Anthony Bourdain II: Kitchen Confidential, Les Halles, and the Care and Feeding of Sourdough

Blogs, I’m told, are all about the moment, all about what people are cooking right now or thinking right now.  I tend to write in long loops, spooling out material based more on memory than the moment.  But I have a short-attention span, so I understand the pleas of those who read like hummingbirds:  make it shorter.  So I’ll offer three shorter entries on Bourdain this week rather than one long one. I’ll also use subheadings, so if you what to flit away to another site and come back, you’ll be able to find your old perch.  Buzz, buzz, buzz.  If you like the old format or have remembered to take your Adderall, you can come back at the end of the week and read all three entries together, as intended.

It may seem odd that I’m willing to unreservedly back Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook.  I recently dismissed Thomas Keller as overly fastidious, and Keller is one of Bourdain’s heroes.  Keller once made Bourdain a twenty-course tasting menu at the French Laundry, which included a “coffee and cigarettes” course with foie gras and a tabacco-infused custard. I see why he likes the man. But I never used Bouchon as much as I have the Les Halles cookbook, so I’ve learned less from it. Same goes for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is more comprehensive, and Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, which is beautiful, authentic, regional, and rigorous. I like Bourdain because he scales it down to classic, homey French dishes and he does them well. It’s perfect for people who have made French Onion soup or Beef Bourguignon a couple of times and still wonder why they don’t taste as good as in the local Brasseries. You may not like the answer, which is invariably “make your own stock or demi-glace,” but at least you’ll know.

Bourdain is also funny. You don’t see many funny cookbooks. Publishers are clearly aware that cookbook sales are driven by personality.  They like family anecdotes, old sepia-toned photographs, sentimental memories, pleas to protect the culinary traditions, rants about factory farming, but humor?  They haven’t found humor yet. The only writer in Bourdain’s class is probably Calvin Trillin, but Bourdain isn’t hampered by Trillin’s sense of social justice or common decency.

Beginnings

I first discovered Bourdain as most do, through Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.  I have Jason to thank for that. I was going through a sourdough phase at the time, cultivating a starter that needed weekly care and feeding.  Making sourdough isn’t that much different from making regular yeast dough, but you don’t start with little packets of instant yeast.  You have to cultivate yeast from the air in your kitchen. This is why distinctive sourdoughs are known by regions, like Paris and San Francisco, and why there will probably never be a truly famous Philadelphia sourdough.  Our unicellular bug excretions don’t taste as good.  But I figured if I was going to cook bread, I wanted to know to make the rustic, old-fashioned stuff, and I wanted to know what Philadelphia tasted like.

Sourdough is a commitment, not just because it takes a few days to bring flour and water to life, but because you want to keep it that way. Each week you pour off the excess starter before it gets overripe, and you feed it more flour and water to keep it going.  It’s like owning a pet, only it’s a pet that sheds most of its body weight each week and you get to eat it.  Like a pet it demands attention. It must be fed, and if you’re not making baguettes, you end up pouring that precious bubbling goo into the garbage can.  That’s sad. If you go two or three weeks without making bread, you still feel some moral imperative to keep the starter alive. You’ll miss the opportunity for a weekend in the Poconos because you can’t find a local kid who will feed both the cats and the sourdough.  That’s also sad.

I was bemoaning this fact to Jason, and I suggested I needed a name for the starter. A warm, bubbly name, might help me to bond with the creature that was taking up all my time.  Jason suggested “The Bitch,” which is not what I had in mind at all. I went from puzzled to disturbed as Jason chanted, “Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”  No, it wasn’t early onset spongiform encephalitis.  I just wasn’t clued in to the Bourdain reference, and the 250 pound “foaming, barely contained heap of fermenting grapes, flour, water, sugar and yeast” that shows up as a character in Kitchen Confidential.  Apparently, not recognizing Anthony Bourdain references if you cook is like not recognizing Star Wars references if you’re a sci-fi junkie, or references from Monty Python if you’re socially awkward.  So Jason took it upon himself to fill the Bourdain sized hole in my culinary consciousness, and Bourdain has been living there ever since.

(In the interest of leaving no plot conflict unresolved, the solution to the sourdough problem was pancakes.  Most weeks for several months we made sourdough pancakes on a cast iron skillet, and they were glorious).

Sex, Drugs & Roquefort

Kitchen Confidential is an unsparing tell all about the restaurant industry. If you’ve seen Bourdain on A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations, then you know he has an eight-year olds fascination with eating repellent things on a dare:  cobra heart , fermented Icelandic Shark, and sand encrusted warthog rectum are among the many highlights.  But television offers a watered down version of the Anthony Bourdain we see in American restaurants through Kitchen Confidential. The book follows his education and his rise in the restaurant industry, from a providence, RI coastal restaurant and the Culinary Institute of America, to mob-owned restaurants, dying restaurants, restaurants he works at mostly to help him make drug connections, and restaurants where he witnesses all kind of deviant behavior and unsanitary food handling. One of the more vile incidents involves a cook who partially amputates a finger while cooking, and then decides to lop off the rest of it because the workman’s comp benefits will be better.

Logic dictates that if you write a tell-all about the restaurant industry, two things should
happen to you:  you should be excommunicated, like a magician who has given up too many secrets, or you should stir up outrage and reform like some modern day Upton Sinclair. Yet somehow, Kitchen Confidential did neither. Kitchen Confidential just made a generation of cooks want to be more like Anthony Bourdain. Sure we’re revolted by what he does and what he sees, but he writes about it with such relish that we’re somehow convinced it’s fun. Like if you watch Pirates of the Caribbean, you know that all that scurvy, sodomy, and seasickness of the 18th century wasn’t a good time, but every eight year old boy still wants to be Captain Sparrow.  Piracy actually turns out to be a significant motif in Kitchen Confidential.  Thewhole book is laden with references to that “subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy and ethos of ‘rum, buggery, and the lash”.  One of Bourdain’s first jobs is in Providence, RI was at “The Dreadnaught;” a seaside establishment in “Early Driftwood” décor, and when he settles in his own restaurant, he chooses a skull and knife logo that looks suspiciously like the Jolly Roger.  The perspective is also unabashedly and unapologetically male.  The communities are ones which value bravado, one-upmanship, trying to cook something that has never been cooked before, and trying to eat things that have never been eaten before. And above all, they honor their war wounds.

We considered ourselves a tribe.  As such, we had a number of unusual customs, rituals and practices all our own.  If you cut yourself in the Work Progress kitchen, tradition called for maximum spillage and dispersion of blood.  One squeeezed the wound till it ran freely, then hurled great gouts of red spray on the jackets and aprons of comrades.  We loved blood in our kitchen.  If you dinged yourself badly, it was no disgrace; we’d stencil a little cut-out shape of a chef knife under your station to commemorate the event.  After a while, you’d have a little row of these things, like a fighter pilot.  The house cat—a mouse killer—got her own stencil (a tiny mouse shape) sprayed on the wall by her water bowl, signifying confirmed kills.

If I were teaching this book I would no doubt want students to question the representation of men and women in the workplace.  There’s really very few references to women at all, and the one who stands out the most is a co-worker who has to earn her bones by forcing a male co-worker down on a table and threatening to violate him.  As a reader however, I find it all deeply refreshing. Because while the world of cooking and even the world of cookbooks is dominated by men, the target audience of cookbooks is not.  Sure, an occasional cookbook panders—usually in an obvious way—to guys who grill, guys who like to play with fire, guys who make their obesity seem socially acceptable because they want to share their love of pork ribs with the world.  But I’m no more willing to inhabit this avuncular Paul Prodhomme like subjectivity than I am a bubbling Rachel Ray.  But who wouldn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain?

(To Be Continued)

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2 Responses to “Anthony Bourdain II: Kitchen Confidential, Les Halles, and the Care and Feeding of Sourdough”

  1. Mia Says:

    I’m pretty sure I’m unworthy of even reading about someone who enjoys dishes like warthog rectum, but then I felt a little redeemed by the Monty Python barb. Enjoyable reading as always, and I didn’t need Adderall, though I’d love to have some for recreational purposes in general….

  2. tfristrom Says:

    To be fair he didn’t ENJOY the warthog. The link goes to that clip of A Cook’s Tour, where he dubs it the worst meal he’s ever eaten. Chicken McNuggets were a close second.


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