Popular Culture  •  February 3, 2002

Kitchen Confidential

There is a new show on Food Network called “A Cook’s Tour” in which Anthony Bourdain, the executive chef of Les Halles in New York, travels around the world experiencing exotic local cuisines. Until I saw this program, I had never heard of Anthony Bourdain. He seemed like an interesting guy, so I looked further into who he was. He became famous for his book “Kitchen Confidential” which comically describes what it is like to be part of the restaurant culture in New York. He had published two fictional books prior to it, but they did not achieve the same kind of success that “Kitchen Confidential” enjoyed. Bourdain says that he was not expecting the general public to enjoy his book, but I can see why it became a New York Times Bestseller. The timing was perfect. The soaring economy of the late 90?s helped to boost the restaurant business, creating star chefs and food celebrities, exalting their status to the equivalent of rock stars. Cooking schools like Culinary Institute of America became as prestigious as Juilliard School of Music. In the 80?s, most hipsters flocked around nightclubs. I believe, in the 90?s, partly because of Giuliani’s no-dancing policy, to some degree, restaurants replaced the nightclubs. At the height of that boom, his book was published.

I would imagine that, in retrospect, many chefs and cooks wondered why they didn’t think of wring a book about the behind the scenes of the restaurant business. It is one of those things that, unless you think deeply enough about it, seem like a silly idea. One thinks, “Why would anyone be interested in knowing what it is like to be in the restaurant business?” Now that Bourdain has done it, one can see why.

His confessional stories about what goes on behind our backs as customers, are certainly amusing, like the tradition of “save it for well-done” or brunch as a dumping ground for Friday night leftovers, but what is truly fascinating is the distinct culture, or “sub-culture” as he calls it, that the restaurant business fosters. As with most male-dominant trades like Wall Street or armies, the restaurant business promotes the notion of the-survival-of-the-fittest in its crudest sense of the term. I’ve worked at a few Japanese restaurants as a waiter and a kitchen helper, so, some of what he describes in his book are familiar to me, but that very fact was surprising. I didn’t expect Western restaurants to fashion a culture very much similar to that of Japanese restaurants. The culture of Japanese restaurants are not particularly unique to the restaurant business. The Japanese, for instance, loves hierarchy. Even the determining factors of hierarchy have their own hierarchy. For instance, age is the highest of the determining factors; job title, experience, and talent following behind it. Life experience is respected so much to the point that it is often quite disproportionate to the actual substance of the person. Nevertheless, the senior members of Japanese society take pleasure in crushing the egos of the junior members.

The expectation of a total dedication of one’s life to the business is another aspect that is similar to Japanese culture. So far in my life, I’ve seen this in Wall Street, in the film business as well as in the restaurant business. If you want to succeed in these businesses, you have to drop the line between business and personal. If your boss asks you to go pick up a birthday present for his kid, you better do it, but in return your boss can also help you with your personal life. You form a Zen-like relationship of a master and his disciple.

It appears that the more stressful, the riskier, and the more competitive the business is, the closer the personal relationship is among its members, and also the tougher and the cruder its language is. When I was working on the trading floor of a Wall Street investment bank, I could not help prefixing every noun with “f**king”, since that is how everyone talked on the floor. The language of trading floors is quite unprofessional. Yelling, screaming, and cursing were part of what defined a good trader. In this type of environment, people are naturally inclined towards constantly testing the thickness of skin by teasing and making fun of each other.

Although most of us try to avoid stressful jobs, there is a certain kind of beauty in struggling and making it through them, and the relationships with others that come out of these battlefields are often interesting and meaningful. Life in a way is a series of challenges through which you find out about yourself. In this sense, the more stressful and challenging, the better. “Kitchen Confidential” inspires you to live hard. Something that most of us tend to leave behind as we get older. The subtitle of the book “Adventure in the Culinary Underbelly” is quite appropriate. Life should be an adventure.