Challenging Assumptions: An Evening with Anthony BourdainI was all prepared not to like Anthony Bourdain.
I assumed that his big best seller, last year's "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," was something like Bernard Goldberg's autobiographical rant about his career in TV news called Bias; A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News which has been roundly dismissed and/or reviled by news professionals.
I got that impression NOT by reading, but by reading ABOUT, Bourdain's original article in the New Yorker Magazine, "Don't Eat Before You Read This", upon which he subsequently based the book. I am not in favor of divulging trade secrets for their shock value. I have never been a proponent of the "open kitchen" concept of restaurant design, precisely because I believe that our customers plates should arrive at the table like virgin births, appearing as if by magic, without any connection drawn to the sweating and cursing and worse that I know goes on behind the swinging doors of a professional kitchen. Based on certain hyper-ventilating reviews in the trade press and the foodie magazines, I understood Bourdain's book to be a self-indulgent hatchet job, dwelling on the worst case scenarios, about the profession that had engaged me as a tender youth and that continues to pay my bills lo, these many years later.
I heard through the grapevine that Bourdain would not only be in St. Louis for a book signing but would provide the excuse for a pot-luck party for the restaurant trade afterwards, disguised as a fund-raiser for the Chef's Collaborative, at the venerable Duff's Restaurant in the CWE. Planning on calling his bluff, I determined to actually read the book prior to the party. I didn't even get through the introduction before having my preconceptions challenged.
"The new celebrity chef culture is a remarkable and admittedly annoying phenomenon." Was the best-selling author and now Food Network TV star perhaps pulling my leg? But his explanation seemed disconcertingly authentic. "While it's been nothing but good for business - and for me personally - many of us in the life can't help snickering about it. We're used to using language that many would find ... well ... offensive, to say the least. We probably got in the business in the first place because interacting with normal people in a normal workspace was impossible or unattractive to us. Many of us don't know how to behave in public. The truth, as professionals well know ... is that what's been lost in all this food-crazy, chef- and restaurant-obsessed nonsense is that cooking is hard - that the daily demands of turning out the same plates the same way over and over and over again require skills other than, and less telegenic than, spouting catch phrases and schmoozing." He was talking about Emeril Lagasse but I was thinking David Slay.
It finally dawned on me that while the publisher may be hyping this book as a sordid expose for the dining public, the author had actually intended only to shoot straight for an audience he expected to be primarily made up of insiders like himself.
The guy was starting to make even more sense to me when I got to this: "The restaurant business is perhaps the last meritocracy - where what we do is all that matters." That really started the bells ringing. Bourdain, now with the title of Executive Chef at Les Halles in Manhattan, goes on to describe in detail his initiation into "the life", starting as a dishwasher and prep drone. Myself, I came into the business from the front of the house, but the dynamic was much the same. I understood this "meritocracy" analysis perfectly. As a sheltered, suburban white boy, I took my very first job (save for a short and forgettable stint under the orange gabled roof of a HoJo Restaurant) bussing tables in an old-school dinner house with a tuxedoed, all-male wait staff, an owner named Nick and a maitre d' named Gus, both of whom spoke with heavy Greek accent and where the chef was known only as "Chef", as in "What's the employee gruel today, Chef?" I was never to learn his given name.
As a sensitive and tender-footed 16-year-old high-schooler, I was excruciatingly intimidated by the hardened, rough-and-tumble, 18-year-old bus boys who made my life miserable in the course of "training" me. I would probably have chickened out early (and ended up selling insurance for a living) were it not for the cash money tip-out at the end of the shift.
But I quickly saw that the entire enterprise was structurally very similar to a finely-tuned, well-practiced (though profane) symphony orchestra company where there was no room for slackers and where everyone was called upon to execute a ball-busting work of performance art entitled "The Dinner Rush", no two shows exactly the same, in the middle of a shift that was punctuated at beginning and end with a comforting regimen of setting up and breaking down, all conducted to the beat of a non-stop bullshit session featuring the most outlandish forms of exaggerated braggadocio, endless varieties of sexual innuendo and hopelessly complicated internecine rumor-mongering - strictly out of earshot of the paying customers, of course.
To my complete astonishment, after about two eye-opening months of this I discovered that the sadistic, bully-boy elder bussers who had seemed so firmly entrenched in their seniority while conducting my hazing/initiation, had either failed to show up or been fired and I had become The Senior Busboy, still the object of good natured ribbing but now much in demand to work the most lucrative stations with the best and highest-grossing waiters who cared only that I learned quickly and hustled mightily to be right behind their baked potatoes with my sour cream and chives.
Meritocracy, indeed! As soon as I established that I could do the job, I became a member of the club, enjoying a greater level of unconditional acceptance than was forthcoming from my own flesh and blood family, who were constantly niggling about this or that objectionable personality trait. My new-found acceptance into this closed society only served to redouble my determination in allowing no ash tray to stand soiled nor water glass to ebb. So much more fun than school, and they paid me for it, too!
I was hooked.
I found Bourdain's book to be unfortunately myopic in its focus on the kitchen experience, but I understand the disdain with which he regards the "waitrons" who appear fleetingly in his narrative. I went on to work as waiter, bartender and service staff manager before I crossed over to the Dark Side, to the Back of the House myself, always having recognized that the real guts of the operation resided there. You could fake your way into being a pretty good waiter but, in fact, COOKS RULE, as Bourdain scribbled on the title page of my copy of Kitchen Confidential - and I wanted to be where the action was. Either as server or cook, I can attest to the authority with which Bourdain recounts the fist fights, the profanity and the mobbed up owners versus the corporate bean-counting types. I know he speaks truly of the ennui engendered across a staff working in a doomed, money-losing restaurant, of encounters with vermin, questionable sanitation practices and the substance-abuse-friendly tempo of the business. Like him, I'm also familiar with, and have been richly rewarded by the satisfaction the comes with finding a home in this crazy kaleidoscope of an occupation.
And Tony Bourdain himself turns out to be a perfectly mellow, very enjoyable and laid-back character, completely comfortable in a crowd of restaurant folks, equally at home talking shop with a CIA trained country club chef as with a good ole boy line cook. It was a little disconcerting for an anti-pop culture snob like me, who hasn't owned a TV in 20 years, to see the Celebrity Chef on the television set hanging above Duff's bar while simultaneously chatting with the actual self-same person whose electronic image we watched, joking about his evident ability to sell gourmet kitty litter and mouth-watering Ford Explorers during the commercials.
He made everybody feel comfortable with remarks like, "These are the best of times to be a chef. Even a knucklehead like me can be on TV." Or, "You can pick chefs out of crowd, even in street clothes. They hold their heads a certain way. They're in a kind of a defensive crouch."
And I can't recommend highly enough attending an informal party for professional chefs, each bringing a potluck dish. The food was outstanding.