Someone's in the Kitchen
Literary chefs spill the beans on what happens behind kitchen doors.
By Shelly Ridenour
AUGUST 28, 2000: Sure signs of success: a string of bestselling books. Not one, but two eponymous TV shows. A namesake restaurant. Your very own catchphrase. Crowd-clogged personal appearances. Product endorsements. Scandalous stories in supermarket tabloids. Webpages upon Webpages of fan devotion: "I turned on the TV. There, on the screen, was the vision of the Virgin Mary, Zeus and Justin Wilson wrapped all into one! 'So you take this here Essence, and... BAM!!!!!!' said the hyper god of cayenne," Emeril Lagasse.
That's right, the hottest breed of celebrity isn't just a TV star, or just an author; the most coveted glamour job has nothing to do with IPOs or dot.coms. It is the celebrity chef who has become the pervasive king of mass media, feeding a world that loves to eat out more than it loves to cook but perhaps not as much as it loves the idea of cooking. Or better yet, cooking like a professional chef.
But don't expect to see Anthony Bourdain hamming and bamming it up on his very own half-hour of televised kitchen antics. "Not in a million years. I can't be adorable for a sustained period," says the Executive Chef of New York's Brasseries Les Halles (of which no less than Ruth Reichl has written, "If you're in the mood for steak frites, you can hardly do better than this butcher shop and restaurant"). "The only good guy on there [the TV Food Network] is Mario Batali ["Molto Mario"]; he's the only cook's cook, the only one who could make what he does on TV in his restaurant. The rest of it, though, is an uninterrupted vista of mediocrity and silliness, one big infomercial for Emeril." Adorable or not, Bourdain can be quite charming, not to mention entertaining, two traits exhibited in his New York Times best-selling book, "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Part memoir, part exposé, the book was borne out of a now-infamous 1999 article Bourdain penned for The New Yorker, a lay-it-on-the-line tell-all that brought to light all the dirty little secrets of the service industry.
"A big and varied menu in a slow, half-empty place? Those less popular items like broiled mackarel and calves' liver are kept festering in a dark corner of the reach-in because they look good on the menu. You might not actually want to eat them," he writes. "Look at your waiter's face. He knows. It's another reason to be polite to your waiter: He could save your life with a raised eyebrow or sigh."
Bourdain, employed in kitchens (from a seafood honkytonk in Provincetown to the Rainbow Room) for more than twenty-five years, explains how "brunch menu" translates to "old nasty odd and ends"; how the skankiest, toughest cuts of meat are saved for "rubes" who prefer well-done; and how you should never, ever order fish (ordered on Thursday for Friday morning delivery) on a Sunday or Monday.
"Seafood is a tricky business. By the time it's cut, the actual cost of each piece of cleaned fillet costs the chef more than twice that amount, and he'd greatly prefer to sell it than toss it in the garbage. If it still smells OK on Monday night -- you're eating it. How about seafood on Sunday? Well... sometimes, but never an obvious attempt to offload aging stuff, like seafood salad vinaigrette or seafood fritatta... You see a fish that would be much better served by quick grilling with a slice of lemon, suddenly all dressed up with vinaigrette? For 'en vinaigrette' on the menu, read 'preserved' or 'disguised.'
"'Beef parmentier'? 'Shepherd's pie'? 'Chili special'? Sounds like leftovers to me... "
Perhaps surprisingly, there's not a price on Bourdain's head for treachery. "Supposedly there are restaurant insiders who are angry," he says, "but the mail and calls and visits from others chefs are overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I've never had so many free cocktails in my life.
"That story was written in a moment of obscene bitterness, when I was dead in the water," Bourdain admits. "The book came during a happier and romantic time at Les Halles. Believe me, I hadn't intended on writing a book."
"Kitchen Confidential" is not the typical coffeetable vanity project. There are no recipes; no pornographic photo spreads of, to quote David Sedaris, "Knuckle of flash-seared crappie served with a collar of chided ginger and cornered by a pack of kiln-roasted Chilean toadstools"; no cute little tips about how to fold dinner napkins into pinwheel fans. Bourdain is a writer and a damn fine storyteller; in fact, his previous published efforts were the literate, darkly funny crime books "Gone Bamboo" and the restaurant-set "Bone in the Throat." (Look for his historical, true mystery "Typhoid Mary," coming this fall from Bloomsbury.)
And this is certainly no prissy little gourmand guide. Chronicling what he calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine," Bourdain traces his career back to a teenage summer job slinging fried clams, fried shrimp, fried flounder, fried scallops... Cocky but unable to keep up with the rigorous, literally fiery demands of turning out hundreds of meals, he inherited the nickname "Mel." "I was, I learned later, a mal carne, meaning 'bad meat' in Italian." Bourdain learned a lot from his time in saloon and bistro kitchens -- not all of it savory, or even having anything to do with food. "These guys were master criminals, sexual athletes... highwaymen rogues, buccaneers, cut-throats... The life of the cook was a life of adventure, looting, pillaging and rock-and-rolling through life with a carefree disregard for all conventional morality."
Bourdain goes on to recount his own rollercoaster ride in and out of the gutter -- drug addiction, Mafia connections, unemployment, embarrassing jobs, as well as book deals, amazing friendships, culinary masterpieces and more fun than anyone should be allowed to have at work. But, for all the big adventures, perhaps the most engaging chapters are the ones like "A Day in the Life," where Bourdain describes his daily routine, offering wide-open insight into all the thought, work and time that goes into getting your magret de moulard to the table. "As I walk up to Broadway and climb into a taxi, I'm thinking grilled tuna livornaise with roasted potatoes and grilled aparagus for fish special. My overworked grill man can heat the already cooked-off spuds and the pre-blanched asparagus on a sizzle-platter during service... "
Food is constantly on his brain, whether it's in a business sense or not; it's a love he traces back to a childhood vacation in France, where a drive to gross-out his younger brother opened his eyes.
"I tried frittures -- tiny whole fish, fried and eaten with persillade -- loving that I was eating heads, eyes, bones and all. I ate ray in buerre noisette, tripes, boudin noir that squirted blood down my chin." And Bourdain credits an oyster with changing his life. Popped open by a rust-covered knife, "I took it in my hand... and with one bit and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater... of brine and flesh... and somehow... of the future. Everything was different now. I'd learned something. Viscerally, instinctively, spiritually -- even in some small, precursive way, sexually -- and there was no turning back. My life as a cook, and as a chef, had begun.
"Food had power." I love reading menus, even save favorites, such as Chef Michael Tsonton's June media dinner at Tizi Melloul -- Watch Hill oysters on the half shell with warm cauliflower puree, cauliflower consomme and Tunisian chili oil, served with a pinot gris; bisteeya of wood pigeon, sweet-spice saffron rice, apricots and cinnamon-garlic jus roti. I am fascinated by the words on Paul Kahan's Blackbird menu: crispy skinned wild striped bass with black trumpets, fava beans and caramelized parsnips. And La Sardine's gamberi con salsa di pistacchi -- sauteed Gulf shrimp served on a crispy onion risotto cake with pistachio pesto, the English singing as much as the Italian.
At times, in the book "The Soul of a Chef," Michael Ruhlman's lovingly detailed descriptions of dishes, ingredients lists and menus reads like erotica, even when it is just a simple rundown of a tasting menu at Thomas Keller's French Laundry:
"1. Cornet of salmon tartare with red onion creme fraiche in a savory tuile. 2. Parsnip soup. 3. Potato blini with tomato butter and bottarga. 4. Salmon belly, a thin sheet of it virtually painted onto a plate in a circle, served very cold, with a Mayer lemon vinaigrette, chives, parsley and dill. 5. Malpeque oyster nestled into a bed of julienned pickled cucumber and topped with a quenelle of sevruga caviar... " and on and on, through fourteen more courses before culminating with "19. Ile flotant, meringue filled with chocolate mousse, on sauce anglaise, garnished with a chocolate 'salad,' chocolate shavings dressed with mint oil and fresh sea salt."
"The Soul of a Chef," while unfolding as history lesson, memoir and engrossing story, is geared more toward foodies than Boudrain's rollicking adventures, with Ruhlman profiling three distinctive chef personalities. Michael Symon is a 28-year-old rising star at his own funky little bistro in Cleveland, a young maverick willing to take chances (and occasionally fail) and earning attention for his brave approach. "Michael Symon was a distinctly American chef, unencumbered by the legacy of classical cuisine, mentored by no chef after he left cooking school, and serving the kind of food Americans liked to eat simply because it was how he liked to eat, achieving wonderful effects without the classics."
Ruhlman follows a group of chefs through days of vigorous training and high-stress competition involved in the Culinary Institute of America's Certified Master Chef exam, in which students spend ten consecutive sixteen-hour days demonstrating their prowess in classical French Escoffier cuisine, forcemeat (terrine, pate, galantine), confits and smoking, knifework and more. Ruhlman questions the notion that "Some people have it, and some don't. Is it possible that some chefs, no matter how devoted to their craft they may be, no matter how much they train, practice and study for the Master Chef exam, will never pass it? Yes... This test measures something innate." The very fact that someone would go through such ego-draining, masochistic tediousness makes for a fascinating story, in all its breathtaking thrills and heartbreak. When, after sinking so much work and so much money into this challenge, a contender fails miserably -- undercooking scallops, forgetting an ingredient, confusing the top and bottom of a terrine -- it is, as one kitchen assistant notes, "'like being at a gory movie; it's so gruesome that you don't want to look, but you can't help yourself."
(For his part, Bourdain, a CIA grad, says he has "not the most remote desire" to take the Master Chef exam. "To me, that's like learning to builds ships in a bottle -- pretty to look at, but no practical application. It's hobbyism.") A simple, almost Zen-like man in the kitchen, Thomas Keller, the man in the kitchen of the famed French Laundry in Napa Valley, is nonetheless a celebrity chef in his own right. No, there is no "Keller Cooks!" TV show, though there is a best-selling, award-winning "The French Laundry Cookbook"; mostly, though, it is word of mouth about his innovative cuisine that has put him in the ranks among Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Norman Van Aken.
Particularly entertaining is Ruhlman's theoretical take on the "irony" of Keller's cooking. "He achieved irony and humor not only with contrasting textures and products, but also with wordplay and associations from mainstream, middle-class America, transforming the ideas of oft-maligned lowbrow food into bona fide, often extraordinary haute cuisine." For instance, calling scallops with cocks' combs "surf and turf," or butter-poached lobster tail or creamy orzo beneath a Parmesan crisp "mac and cheese," or a meal-ender of elegant small jellies and peanut butter truffles "PB & J." "Years ago he offered a shrimp on the rim of a martini glass as the server poured clear tomato water from a silver martini shaker; he called it shrimp cocktail. He once froze this water, shaved it like Italian ice, then served it as a gazpacho snow cone in a conical paper cup, garnishing it with diced cucumber, onion, peppers and a grilled shrimp. Unfortunately he called it grilled shrimp snow cone, and people thought he was serving frozen shrimp. 'People didn't get it,' Keller recalled. 'I had once chance, and I blew it.'"
Interesting too is when Ruhlman himself does get it. "I realized that there was a lot more going on here than food. It ultimately felt as if the chef were engaging in a dialogue with you through food but not necessarily about food. Eating was not a consumption of food but rather an exchange of ideas, an interaction of personalities."
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