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Kitchen Confidential

posted on 10 Dec 2017

Kitchen Confidential: Anthony Bourdain’s cookery noir

Seventeen years ago, before the internet age was really fully underway, when the World Trade Centre still stood, Amazon had only recently launched in the UK and cookery writing was still a genteel occupation dominated by well-bred ladies and (a few) gentlemen, an exciting new voice was heard – profane, gutsy, confrontational, at times vituperative but also endlessly fascinating about the dirty secrets of the restaurant business. This was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It marked an audacious new idea: the bastard love-child of Elizabeth David and Hunter S Thompson and the conjunction of cookery writing and gonzo journalism.

Sadly, however, what this thrilling effort launched was not a top-flight writing career but a highly lucrative cookery-travel-reality TV franchise that turned Bourdain into a hot small-screen property and a multi-millionaire. Not that he was quite a penniless bum when Kitchen Confidential was published, mind you. He had worked for some years at that time – and I think still did – as the executive chef of a high-end restaurant in New York City called Les Halles. What does seem to be the case, however, is that his TV career, alongside a handful of fairly dismissable TV-tie in type books and a rag-bag follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, have turned him into the thing that at one time, almost above all else, he took the utmost pleasure in excoriating: the not-quite-cook celebrity chef.

For the bigger his TV persona has become, the poorer the quality of his writing. Where once there was humour and irony and genuine literary ability, his writing now seems to have the same clumsy, blowhard voice as a million bloggers (the lingua franca of the internet), and a conviction that anything mildly funny or daringly offensive will be doubly so (and therefore better) if written in capitals. It’s very sad. An adventurous new style has swiftly degenerated into schtick. It’s an object lesson in the vanity of human wishes.

But back to Kitchen Confidential. When this appeared, with its urgent block headlines cover, the scuzzy black-and-white pictures with Bourdain and cronies smoking in a grimy back alley, giant knives cradled lovingly or thrust through their apron ties, for all the world like brigands or some weird new breed of kitchen samurai, it was certainly attention grabbing. It spoke as much about drugs and debauchery as it did the iron discipline, obsessive perfectionism and fanatical attention to detail that are required in order to feed four or five hundred high-paying but utterly unpredictable diners every day – and do this profitably.

In some respects what was perhaps most shocking was that no one had done this before. Yes, cookery had been cool; it had even at various times been the new rock ‘n roll. But it had never been existential struggle, gonzo journalism, memoir and sleazy exposé, all at the same time. It did for the restaurant business what the sex, sleaze and crime rag ‘Confidential’ did for Hollywood during the mid-50s through to the late-70s. (But let’s not knock sensationalist publishing too much. ‘Confidential’ may have been the precursor of the pale, sickly invalid that is today’s celebrity gossip journalism, but it can also be said to have helped propel some other literary forms too, such as James Ellroy’s dark and brutal LA noir crime novels.)

For Bourdain, however, the presiding spirit is most certainly Hunter S Thompson. He never attains the sheer baroque extravagance that HST sometimes managed to cram into the tongue lashings he delivered, but he’s often not far behind. But if this was all the book had to offer then its interest would not have lasted. What makes it significant today is that the passage of time has given it a sociological dimension. The New York kitchens and restaurants it documents range from the grand palaces of superstar haute cuisine through to brutally run Mob fronts, and they straddle the ungentrified downtown of 70s Manhattan, the glamour and cocaine excesses of the 80s, and the neo-liberal triumph of the 90s and the really big money. It now reads like a hip version of Joseph Mitchell’s Up In the Old Hotel, that earlier chronicle of an old and vanishing New York.

It’s saddening to find that Bourdain has devalued his own currency, but then so did HST in his later years. Perhaps excess can only eventually go in one direction – downwards. Nonetheless, picking this up somewhat unexpectedly over the weekend was a real pleasure. I found I barely looked up from its pages. Anyone who enjoys seeing extravagantly filthy laundry being washed in public, or simply believes posh restaurants deserve a ruthless debunking, will read this with great relish. Enjoy it as a splendid one-off – and a warning about the coarsening effects of TV fame and fortune.

 

Alun Severn

December 2017