Left - Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Right - Sane & compassionate commentator on food and culture.
I've been off the air for a few weeks (in more ways than one). I've been taken up with hospitality training and evaluation. I also had a break in Tasmania, but more of that later. But no sooner am I back at the keyboard than I have to deal with the sad loss of another hero. Vale Anthony Bourdain. He died while filming in France, 8th June, 2018. So sad for us that he needed so drastically to be free of his demons.
He had graduated in 1978 from the American Culinary Institute. He was executive chef at the Brasseries Les Halles in New York when he came to prominence in 2000, with the publication of his best-seller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a deep-down and dirty story about the parts of a restaurant no-one wants to see and a homage to those who make the place happen, the chefs and line cooks.
It was not a pretty picture. It was also probably the most foul-mouthed book you will ever read. I religiously recommended it to every cook, chef or dishwasher who came through our restaurant kitchen. It was compassionate, unflinching and full of realistic advice for anyone thinking of going into hospitality - and a far cry from the glory and pretty stories of magazine food pages.
And as a “Little Goody Two Shoes”, while I didn’t (and don’t) relate to the casual and frantic sex in the cool-room or on the stuffed bags of soiled linen in the passage, or the smack or lines of cocaine to get through the day, I grabbed at the plain, sane, essential advice for the kitchen - show up on time, keep your station clean and in order; the kitchen is a dangerous place. Furthermore, I related to his thinking about food and the significance of sharing. Perhaps it’s best to simply offer some random quotes.
“Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
“Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have.”
“Don't lie about it. You made a mistake. Admit it and move on. Just don't do it again. Ever”
“Don't touch my dick, don't touch my knife.” (Sorry about that one, but you get his drift.)
“Few things are more beautiful to me than a bunch of thuggish, heavily tattooed line cooks moving around each other like ballerinas on a busy Saturday night. Seeing two guys who'd just as soon cut each other's throats in their off hours, moving in unison with grace and ease, can be as uplifting as any chemical stimulant or organized religion.”
“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Please, treat your garlic with respect. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don't deserve to eat garlic.”
“For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we've all become disappears, when we're confronted with something as simple as a plate of food.”
“So who the hell, exactly, are these guys, the boys and girls in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career 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. The business attracts 'fringe elements', people for whom something in their lives has gone terribly wrong. Maybe they didn't make it through high school, maybe they're running away from something, be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, a squalid Third World backwater with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here. ”
“The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef's recipes and presentations. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.”
“Our movements through time and space seem somehow trivial compared to a heap of boiled meat in broth, the smell of saffron, garlic, fish-bones and Pernod.”
“If you look someone in the eye and call them a ‘fat, worthless, syphilitic puddle of badger crap’ it doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It can be – and often is – a term of endearment.”
“Having a sous-chef with excellent cooking skills and a criminal mind is one of God's great gifts.”
“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman, not an artist. There's nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen, though not designed by them. Practising your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”
“Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress. It had the power to please me.”
“Luck is not a business plan.”
His writing and TV programs around the world were brave and revealing. He put so easily into words what I believe (with more expletives that I’ve ever used). His heroes are my heroes, his villains my villains.
“I am not a fan of people who abuse service staff. In fact, I find it intolerable. It’s an unpardonable sin as far as I’m concerned, taking out personal business or some other kind of dissatisfaction on a waiter or busboy.”
“We know, for instance, that there is a direct, inverse relationship between frequency of family meals and social problems. Bluntly stated, members of families who eat together regularly are statistically less likely to stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies, commit suicide, or make donkey porn. If Little Timmy had just had more meatloaf, he might not have grown up to fill chest freezers with Cub Scout parts.”
“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”
“As incisively pointed out in the documentary Food Inc.," an overwhelmingly large percentage of "new," healthy," and "organic" alternative food products are actually owned by the same parent companies that scared us into the organic aisle in the first place. "They got you comin' and goin' " has never been truer.”
“These are the end products of the Masterminds of Safety and Ethics, bulked up on cheese that contains no cheese, chips fried in oil that isn’t really oil, overcooked gray disks of what might once upon a time have been meat, a steady diet of Ho-Hos and muffins, butterless popcorn, sugarless soda, flavorless light beer. A docile, uncomprehending herd, led slowly to a dumb, lingering, and joyless slaughter.”
“I'm asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it's this: to be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one's hands - using all one's senses. It can be, at times, the purest and most unselfish way of giving pleasure (though oral sex has to be a close second).”
His life had imperfections and on re-reading “Medium Raw” one senses an unease and depression, even an omen, despite his addictions being safely locked away in the past.
“Only one in four has a chance at making it. And right there, I knew that if one of us was getting off dope, and staying off dope, it was going to be me. Iwas going to live. I was the guy.”
“I'll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I'm not going anywhere. I hope. It's been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world.”
I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.”
Of the still prevalent macho kitchen atmosphere and gender inequalities that lurk beneath the glamorous “celebrity” chef culture shown up by the #metoo movement, he said “I think about this daily with real remorse.”
I recommend Medium Raw and give a copy of Kitchen Confidential to that niece or nephew who watches too much Master Chef (with perhaps a warning about the oral sex).