Saturday, September 23, 2000
10:23 PM – In the back of a busy restaurant kitchen, somewhere in a large metropolitan city, somewhere in the U.S…
“Where the fuck’s Hector?”
“Anyone seen that piece-a-shit Hector?”
“Donde estas Hector?”
“Hector! HECTOR!.. Hector?… Pinche cabrón.”
“HECTOR ESTÁ EN LA SALA DE PATATA! EN LA SALA DE PATATA!”
(Translation: Hector is in the potato room! THE POTATO ROOM!)
Then, as if someone has just flipped a giant faucet, a frothing frenzy of kitchen workers, cooks, waiters, busboys, and even the floor manager, flood the narrow back corridor in a gush of maniacal bloodlust that crashes at the door of the potato room like invading forces on a beachhead. They clumsily crowd their faces against the small bay window of the door, each pushing the other aside, jockeying for a better look, grasping for even a second-long glance at the proceedings beyond.
I cautiously walk up to the scene and see Javier, my busboy. He turns to me and whispers with a conspiratorial grin and a salivatory glee in his eyes, “That Hector, man. He fucking loves the potato room!” before clawing his way to the top, crawling up the back of J.J., our head dishwasher.
“Hey, what the fuck, Javier?”
“Fuck you, J.J., I wanna see!”
It’s bedlam before me; a rugby scrum phalanx of bodies alternatively hooting and snickering, then shushing and motioning to be quiet, as if there was rare and nervous wildlife just beyond that door–It’s a Yellowspotted Deer, motherfucker! Don’t scare it away!
There’s too much going on; I try to reduce my inventory of sensory stimuli, to pare down just what it is that is happening before me. Finally, I am able to resolve the focus to just one thing, just one sound coming from beyond the door:
“Oh..ohhh my god! OH. MY GOD! FUCK ME… FUU-UHH-UUHHGGGHHH-UUUU-CCCKKK MEE—EE—EEE..!”
Okay, let’s pause the action for a moment…
If you’ve worked in a busy restaurant kitchen, scenes like this little pastiche above, are second-hand news to you. You’ve lived it. (So have I–in fact, this little memory of mine is one of about a thousand Not-Ready-For-Primetime moments I’ve collected over my years working as a waiter and a sometimes line chef.) So, if this is the case, Anthony Bourdain’s famous—and, for a time, infamous—accounting of the shenanigans, good and bad, hilarious and grim, that go on behind your favourite restaurants’ doors in his breakout tell-all book Kitchen Confidential, might not be entirely enlightening to you. You will, however, be in for one hell of a treat: this guy is, first off, one of you–don’t let the fact that he’s on TV and a ‘star’ fool you; he’s the real deal. But the bottom line is this: he spins a good yarn and he does so with the precision of a sniper and with the mouth and efficiency of a sailor with a PhD on a one night pass. Look I’m saying that you’ll have a hell of a good time reading it, trust me. (Go ahead, crack a book open, you knuckle dragger. For chrissakes, it has the ‘f bomb’ in it, like, a thousand times. What more do you want, Balzac?)
If, on the other hand, you read the above recollection with equal parts bewilderment, revulsion, and titillation, this book will not only be a hell of a read, it will be–if I can use this beat-all-to-hell cliché without irony–a rollercoaster ride (reviewers love that term!) It will also be one hell of an education for you about what those folks that prepare your $100 a plate dinners actually get up to whilst you’re at your table doing whatever it is that you do there, talking about whatever it is you talk about.
When I first read Kitchen Confidential, it was a revelation. People–and by ‘people’ I mean folks that have a read a few books and have that carry around that oft-mention dangerous payload ‘a little bit of knowledge’–have compared this book and, indeed, Anthony Bourdain’s writing to that of Hunter S. Thompson’s.
This, to me, just illustrates a lack of understanding of both Thompson’s and Bourdain’s work in particular, and a lazy and mediocre skill set for analyzing literature on the whole. One might think that this clumsy comparison flatters Bourdain, but I would argue against that point: the fact is, almost everyone–at least everyone I’ve encountered–grossly misunderstands Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. They read, dutifully, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and think that’s that; they get it. Throw in some profanities here, toss around some bewilderingly maniacal antics there and they’ve got it figured out–they’ve got the ol’ Dr. down pat. To them, Gonzo Journalism is all about writing fast and loose with the facts, raising hell, and skipping out on your bar tab.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thompson’s writing actually was making astute and observant political statements about the world he inhabited (and whose effects are still felt today)–something that is clear, if you can see beyond the obvious avatar of the author as a kind of wacky, dangerous, yet loveable maniac. (I like to think of him as a drug and alcohol fuelled modern day Oscar Wilde.) And, true to form, Thompson was, first and foremost, a journalist.
But Bourdain’s writing, particularly as found in Kitchen Confidential, is the very definition of incisive memoir, not journalism–of any kind; Gonzo, New, Combat… whatever. Mr. Bourdain is telling you his story, not the story of the restaurant industry or even the story of your average chef’s rise to the top. No, make no mistake, this is an intensely personal story. This is, to put it the way Mr. Bourdain might put it, real shit about a real person.
No, if we really have to find some sort of analogue for people’s writing in order to cast it in some legitimacy, if we can’t just admire a writer’s writing for what it does wholly on their own, due to the application of their own craft, if I must really compare Bourdain’s writing to someone else’s–if only to cleans the palette off the Thompson comparisons–a far better analogue would be that of Norman Mailer.
Like Mailer, Bourdain writes clean, declarative prose, free from a lot of flowery description–and yet… and yet it is descriptive, oftentimes terribly so. And, like Mailer, Bourdain is not a writer–or a person, apparently–inclined to saccharine leanings in his writing in either style or content. Further, Bourdain doesn’t suffer fools gladly–himself included. Like Mailer, there’s a refreshing honesty in his accounts.
So, following my template for these books that ‘kicked my ass’ posts, how did I get into this book?
“Hey, if you aren’t too busy listening to other people fuck, you’ve got that banquet looking for you.”
It was Rhonda, one of the other waiters on the floor with me that night.
“They said you disappeared. They pulled me in to take their drink order,” she said and shoved a piece of paper into my chest.
“But Hector’s in the potato room!” I called after her.
“So make your own fucking drinks–I did!”
Hector was indeed in the potato room, not at his station, behind the service bar.
I looked at the list of drinks. It was long and had way too many foo-foo drinks–I’d have to go to the main bar, downstairs.
I bounded down the steps, made my way through the main dining room in a flash, but I approached the bar like I was negotiating a minefield. Wendy was working.
“What the fuck do you want? What’re you doing here? Where the fuck’s Hector? Are you fucking kidding me?” It all came firing at me, rat-a-tat, like a machine gun. “Well?”
I just threw the list on the counter.
“Shit, you’re fucking with me, right?”
I just looked at her.
I nodded. She started pouring. “You fucking owe me–big time.”
She started pouring Martinis, Old-Fashions, and then she moved on to the stupid drinks; Daiquiris, Cosmos, a couple of Sex on the Beaches. “Where the fuck’s Hector?”
“THE POTATO ROOM?” she exclaimed angrily. But then her faced softened. “Huh… Well, good for him.”
I started putting the Martinis on my tray when she dropped something else on it: a book. It was A Farewell to Arms. I had loaned it to her a few days before. She read it quickly. I was impressed.
“Yeah, it was all right, I guess. Fucking depressing shit, though,” she said, as she put the rest of the drinks on my tray. “All right, get the fuck out–Hector should be dead and buried by now–he’s a quick worker,” she said with a smile. I was just leaving the bar when she said, “Oh, shit. Wait–take this, too.” She put another book on my tray. “That fucker… now that fucker, man… he can write! You’re gonna love that shit.”
I held the tray and leaned my head over, trying to read the cover of Kitchen Confidential without spilling the drinks.
“C’mon, this isn’t a fucking library–read that shit on your own time. And don’t let me see your sorry ass down here again tonight, or I’m taking your ass to the potato room!”
I did what I was told. I took that book home that night and read the hell out of it.
And so should you.