Author: Anthony Bourdain
Growing up, I was an absolute sycophant to Chettan, my elder brother. Four years older and sent away to boarding school, he was the very definition of cool in my eyes. He would return on holidays with multi-coloured toothpaste in tubes that stood on their head. I was still in school when I found him reading a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all non-fiction bestseller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures of a Culinary Underbelly. Chettan was the reader then. He couldn’t stop talking about Anthony Bourdain. He read a lot of autobiographies of successful people. I had no interest in such books. But the book’s cover drew me in like a moth to light. It had three cooks in whites holding swords, nonchalantly looking away from the camera. They looked like rockstars. Highly aspirational image to a dreamer like me.
Chettan also happened to be a natural at cooking. He would throw a bunch of things together and it always tasted good. He constantly pulled my leg about how I measured out ingredients. In the book, Bourdain talks about an incident where as a cocky young cook he was thoroughly humiliated and shown his place by his pirate ship of a kitchen crew. An important turning point in life, this incident triggered the author to go to cooking school and show them how good he could be. In the same light, I learned to cook because Chettan was so good at it and because he made fun of my cooking. Though I never quite picked up the throwing things together act from him, I do hold my own in the kitchen.
Only in reading Kitchen Confidential did I realise what an adult milestone it was in my head. Subconsciously, I had always associated biographies as something adults read. Somehow reading them would make me an adult. It’s been almost two decades since the book was first published in 2000. In all the years I hadn’t read it, the book had taken on the colossal form of an impassable tome. It symbolised the infinite coolness that I would never be synonymous with. It had fused into a demi-god of cool; a ear-ringed, long-haired, badass biker and freestyle cook; a mutant Chettan Bourdain.
As awesome as I think the book is, I am thankful I didn’t read Kitchen Confidential while in college when I first took to reading in a big way. It would have fanned the fire of my self-destructive tendencies. As a student of the arts with lots of time at hand, my biggest takeaway from this would have been that drugs were cool. Now, a decade later, I find Kitchen Confidential to be a powerful testament to a rather simple motto. Show up and work. Bourdain says food (his work) is the only truth around him. I dare say that in Bourdain’s classic no-fucks-given prose, I found an answer that has been eluding me for a while. What to do in life. The answer is simple. Keep working.
Of course, a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller such as this one does not need my approval. What makes me wax eloquent about this book are a combination of things. It takes a certain kind of human being to talk about his drug abuse for exactly what it was. A whole lot of good times and a whole lot of bad times. They do say hindsight is 20-20 but to see through his own perspective what a life of drug abuse did to his career in the food industry, is to me, inspiring. When juxtaposed with the success story he is today, Bourdain’s life is an inspiration not to give up the fight however hard it gets. Kitchen Confidential is a self-deprecating telling of a chef’s life. It’s unmistakably American in its references, it’s a laugh riot in pockets, it’s fast-paced, entertaining and jam-packed with wisdom especially on what days not to order fish in New York.
In the end, Bourdain turns all his wise words about working with drugged out chefs in battlefield kitchens owned by nefarious hoteliers, on its head by introducing Scott Bryan, a contemporary three-star American chef. In comparison to Bourdain, Bryan is a saint. His kitchens are a quiet affair, his crew waltzing through service. Bryan never even raises his voice compared to Bourdain whose kitchen is run like a pirate ship. He is foul-mouthed, conniving and ruthless by his own admission. He values people who show up to do what they said they would do. That is no extraordinary wisdom but through this chronicle of his work life, he manages to show us why it’s important to show up and work.
Finally, reading Kitchen Confidential puts to rest a mystery I didn’t know needed solving. A little spot of smouldering embers in my brain that I have finally put out. Thanks to his celebrity and the Internet, post the book, I have read up quite a bit on Bourdain. The highschool-sweetheart wife he so appreciatively refers to in this book is now his first wife. His second marriage too has ended since. Life goes on, well beyond the book.
My life too has gone on till I successfully waded through the enigma I associated with this No Reservations TV star Chettan continues to idolize. In reading this book, I’ve checked off another box, a milestone under ‘being an adult’. It’s momentous. Being an adult is a rare moment of being a doer, when I accomplish something I’ve convinced myself for very long that I can’t. And reading Chettan’s copy of Kitchen Confidential only makes this milestone sweeter. Now to show up and work.