30 May 2011

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
2007 Ecco paperback edition with updated forward and interview at the end
$10, 312 pages.

My copy of this book looks like hell. Not because I've read it that often, or because friends have abused it, or it got damaged while I kept it near the stove like some religious talisman.

It looks like hell because, mere hours after receiving it from my boss on a business trip to Cleveland, Ohio, it and the rest of my luggage sat in the rain on the tarmac as my flight got cancelled and I looked forward to a short stay in a nearby hotel.

About an hour after finding out that my plane wasn't taking off, and this was around midnight, a young female ramp agent came into the terminal with my luggage. It was dripping water, but she was more soaked than my bag. Before she could say anything, I thanked her for bringing my bag, and asked for her supervisor's name because I wanted that person to know how much I appreciated her getting it to me so that it wasn't lost in the system overnight. A handshake turned into a hug, and she broke down into deep, full-body sobs. She didn't have to say anything. I knew that she'd been yelled at and cussed at and on top of all the verbal abuse, had run around on concrete during a thunderstorm for the sole purpose of getting me my luggage.

My father once loaded bags on airplanes, and I can remember him coming home soaked in sweat, rain, and aviation gasoline. No matter how hard you work, there will still be bags that get scuffed, soaked, or even lost. It's natural to be frustrated with this, but don't take it out on the poor guys that are out there every night, exposed to the elements, breathing jet exhaust and slowly suffering hearing damage.

I bring all of this up because, although Kitchen Confidential is notorious for its celebration of sex and drugs and rock and roll, the real message is that it is all about the guys who are sweating, grunting, and getting burned and cut behind the kitchen's swinging door.

It's been 11 years since the book came out, and while I read it then, I've read it every two or three years since. I gave away my original copy, got it from the library once, and now have this memorable version. I think it still holds up pretty well, though it's funny to watch the career trajectory of Bourdain since then. He's no longer counting potatoes every morning, but has hosted a variety of food and travel shows. He's become a blogger. He's dialed back his attacks on some of the Food Network personalities while ramping up others, and recently took on the James Beard Awards, and his tweets are mashed up with those of Ruth Reichl for the bizarre Warhol-esque creation Ruth Bourdain.

The book is still well worth reading, because despite the humor and violence and other fun bits, it's part of a significant trend that has been going on for the past 15 years or so: going behind the scenes. For most movies, we now have the option to watch deleted scenes, interviews, or watch the movies with the commentary of the director and actors. There are shows like Dirty Jobs and How It's Made that show industrial processes or the labor required to perform tasks you may never have thought of before. The cable channels abound with shows about loggers, crab fishermen, ice road truckers, and others. Used to be that maybe a relative or a friend took you on a factory tour to show you how washing machines were put together. Now there are hundreds of such opportunities available without leaving home.

I'm not expecting everyone to mentally hear Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man every time they order dinner or get an oil change, but I'd like to think that the massive curiosity and interest in the background processes that keep the country moving might lead to a new era of respect and civility. Or perhaps folks will continue to demand their steaks cooked into charcoal briquettes and then berate the waitress into tears before leaving without a tip. But one can hope.


Allen said...

Thanks for the kind words and thoughts about the people trying hard 24/7 in the aviation industry. Customer Service in every business is important. When something goes wrong, stop, think and walk a mile in that person's shoes. A smile and saying thanks at a tough time goes a long way in making a difference in someone's life. Life is Good.

Benito said...


It's a point of pride that I got to spend a few overnight sessions with you at MEM. Not many 13 year olds get to work on a deicing crew during a freak snowstorm.

While sitting on the ground at DTW or CLE, I was quick to explain things to a seatmate that complained about how long the deicing took.


Big Mike said...

WOW Ben Talking about bringing back the old Days!! Your Dad and I have spent some of the best times of my life together. The best times were always in a fire storm. Man I miss that jet fuel!! We have had some wonderful times together, all of us.

Thanks for remembering you Dad because he is One Hell of a Man. A hero to us all.

Benito said...


I'm proud to count you among the group of "uncles" that I had throughout the local aviation industry. I also know that you have an intimate view of what goes on in a restaurant kitchen.

Best part of a BBQ with a bunch of airline employees in Whitehaven? A plane flies over every five minutes and everyone turns to see where it's heading and comments on the synchronicity of the engines. That's why even to this day I'll hear a 757 go past and say, "Number 2 is running ragged."


fredric koeppel said...

wow, what a great exchange of responses... I'm speechless.

Benito said...


It's fascinating how lives and professions intersect via the restaurant industry. You and Mike and my father and I are connected through John Grisanti and likely many others. Before Facebook, such relationships involved the actual breaking of bread and pouring of wine, with stories that sometimes required a young Benito to leave the room for a bit.


Grant Parish said...

Great post. I always try to be understanding with those in customer service who are doing the best they can with little control over a situation. baggage handlers who didn't design the system that eats the bags, TSA agents who didn't chose to work with body scanners, waiters who didn't make the -we don't seat you until your whole party is here - policies. But I am not accepting of those in management who create an environment where mediocre service is ok, nobody is responsive, and customers are viewed as dumb wallets. I have not read Bourdain’s book as I was turned off by reviewers who referred to it as raunchy when it came out.

Benito said...


I will warn you that raunchy is a bit of an understatement when it comes to this book. It's lewd, crude, and rude, but at the same time, an honest portrayal of the kitchen culture of the 80s and 90s. He acknowledges now that things have changed quite a bit.


Joe said...

It's a great book, and a terrific commentary. Folks love to take for granted the "dirty jobs", so to speak.

I got in an argument with an idealistic professor (go figure) back in my college days once. She asked us to throw out different professions (doctor, lawyer) etc. for the purpose of some forgettable discussion. Having been working in the warehouse of an HVAC distributor to earn beer money, I threw out "HVAC Technician". She said, "no, that's not a profession". I explained that the design of a proper system requires lots of math and engineering and an almost artisan quality if done right. She insisted I was wrong, and I'm convinced she gave me a B instead of an A because of that argument.

The bottom line is: I wish that professor ill. She was an idiot, and a terrible teacher. God bless the guys and gals in the trenches.

Benito said...


HVAC is one of those things you can quickly make someone appreciate in a classroom. Try August in ATL without air conditioning and within 30 minutes you'll be begging for HFC-23.


Joe said...

R410a is the staple now, but it will be outdated at some point. Previously, the racehorse was R22 (you may know it as "Freon"). Phased out, but still a bunch around.

Indeed, you do know a little bit about everything on the face of the earth.