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Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential

Restaurant Tell-All Exposes the Dirty Truth

Anyone who had the opportunity to read Bourdain's kitchen exposé in The New Yorker last year will recall how this executive chef from Manhattan's Brasserie Les Halles disenchanted our dining fantasy with a kitchen reality: that bread on your table was recycled from a previous table. Any fish you order on Monday has been sitting there since Friday. But Bourdain is no Upton Sinclair - he writes not to reform the industry, only to let you know what the real deal is. He wanted to write a book that "my fellow cooks would find entertaining and true." His book is a self-described memoir/rant.

Despite all this bluster, any reader will find the book palatable and accessible. Bourdain chronicles his rise from Provincetown dishwasher, through his apprenticeship at the Culinary Institute of America, to his various kitchen stints in New York and Baltimore. His experiences show why certain restaurants fail, and how a normal 17-hour day breaks down: from an alarm clock going off at six in the morning to an 11:30 meeting briefing the waitstaff on the preparation and execution of a 300-plus dinner rotation, to a taxi home at midnight.

Bourdain divides his brethren into the artists - namely the patissiers (the neurologists of cooking) whom everyone tries to leave alone - and the exiles, who can't do the 9-to-5 thing, wear a tie comfortably or speak English profoundly. He fell into cooking as the third type: the mercenary. The mercenary does it for the cash, claiming that he continues to work in the industry because he likes the subculture and the demands put forth by the job. The restaurant kitchen has its stock characters and lingo, and if you stick with Bourdain's tale, you'll learn the definitons behind different phrases such as "Elvis is in the Building" (the boss is here), "humps" (carries), "crunchies" (aspirins) and "radar love" (microwave the thing!)

As for scare tactics, you won't find too many here - other than a cautionary tale about mussels sitting in their own urine in the bottom of the reach-in, and an explanation of why hollandaise is a breeding-ground for bacteria. You will find some tips on necessary staples for the home kitchen: the metal ring to make your food tall, the pastry bag, butter, shallots and roasted garlic. Bourdain also has suggestions for people interested in a culinary career, including the following tips: learn Spanish, don't steal and avoid restaurants where the owner's name is over the door. He describes the ideal worker and sous chef as having two ingredients: loyalty and commitment.

I enjoyed his transitions from drug culture to kitchen culture, and the descriptions of the sad-sack places he worked for. The book is a great guide through the swinging doors and will help you make your next visit to your local bistro a more conscious one.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain
Harper Collins, 2001
$14.00 (Softcover, 302 pages).
>> Buy It Now: Kitchen Confidential

Lisa Ryers is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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