Restaurants: Beast of Bourdain

“I’ve been in a room with a bunch of sweaty guys for 28 years of my life,” says Anthony Bourdain, chef de cuisine at Les Halles. “Has this affected my worldview and my ethic? Yeah, and probably for the worse.”

In his new memoir, Kitchen Confidential, the 43-year-old Bourdain uses the story of his career in New York restaurants as an excuse to open the oven door and peer into the profane inferno of the city’s kitchens – finding along the way junkie pâtissiers, mobbed-up restaurateurs, and oversexed broiler men. Unsurprisingly, not everybody in the business is thrilled by the exposure. “The food world,” one insider says bluntly, “hates his fucking guts.”

“He’s doing what most chefs do today,” charges restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. “Getting attention.” (Of course, Bourdain gives Wolf no reason to love him: In Confidential, he blasts consultants as “unemployable chefs.”) Furthermore, maintains a prominent food critic, “the only people who would be surprised by the book are people who don’t have any knowledge of the restaurant business. You’d have to live in Moline, Illinois, and eat at Denny’s every day.”

Bourdain himself willingly concedes that his raw material will be familiar to anyone who’s read Down and Out in Paris and London. But nobody, he points out, has written this way about New York restaurants. And what seems to elude the food-world critics is the fact that Bourdain’s prose is utterly riveting, swaggering with stylish machismo and a precise ear for kitchen patois. Swearing is one of Bourdain’s favorite subjects. “Most of the people in my kitchen can do it in Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Bengali, and English,” he writes. “Like all great performances, it’s about timing, tone, and delivery – like cooking.”

Bourdain’s own timing, tone, and delivery in the kitchen have raised hackles. “I do the same job he does,” insists a line cook at a three-star restaurant. “Only with a lot less testosterone.” “I like to work with chefs in their post-jerk phase,” sniffs Wolf. “Which it doesn’t sound like this gentleman has reached.” “He’s one of those chefs who treat cooking like an athletic event,” complains a food critic. “They’re happiest when they’re twenty hours behind and they have to battle their way back out.”

Indeed, Bourdain’s conversation, like his writing, is peppered with military imagery. He calls his bosses “masters,” makes oblique references to a soldierly code of honor, and sees himself waging war for the 60 to 70 hours a week he cranks out fat-heavy French fare at Les Halles. And now Bourdain is fighting a rear-guard action to defend his book amid news that New Line Cinema has already optioned Kitchen Confidential – a development that’s bound to further incense detractors. “It’s gonna be a layup for people to promote this book as an exposé,” he says. “But I don’t want to change the business. I really love it exactly the way it is, dysfunctional and crazed as it might be.”

Restaurants: Beast of Bourdain