WHAT I REMEMBER most vividly about my time as a restaurant cook is the miraculous, balletic grace of the line during rush hour. Any given Saturday evening would find the sous-chef expediting orders in front of the line as quickly and thoroughly as possible, tickets piling up like potato peels in the prep room. He faced eight full-grown adults in houndstooth-check pants and funny white hats, limbs akimbo. Their heavily calloused fingers prepared hundreds of orders while they dove in and around each other, narrowly avoiding boiling pots of water, incoming and outgoing waitstaff, and the edges of just-sharpened chef's knives for hours at a time—all with a brute finesse that defies logic. Though there must have been some accidents during those busy nights, I can't remember any during my tenure there. Alvin Ailey would have given his left leg to choreograph it.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury, $24.95)
Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential captures all of the dinner-line's fevered essence—it differs from my experiences only in the details. Though Bourdain, the head chef at Manhattan's Brasserie Les Halles and author of two novels, Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo, would have laughed at my restaurant's conditions, which, despite the excessive heat of the open-fire ovens and the narrowness of both the front line and the appetizers unit behind it, were pretty damn nice compared to some of the holes he earned his stars in.
"NICE" IS A CONCEPT Bourdain disparages throughout Kitchen Confidential, which only authenticates the book. Anyone who's worked as a cook knows that the profession is a magnet for malcontents, and Bourdain definitely qualifies, detailing his adventures as a renegade sensualist from his first taste of oyster at age 9 to his drug-addled 20s to the heady trips abroad as a professional chef. Malcontentedness also defines his colleagues, and Bourdain is at his best depicting some of his more, um, interesting cohorts, like his amazingly charismatic sous-chef Steven. "Our clean-living, deeply religious Ecuadorian pasta man would receive 4am phone calls every night [from] Steven mid-coitus with his girlfriend," Bourdain writes. "'Manuel . . . grunt . . . plorp . . . it's Steven . . . grunt . . . guess what I'm doing?' And, like everyone else in Steven's life, Manuel played along. . . . If I did half the things that Steven does regularly . . . I'd end up in court defending myself against a host of sexual harassment lawsuits."
Obviously, Bourdain conceives the kitchen as a place in which machismo predominates, gender be damned, and he certainly provides his share of it. It's hard not to grimace when he praises the women he's worked with over the years as "really studly . . . no weak reeds these," as if this were an end in itself. It's hardly an inaccurate point, of course, with restaurant kitchens being notoriously testosterone-riddled places. But it's notable that the book's most illuminating moment comes when, for contrast, Bourdain sits in with Scott Bryan of neighboring eatery Veritas. Bryan is a three-star chef whose quiet, stunningly efficient organization upsets every preconception the two-star Bourdain has spent 250 pages putting forth about the restaurant business, from location spotting to career path-making to menu planning to the proper amount of bully-boy attitude it takes to run a successful kitchen.
Still, Bourdain puts that aggressive energy to good use here. His writing is alternately blunt and dry, with a knack for comic timing obviously honed by years of telling these stories to coworkers at the prep table and during dinner-hour downtime. And his detailed descriptions of the actual food preparation reach a well-tuned pitch that are equal parts warning to the average diner, nudging insider shop-talk, and manna for food-lovers—something that can also be said of Kitchen Confidential as a whole.