Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony BourdainKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
Published by Ecco/Harper Perennial ISBN: 0060899220
on January 9, 2007
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Cooking
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine—now with all-new, never-before-published material.

New York Chef Tony Bourdain gives away secrets of the trade in his wickedly funny, inspiring memoir/expose. Kitchen Confidential reveals what Bourdain calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine."

I’ve watched Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. I’ve never seen an episode I didn’t find interesting or educational, never mind entertaining, but I’m not a religious watcher, and I am not sure whether or not to call myself a fan. It was sad to hear about his death last year. I supposed that’s what made me finally decide to read his infamous memoir, Kitchen Confidential. I liked the book, and parts of it were really great. It was a bit overlong for me, but if you ask me to point to what he could have cut out, I’m not sure how to answer. The misogyny of the typical 1970s or 1980s (even 1990s) kitchen was hard to read, and it’s a major reason this book doesn’t crack four stars for me. I don’t get the sense that Anthony Bourdain himself was a terrible misogynist, but I don’t get the sense either that he has always been exactly respectful of women, nor that he has been a good ally for women experiencing sexism in restaurant kitchens. He said as much in a Medium post, in which he takes ownership of the role he has played in perpetuating this cycle:

To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.

He wrote that post in response to hearing allegations of Mario Batali’s and Ken Friedman’s sexual misconduct. Honestly, the kitchens he describes in the book sound more like pubescent locker rooms than anything else, though the afterword suggests that only a few years after the book’s publication, much had changed in restaurant kitchens. I imagine the foodie revolution, if you want to call it that, contributed to these changes.

Bourdain has a strong writing voice, and at times it’s entertaining, while at other times, it’s pretty self-important and grating. My favorite parts of the book include the chapter in which Bourdain describes what you really need in order to cook like a chef, “How to Cook Like the Pros.” The first chapter in which Bourdain travels to France with his parents and starts trying more adventurous foods for the first time, “Food is Good,” serves as a great introduction to the book. His description of his first trip to Tokyo in “Mission to Tokyo,” in which you can see the seeds for Parts Unknown being sewn, also stands out for its gorgeous descriptions of the food and the city. Bourdain has always struck me because he would literally try anything once, and it’s clear this adventurous streak was born on that trip to France when he tried vichyssoise and oysters for the first time. Bourdain’s portraits of some of the eccentrics with whom he’s worked are somewhat entertaining, but also somewhat terrifying. Maybe one shouldn’t think too hard about who is preparing one’s food?

Anthony Bourdain was clearly an interesting person. I appreciated the fact that Bourdain was not a food snob. His appreciation for food and the people who prepare it is clear. He seems like a person who loved to learn and was always willing to open himself to new experiences. I wish he’d opened himself up a bit more, at least before he became a celebrity, to learning from and with women.

three-half-stars

Review: Wonder, R. J. Palacio

WonderI read R. J. Palacio’s novel Wonder with my thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie. Strictly speaking, both of us might be a little older than the target age-range for this book, but I don’t believe in such nonsense, and it’s a good thing I don’t, or I might have missed out on a true treasure of a book.

Wonder is the story of a ten-year-old boy named August Pullman. He loves Star Wars and his dog, Daisy. He loves his sister Via. He’s worried about starting middle school, just like most kids starting middle school. The difference is that Auggie, as he is called by family and friends, has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a craniofacial deformity about which Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (3). But Auggie also says, “The only reason I’m not ordinary is no one else sees me that way” (3).

August has been homeschooled due to the many surgeries he has endured as a result of his condition. His parents discuss whether it might be time to send Auggie to school when fifth grade begins. Ultimately, the family decides to send Auggie to Beecher Prep, and Auggie has a difficult year, but in his quiet and ordinary way, he powers through the adversity and manages to earn the admiration of his teachers and his classmates.

Actually, it’s impossible to do this book justice in a review. So, I asked Maggie for some help. I interviewed her after we finished. Before I go on, I should explain she received the new publication of the book that includes “Julian’s Chapter,” which was originally published as an e-book, for Christmas. Palacio had said at one point that Julian didn’t get a chapter initially but she eventually changed her mind for reasons she explains in this interview with Slate. I think it was a good decision.

Me: What did you think [after finishing the book]?

Maggie: I think that book might be my favorite book of all time. I’m dead serious.

Me: What was your favorite part?

Maggie: SLIGHTLY SPOILERY ANSWER. YOU WERE WARNED! At the end of August’s last chapter where he received the award and got a standing ovation.

Me: Who were your favorite characters?

Maggie: My favorite characters were August, Via, and Summer. I also liked Miranda. The way August and Via got along is sweet and touching. And Summer, it was nice to find out she was a genuinely nice gal. It was nice that she wasn’t being friends with August because someone forced her or dared her.

Me: What else do you want to share?

Maggie: I was surprised when we read Julian’s chapter because I didn’t expect to feel sympathy or empathy for him after reading the rest of the book. I also really liked how the book was told in different points of views. You get to hear all sides of the story so you know what happened. It’s a creative way to tell a story. I really didn’t like Julian’s mother. I thought she was overprotective and mean about the whole situation and how she handed the whole August situation. She completely overreacted.

Maggie and I loved the book. We highly recommend it to everyone. We had a lot of good conversations that involved some soul searching. I told Maggie about being unkind to a girl when I was in sixth grade because the “cool” kids didn’t like the girl—for no good reason, really. I still feel bad about how I acted, and truthfully, I wasn’t terrible. I just wasn’t my normal self, and I didn’t treat her the way I wanted to treat her. I was unkind because of other kids. This book is probably the best book on the issue of bullying that I’ve ever read, and it’s the only one that includes the bully’s perspective. The end of Julian’s chapter is quite a tearjerker, and the window into the bully’s perspective was interesting. In fact, some people will say it goes a step too far perhaps, but Maggie and I happened to love it. You read it. You’ll see.

I don’t often say this about a book, but this is one I feel like everyone ought to read, whatever their age. When we were trying to figure out if Palacio had written other books so we could read them as well, we discovered Wonder is her first novel. As Maggie said, “That was her first try at a book?!” For what it is worth, we read maybe 20-30 pages at a time when we started, but the night we finished, we read the whole Julian chapter of 80+ pages in a gulp. Maggie has never read a book she couldn’t put down like that. If you have a middle schooler in your life, you should share this book.

Rating: ★★★★★