someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up at work on time. More often than not artists’ efforts, convinced as they are of their own genius, are geared more to giving themselves a hard-on than satisfying the great majority of diner customers.
When a job applicant starts telling me how Pacific Rim cuisine turns him on and inspires him, I see trouble coming. Send me another Mexican dishwasher anytime. I can teach him to cook. I can’t teach character. Show up at work on time six months in a row and we’ll talk about red curry paste and lemongrass. Until then, I have four words for: “Shut the fuck up.”
I saw a sign the other day outside one of those Chinese-Japanese hybrids that are beginning to pop up around town, advertising “Discount Sushi.” I can’t imagine a better example of Things to Be Wary Of in the food department than bargain sushi. Yet the place had customers. I wonder, had the sign said “Cheap Sushi” or :Old Sushi,” if they’d still have eaten there.
Good food and good eating are about risk. Every once in a while an oyster, for instance, will make you sick to your stomach. Does that mean you should stop eating oysters? No way. The more exotic the food, the more adventurous the serious eater, the higher the likelihood of later discomfort. I’m not going to deny myself the pleasures of morcilla sausage, or sushi or even rope vieja at the local Cuban joint sometimes I feel bad a few hours after I’ve eaten them.
I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. This isn’t a hard call. They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigerators and work spaces look like. Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean. Kitchens are not. In fact, if you see the chef sitting unshaven at the bar, with a dirty apron on, one finger halfway up his nose, you can assume he’s not handling your food any better behind closed doors. Your waiter looks like he just woke up under a bridge? If management allows him to wander out on the floor looking like that, God knows what they’re doing to your shrimp!
Bigfoot understood—as I came to understand—that character is far more important than skills or employment history. And he recognized character—good and bad—brilliantly. He understood, and taught me, that a guy who shows up every day on time, never calls in sick and does what he said he was going to do is less likely to fuck you in the end than a guy who has an incredible resume but is less reliable about arrival time. Skills can be taught. Character you either have or don’t have. Bigfoot understood there are two types of people in the world: those who do what they say they’re going to do—and everyone else. He’d lift ex-junkie sleaze balls out of the gutter and turn them into trusted managers, guys who’d kill themselves rather than misuse one thin dime of Bigfoot receipts. He’d get Mexicans right off the boat, turn them into solid citizens with immigration lawyers, nice incomes and steady employment. But if Bigfoot calls them at 4 in the morning, wanting them to put in a rooftop patio, they’d better be prepared to roll out of bed and get busy quarrying limestone.
Bigfoot paid his purveyors on time—religiously—a very unusual thing to do in a business where a restauranteur’s real partners, more often than not, are the suppliers who send him food and material on credit. Given this, pity the poor could who sent Bigfoot a second-best piece fo swordfish.
“What is it?” He’d tell them on the phone, playing the confused dumbo for a while before the metal jaws clamped shut. “I don’t pay quickly enough to get the good stuff? Is there something wrong with my business that you want to send me garbage? Or is it that I’m stupid? Maybe my stupidity makes you figure, well…that I want the kind of shit you send me. Or maybe… I am stupid…maybe I can’t recognize fresh fish…and this smelly piece of shit is really fresh…and I just…can’t recognize it. Maybe I’ve encouraged you somehow…to inconvenience me and my customers. Maybe you could explain to me…because I’m having a problem…you know…figuring it out…because I’m so stupid. Or maybe…maybe you’re just really really rich guys and you don’t need my business at all. Things are going so well for you…you figure you don’t need the money.” And he was always heroically willing to cut off his nose to spite his face. Who care if he needed that fresh delivery. If it arrived five minutes late, Bigfoot waited until the driver unloaded it—then he sent it back. I saw him do this with gigantic, multiton dry-goods orders that were a bit late. And let me tell you, now I often do the same thing. Make the driver unload, then reload an entire order of canned goods, thirty-five pound flour sacks, peanut oils, juices, tomato paste and bulk sugar, and I can assure you—your stuff will start arriving on time.
(Speaking about the Rainbow Room)
The atmosphere was not unlike a Pinero play, very jailhouse, with a lot of grab-ass, heated argument, hyper-macho posturing and drunken ranting. Two burly men who’d just as soon kill you as look at you, hen talking to each other, would often nestle a hand tenderly next to the testicles of the other, as if to say, “I am so not gay—I can even do this!”
My own personal tormentor for the first few weeks was the chef de garde-manger and shop steward, a big, ugly Puerto Rican with a ruined face named Luis. Luis considered frequent explorations of my young ass with his dirty paws to be a perk of his exalted position; at every opportunity, he’d take a running swat between my cheeks, driving his fingers as far up my ass as my checked pants would allow. I endured this in the spirit of good fun for a while—until I’d had enough. There was a lot of ass-grabbing and ball-fondling going on, after all, and I did want desperately to be one of the guys. But Luis had generally knocked off a half a fifth of cooking brandy by ten each morning, and as his drunken advances threaten to become actual penetration, I was moved to take drastic action.
I was making filling for crespelle toscana in the huge, tilting brazier one morning, stirring mushrooms, diced tongue, ham, turkey, spinach and béchamel with a big, heavyweight, curved Dexter meat fork, a nice patina of rust on its blunt and twisted tines. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Luis coming, his right hand swinging back for a deep wallop between my cheeks. I decided right then I’d had enough; I was gonna straighten this drunken pig out. I quickly, but subtly, turned the big meat fork around and down, so the business end was pointing backwards. I timed my move for maximum impact. When Luis came in with his hand, I came down with the fork as hark as I could, sinking both tines deep into his knuckles with a satisfying crunch. Luis screamed like a burning wolverine and fell to his knees, two wide holes—one on each side of his middle knuckle—already welling up with blood. He managed to get up, the whole kitchen crew screaming and hooting with laughter, his hand blowing up to the size of a catcher’s mitt and taking on an interesting black-and-blue and red color. After a visit to one of the fine, union-sponsored medical clinics, the hand was even larger, looking like a gauze-wrapped football and leaking yellow antiseptic.
My life improved immediately. The other cooks began addressing me as an equal. Nobody grabbed my ass anymore. People smiled and patted me on the back when I came to work in the morning. I had made my bones.
I never really knew how to cook pasta before. Here, dried pasta was blanched in small, undercooked batches and laid out unranked and still warm on lightly oiled sheet pans before being finished in sauce a few minutes later. Fresh pasta and thin-cut pasta was cooked to order.
Pasta was cooked the right way. Meaning, the penne, for instance, after saucing stood up on the plate in a mound, rather than sliding around on the plate or being left to drown in a bowl.
“You want to taste the pasta,” explained Gianna, “not just the sauce.” It was, I must admit, a revelation. A simple pasta pomodoro—just about the simplest thing I could think of, pasta in red sauce—suddenly became a thing of real beauty and excitement.
All the food was simple. And I don’t mean easy, or dumb. I mean that for the first time, I saw how three or four ingredients, as long as they are of the highest and freshest quality, can be combined in a straightforward way to make a truly excellent and occasionally wondrous product.
*This chapter was left out of some foreign translations as un-translatable.
Who’s the bigger homo? Who takes it in the ass? Who, exactly, at this particular moment, is a pédé, a maricón, a fanocchio, a puta, a pato? It’s all about dick, you see. It’s chupa mis huevos time, time for mama la ping, take it in you culo time, motherfucker, you pinche baboso, crying little woman. And you vierga? It looks like a fucking half order of merguez—muy, muy, muy chica…like an insecto.
This is the real international language of cuisine, I realized, watching my French sous-chef, American pâtissier, Mexican grill, salad and fry guy exchange playful insults with the Bengali runner and Dominican dishwasher. …
As an art form, cook-talk is, like haiku or kabuki, defined by established rules, with a rigid, traditional framework in which one may operate. All comment must, out of historical necessity, concern involuntary rectal penetration, penis size, physical flaws or annoying mannerisms or defects.
The rules can be confusing. Cabrón, for instance, which translates roughly to “Your wife/girlfriend is getting fucked by another guy right now—and you’re too much of a pussy to do anything about it.” Can also mean “my brother,” depending on inflection and tone. The word “fuck” is used principally as a comma. “Suck my dick” means “Hang on a second” or “Could you please wait a moment?” And “Get your shit together with your fucking meez, or I come back there and fuck you in the culo” means “Pardon me, comrade, but I am concerned with your state of readiness for the coming rush. Is your mise-en-place properly restocked, my brother?”
Pinche wey means “fucking guy” but can also mean “you adorable scamp” or “pal.” But if you use the word pal—or worse, the phrase my friend—in my kitchen, it’ll make people paranoid. My friend famously means “asshole” in the worst and most sincere sense of that word. And start being too nice to a cook on the line and he might think he’s getting canned tomorrow. My vato locos are, like most line cooks, practitioners of that century old oral tradition in which we—all of us—try to find new and amusing ways to talk about dick.
Homophobic, you say? Sub-mental? Insensitive to gender preference, and the gorgeous mosaic of an ethnically diverse work force? Gee…you might be right. Does a locker room environment like this make it tougher for women, for instance? Yep. Most women, sadly. But what the system seeks, what is requires, is someone, anyone, who can hold up his station, play the game without getting bent out of shape and taking things personally. If you are easily offended by direct aspersions on your lineage, the circumstances of your birth, your sexuality, your appearance, the mention of your parents possibly commingling with livestock, then the world of professional cooking is not for you.