Our review: Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' captured restaurants' demented glory

Deirdre Donahue
Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef, photographed in the Ritz Carlton West End Bar, Washington D.C., was found dead, his employer reported Friday morning.

On June 8, 2000, 18 years to the day before his death in France at age 61 of an apparent suicide, USA TODAY published its review of Kitchen Confidential, a tell-all book by a barely known New York chef, based on a story in The New Yorker. The bestseller would catapult the brash Bourdain to celebrity status, spawning a 2005 Fox series starring Bradley Cooper and two long-running cable series hosted by the real Bourdain: Travel Channel's No Reservations (2005-12) and CNN's Parts Unknown, which began in 2013.

The original review: 

People who sniff at their wine or food make me nervous.

So when a wise friend instructed me that I must immediately inhale Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain, I resisted. Then she pointed out that I had predicted that no one would read another of her favorites: a fat tome about housekeeping called Home Comforts (books in print: far more than 200,000 copies and still selling).

So I picked up Kitchen Confidential (Bloomsbury, 307 pp., $24.95). And devoured it. This is the kind of book you read in one sitting, then rush about annoying your co-workers by declaiming whole passages. Take away those erudite writing-program authors in their tasteful cardigans. Give me Bourdain in his kitchen whites: I don't know about his cooking, but this guy can write.

More:Reports: Chef-turned-TV host Anthony Bourdain dies at 61

Some of the book's charm is conveyed by Bourdain's subheadings: "Food is Sex." "Food is Pain." Bourdain captures the world of restaurants and professionally cooked food in all its theatrical, demented glory. Out in the dining room with the customers and in the bowels of the kitchen with the staff. 

Anthony Bourdain in 2001.

Kitchen Confidential could be considered a book about the long and perilous road Bourdain took to become a chef at a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. A Vassar dropout, he started working at a seafood restaurant in Provincetown, Mass., and fell in love with the pirate glamour of the kitchen underworld. (He later went to the Culinary Institute of America.) But that doesn't quite convey the machismo, the serious drugs, the hedonism, the wild debauchery of the life. As Bourdain stresses, were he ever hit by an out-of-control ice cream truck, he would have zero regrets about missing any of life's pleasures.

The most notable thing about Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain's ability to fascinate readers with how restaurants function. For example, how precisely they get all those entrees on the table on Saturday night. It's the way Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full made
people interested in commercial banking: The secret ingredients are the energy and zest. Bourdain clearly operates with all six burners on scorch, and the result keeps the reader excited.

Bourdain explains why so many restaurants fail, why giving elegant dinner parties does not mean you should open a restaurant, the enormous organizational capabilities required for managing restaurants, the lethal danger of ordering fish on Monday. He also offers some precise advice for what equipment regular people should have in
their kitchens.

He describes in great detail many of the places he has worked over the years, from doomed theme restaurants to mob-supported ventures to the most elegant restaurants — and let's talk about his colleagues. "Bigfoot" is particularly memorable as a brilliant
manager who owned his workers, body and soul. There's also his baker friend/nemesis, Adam, and a host of (almost inevitably) men behaving badly. As Bourdain writes, "You might get the impression. . . that all line cooks are wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn't be too far off base."

Among the more interesting sections: Bourdain in Japan, where he has the meal of his life. Bourdain also profiles Scott Bryan, who is a great chef — an innovator, a figure of stature among foodies, something Bourdain does not claim to be.

In the end, the best thing about Kitchen Confidential is that it explains the lure of a different world and a different way of living. (Bourdain delineates its downside: This former busgirl had no regrets about leaving the world of food. I prefer my Dilbert cubicle, thank you.) But Kitchen Confidential is a wonderful look at the weird world beyond the menu.

An excerpt:

"There will be horror stories. Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetizing revelations about bad food-handling and unsavory industry-wide practices. Talking about . . . why those who favor well-done get the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, and why seafood frittata is not a wise brunch selection won't make me any more popular with potential future employers. My naked contempt for vegetarians, sauce-on-siders, the "lactose-intolerant" and the cooking of the Ewok-like Emeril Lagasse is not going to get me my own show on the Food Network."