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Being Anthony Bourdain



by Matt DeLucia





There have been times when I’m at the movie theater, or at home when one of those tell-all television shows blurts out mundane facts about Brad, Tom, or Nicole in presumptuous tones of importance, when the logical left side of my brain slips away from its better half and begins to wonder. Just what is that special ingredient that makes certain professionals, like movie stars or athletes, so much more special to us than say, a kick-ass insurance salesman? To be honest I’m feeling a little naïve right now to even have to ask. I’m sure that a large part of this great mystery lies in the fact that their lives are so open and exposed to the public. We all respect the hard work and natural talent that’s required to be a great actor or actress. We follow the careers of our favorites, and somehow feel like we almost know them personally. Sports heroes are followed the same way, thrust into the limelight in their teens and then followed all the way to retirement. We know their salaries, their wife’s name, and their height and weight. We know if they get arrested for DUI or when they ask their bosses for more money, and how much. But would these athletes or actors be as interesting to us if their professions were not made so public? If we took away the public relations agents, the huge stadiums and the multiplexes, and let these professionals do their jobs in obscurity, perhaps they would become as ordinary as the rest of us. My left-brain is dying to know.

What if the elite chefs of the fine dining industry were just another group of skilled professionals toiling away in obscurity, until a television channel dedicated entirely to cooking made a star out of a few unknown chefs? What if a book by an “outlaw chef” (Gourmet Magazine’s choice of words) was published to rave reviews and woke up an industry that had always been somewhat secretive, giving it a public persona all of its own? Anthony Bourdain is loved by restaurant folks around the world not only because his books are funny and entertaining, but because as a writer and ex-chef he finds it easy to portray chefs as brutally authentic and honest people that we can all relate to. They get tired and cranky and sometimes cut corners if problems arise, they often cut fingers and hands, and yes, they bleed and they sweat and they cry like everyone else. He blew the kitchen doors off thousands of restaurants by writing in an entertaining and readable way that messed-up things do occur in the restaurant industry. When we read Kitchen Confidential, we realize that the men (and the women) in the kitchen may be a little “off”, but we love them for it. To put it in Billy Joel’s words, “You may be right, I may be crazy - but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Or in Chef Bourdain’s words when describing the typical plot in all his fiction novels: “It’s always going to be cooks in the back who are the good guys, and the people who don’t know how to eat or treat waiters right are the bad guys.”

When we talked at length about Bourdain’s favorite topic (chefs), we discussed why there aren’t more chefs in the writing business. When you consider how closely related writing and cooking are, you begin to notice certain commonalities, such as their creative challenges and their common requirement to repeat their crafts over and over until the final product is perfected. But a new book that contains short stories by Bourdain and dozens of other chefs shows what can happen when you give a chef a forum to tell their story.

“I think one of the things that was interesting about the ‘Don’t Try This at Home’ project is how many chefs, great chefs, cheerfully admitted to really terrible, humiliating, embarrassing, painful screw-ups, and they did so with relish,” Bourdain said. “Once a few people did it, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah? You think that’s bad...’ It’s very honest, but there’s always been a reluctance to let the public see that. You’re in your starched white jacket out there; the chef never makes mistakes. So I think when we see guys like Eric (Ripert) and Ferran Adria confessing to some pretty bad screw-ups and humiliating moments, I think that is a measure of how things have changed for the better.”

Being a Chef

Chef Bourdain hangs out with some of the top chefs in the world, not only because he’s great company, but because they respect the significant contribution he has made to their own careers. His brief scene in “The Restaurant” with buddy Eric Ripert was particularly surreal and exceptionally memorable, as Bourdain graded his dish with a deadpan look at his plate and a descriptive, vicious line: “this sucks.”

“Eric is not as mean as I am,” Bourdain said. “I was miserable then. I felt complicit in a really terrible crime by A) being on that show, and B) that the whole concept was so cynical. That kind of food can be so good - Southern Italian momma cuisine is a beautiful thing. But to do it in a soulless and cynical way like that? I did that as a favor for Eric. Eric did it as a favor to Rocco, he had asked Eric to come, and said ‘Add some drama to my show.’”

One obvious clue to his popularity within the restaurant industry is that even now with all his success, he still feels and acts like he’s still one of the guys in the kitchen, working 16-hour shifts and swearing with his cooks. It’s clearly the people he misses, not necessarily the hard work and long hours.

“I had 28 years of it, standing on my feet, so I feel like I served my time. But I do miss the security and certainty of working in a kitchen, the camaraderie. I’m living a dream now. Who else gets to travel, eat, and drink for a living? Now if I cook, it’s largely to do a special event with the restaurant or promotional tours. I’ll also come into Les Halles and hang out and live vicariously through my cooks.”

Being a writer

After only mild success with his first two novels, “Bone in the Throat” and “Gone Bamboo”, Bourdain published “Kitchen Confidential”, his personal love letter to the industry in which he spent his life. A few New York food writers such as Amanda Hesser and Jeffrey Steingarten wrote some negative reviews about the book, but that didn’t surprise nor bother Bourdain very much. He was clearly out-writing and out-selling the mainstream food writers, most of whom had only enjoyed modest success with their own published works.

“I think that in the tiny, incestuous sort of inbred petri dish that is food writing in New York, every food writer has their favorite chefs who look after them. And here I come along, this obnoxious ‘Who the hell is this guy’ chef. I think there were a few writers who felt like, ‘Well, is he saying that my beloved chef friend has been feeding me crap mussels on Monday? That he’s been treating me like an idiot all along?’ I think they felt betrayed, and that I was questioning their authority on the subject of what really goes on in the kitchen, as well as the basic relationship of the ‘us and them’ between the kitchen and everybody else. I think there was a huge disconnect between a lot of writers who were writing about food as if they were writing porn, but without acknowledging or ever understanding, or worse knowingly perpetuating certain myths about who’s actually doing the cooking and what it takes to do it. If you’re spoiling away at a paper, writing one article after another on ‘Fun with Mayonnaise’ and ‘Six New Exciting Things to do with Tomatoes’ week after week after week, it’s like writing Penthouse letters. How interesting can you make the same story of the horny housewife with not enough money and the pizza-delivery guy? How many words for salad are there? How many times can you write about a salad and not use the word ‘crunchy’ or pork and not use the word ‘unctuous?’ It’s tough.”

Evil food writers aside, in the end it was the people Bourdain looked up to the most - the chefs and restaurateurs - whose opinion mattered the most to him. Having the support of his boss, Les Halles owner Philippe Lajaunie, was also critical.

“It was great to have the support of Philippe and the restaurant at that time, because there were a lot of people in the community who, before everyone had read it, were on the fence about it. Particularly the old-school French guys, people who you don’t want as enemies. I will never forget, I did a show on CNN before the book even came out, where the other guest was Jacques Pepin. Now, if he said, ‘This book is full of shit’ or ‘This is all lies, I reject it,’ that would have hurt me personally, because I obviously have enormous respect for that guy. But he said, ‘When I was coming up, if I had thrown away used bread, my chef would have beaten me to death.’ He gave me credibility from the old school, from the gods, at a time when it was really important.”

Bourdain’s big break in the literary world is a story that has been told a thousand times, but is well worth repeating. He had written a short piece for the New York Press, and they kept promising him they would publish it, but week after week they continued to bump it back until he realized they were not really going to ever run it. In a moment that Bourdain describes as “drunk and humorous,” he submitted it to the New Yorker, not exactly an easy publication to impress, and they ran it. While he had always wanted to be a writer, his chaotic lifestyle didn’t allow him the time or provide him with the inclination to write very much.

“I had so many authors who I really admired and were a huge influence on me. Hunter Thompson obviously was a major figure in my early life. I wanted to be Hunter Thompson when I was 13. I got the drugs right; I just didn’t actually do any writing.”

The book not only made a connection with people who currently work at restaurants, but also with millions of others who had worked at one at some point in their lifetime. While my personal experience as a 16 year old dishwasher wasn’t much to write home about, I do remember that most of the cooks at my restaurant in the late 70’s were friends of mine from high school working for minimum wage. The one experienced chef was someone who looked every bit like the ex-cons and druggies that Bourdain describes in his writings.

“I’d like to think that one of the things that restaurant people seem to enjoy about the book is that it is unglamorous. I mean, cooks and chefs take a lot of pride not just in their artistry but in their endurance, their strength, all that it took to get there. I wasn’t pretending that all these chefs grew up dreaming of fields of saffron and “For me, I wanted to smell truffles and work with truffles.” It’s a long, hard road, and I think that a book that acknowledged that apparently struck some kind of chord. But what struck me or shocked me was I thought I was writing a New York book. I thought a few people in New York in the industry would buy it. Chefs are always the first people I see as I travel everywhere, whether it’s Peru or Brazil or Iceland or France or Australia or Singapore or Hong Kong, they all seem to say the same thing: ‘Dude, you wrote my life.’ So, who knew?”

Being a TV star

Bourdain went from being a New York Times bestselling author to a TV personality seemingly overnight with his Food Network show, “A Chef’s Tour.” One of the most memorable shows featured himself, Eric Ripert and two other friends (“I surrounded myself with a security blanket of more respectable folk”) who were all flown to Napa Valley for a twenty-course meal at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Bourdain was intimidated by Keller’s reputation, and at times even stressed about whether one of the world’s premier chefs would agree to let the film crew into his famous restaurant.

“One of the top 10 moments in my life was when I heard that Keller really liked the show. That was so important to me, and apparently he’s been showing it at the restaurant to their staff. I cannot tell you how pleased and proud I am that he liked it. He had nothing to gain by it. Why should he let a snake in the grass like me in there to shoot his restaurant and potentially disrupt service? Had he hated it or thought it was bogus, I would have been utterly mortified. But what made it powerful was that Eric, Ruhlman, and Scott are guys who’ve eaten a lot of good meals, and cooked a lot of good meals. So to see them ripped drunk and just blown away course after course after course, when you see three or four very jaded, professional chefs sliding into that kind of happy, submissive state that a great meal can bring about, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Bourdain has had even greater success with his Travel Channel show, “No Reservations,” and his second season will begin airing this month. The first season consisted of 13 episodes, as will the second, and this time Bourdain will travel to countries like Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Ireland, China, and Beirut. Bourdain seems extremely happy with the way the show is going, and he hopes to do a third season as well. He’s being given autonomy to basically do whatever he wants, which is how he likes it.

“They’ve given me license to kill, basically, so I go where I want. The thing with Food Network ended because they wanted happy-horse-shit dude ranchos and tailgate parties and more people with funny accents. Ferran Adria? We don’t care who he is, who’s that? We don’t care. I enjoy discovering things on the show, or then I’m just a talking head, I’m just another nitwit standing there, doing ‘The Best of,’ or ‘Here we are at the Pearl of the Earth.’ And it’s a luxury to be able to be honest on the show. It’s an amazing advantage to actually be able to look at a camera and say, ‘Actually, this sucks.’

Being what he wants to be

The rationale behind chef Bourdain not opening his own restaurant is probably obvious to everyone but me, yet I was determined to ask him anyway. His perfectionist nature, a trait that seems to be common to both writers and chefs, gave him the foresight to bypass that particular career path, so we won’t likely be seeing “Restaurant Bourdain” coming soon to a New York neighborhood near you. He seems to be enjoying what he’s doing too much to mess it up with a restaurant.

“I’ve been offered (a restaurant), and I’ve said no. I’m not a person who can do things in a half-assed way. I’m either doing it, or I’m not doing it. I’ve been offered things like ‘we’ll build a place around you, you come up with a concept, bring in some loyal cooks, set the menu and then swing by once every six months to pick up a check.’ I can’t do that. People would come in expecting to see me or expecting at the very least for the food to be good, and I would be obsessed with not letting them down. I’d also be obsessed with my cooks being happy. It’s the road to madness. I never had the stomach to be an owner. Being a chef is hard enough. It’s a quality of life issue; I just don’t want that much mail.”

Lately, Bourdain has been fielding a non-stop stream of interesting offers to do things most of us could only dream about. Endorsements, television shows, personal appearances - along with some proposals that we probably couldn’t print here.

“I’ve had pretty much a full spectrum of offers for business, as well as personal services! Endorsements and reality shows, you know the usual kind of shit. It’s a quality-of-life issue, I don’t want to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and see the Tidy Bowl guy or the spokesman for Lomotil. I won’t be doing a set of steak knives. I’ve been offered a lot of Gordon Ramsay’s leavings. Like in England, I was offered Kitchen Nightmares after he left that, and I was offered the British Hell’s Kitchen after he left that. But right now, I get to go anywhere I want in the world, do pretty much whatever I want, and eat whatever I want. All I have to do is babble witlessly about it on television and write a few articles. I can live with this.”

I couldn’t help but notice how humble Bourdain became once he settled in and got comfortable. He was certainly proud of his accomplishments and was not shy to discuss them, even flaunt them to a degree. But he did it in a way that seemed like he was still astounded that all this was happening to him.

“By the time the book came out, I’d already made most of the major mistakes a person could make in their life. I have a pretty good idea what’s not going to make me happy. I’m just too old and too mean to change. And I think not giving a shit is a really good business model. I just always assumed if the book does well, the next one will fail, and I’ll be cooking again.”

One can tell after only an hour speaking with him that there are two Anthony Bourdains – the wise cracking chef and world traveler, and the person who will never forget how difficult the road had been that he chose to travel in order to get to where he is today.

“I’m pretty much one of those people that if things are going well and I’m happy, I’m due for a terrible ironic and well-deserved kick in the crotch at any minute. So don’t forget where you came from. Being a chef and a cook for all those years and a dishwasher is very good training for making television and writing books. You’re less likely to whine about little things. I’m not going to go spastic if the thread count in my sheets is not suitable, or if there are red M&M’s mixed in, you know? I’m damn lucky, and it could end any minute. I hope I always care.”

There is no doubt that Anthony Bourdain will always care.





           

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