Addiction to the kitchen
I recently had the pleasure of reading the book that changed Anthony Bourdain’s life; Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. When I first opened the book I had specific goals, things I wanted to confirm about the kitchen industry and about what made people keep coming back to the lawless sweatbox that was my second home for the past two years (because it certainly wasn’t the money or the benefits). This book took Bourdain out from behind the line of a French Bistro steakhouse in Manhattan and turned him into the sarcastic world traveler, the renowned critic of foods and governments,and the only man I’ve heard of that was able to combine all my passions into a lucrative career.
But the path he took to get there was not a hike through the woods, it was a transatlantic journey on a raft made out of drug addictions, deeply rooted masochism and a cutthroat mentality. And it is through this journey that he reveals all the war stories of a typical night in your favorite restaurant.
Bourdain spent well over 20 years living the kitchen life and held every position from dishwasher to executive chef. And on top of that, he worked in restaurants all over New York City, Washington D.C. and even Tokyo. So the man obviously knows what really goes on at a restaurant while you and your family are making awkward small talk about the weather. But perhaps my favorite thing about this book, what really makes it special, is that Bourdain puts into words my own rationalizations and anger toward everything and everyone in the restaurant business.
The absolute first thing anyone notices upon getting a new job, or even entering a new room, is the people who are there with them. And in this case, what stuck out to me on my first night of work wasn’t the fact that I was in a damp 1970s cave, but the cooks and the chef. Immediately, I knew they were a different breed of people than I had ever seen before; Bourdain compares them to a pirate crew, and that’s such a perfect description.
All the cooks I’ve met were alcoholcs, hopelessly addicted to nicotine, brandishing the sharpest knives a line dog’s wage could buy, and chasing down any attractive (or unattractive) waitress that walked into the kitchen. But they were, without a shadow of a doubt, the hardest working individuals that I have ever known.
These are people that couldn’t physically or emotionally bring themselves to work anywhere else because laws of the real world don’t necessarily apply in the kitchen. Bourdain talks about how he stabbed a cook in the hand with a meat fork — this thing went through the guy’s knuckles, all because he was touching him. And how another time, he announced that if a cook didn’t shut up, he’d remove his eyes and proceed to skull fuck him. If Bourdain had said or done this literally anywhere else, he wouldn’t be on TV traveling the world; he’d be facing assault charges. Those weren’t the crazy outlier occasions either — there are fights behind the line all the time; with five miserable, slightly unstable, severely underpaid people wielding knives within a 25 foot line. You’d have more luck trying to contain a forest fire using car bombs.
This is not to say that cooks aren’t artists or professionals. A cook’s whole life is based on how they create something beautiful out of nothing. They may dick around for the majority of the day, they may call you every name in the book (and even some that aren’t), but if those grill lines on that strip aren’t geometrically perfect, you better believe that you’re gonna have to start over.
There were many jobs I could’ve gotten back home; I could’ve been at the ski mountain, worked in retail or even been a lifeguard. And these are all jobs where I would have been paid more, gotten actual breaks (instead of just five minutes to suck down a cigarette on an overturned milk crate in the rain), and I never once would have burned myself or almost cut my fingers off. And just maybe, I would’ve been acknowledged or spoken to a real person who experienced any real person emotions or feelings.
So why did I continue to put myself through 45 to 50 hour weeks in that prison colony? Why did Bourdain spend 20 years, doing any drug he could find in NYC, losing almost everyone he cared about for the sake of his job? Because he was someone who loved food. Food is an art form, it’s the ultimate form of culture communication, and above all else, it is an adventure. It’s something new and different no matter where you are. It’s all there for us to try, and as Bourdain reminds us, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
Connor Shannon is a freshman culture and communication major whose favorite movie is Julie & Julia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.