This is a review of the audiobook, so bear that in mind when I say that you can summarize this easily: Anthony Bourdain rants about the food industry for 9 hours. Not that that’s a bad thing. Since it was Bourdain himself ranting, and not some overblown voice actor, every joke came off exactly as intended. I know that in the past I’ve read memoirs by people, and often (especially if the author is a comedian) the book falls flat because the intonation carries the bulk of the meaning.
Anthony Bourdain wrote a book a few years ago called KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL about his years as a cook. I am 90% positive that I picked up that book a year or so ago and tried to read it, only to remember that I had already read it. Now I’m not sure I even read it. So I either read it 1.5 x and don’t remember it, or I haven’t read it. Either way, rest assured you do not have to have read KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL for this book to have merit or make sense. He mentions the first book frequently, and has a wrap up of “whatever happened to so-and-so” in the last chapter, but otherwise it stands on its own.
Bourdain may not be a heavy-drinking, drug-using, hardcore cook anymore, but he’s still an angry man. I think that for people who are in any way involved with the fine dining industry, this book will be juicy gossip, as amusing for its titillation as for the inevitable drama to follow.
Alas, the only connection I have to the food industry is that I adore watching TopChef, reading memoirs of culinary people, and leafing through Cooks Illustrated. Chefs don’t make special dishes for me when I sit down in their restaurants. I have never eaten at, and probably will never eat at, Per Se, The French Laundry, or other even less-well-known fine dining restaurants. Some of the people Bourdain discusses are known to me, and I was interested to hear about them. Others are complete strangers to me. Bourdain doesn’t really help either. In one chapter, entitled “Heroes and Villians” he lauds and damns various chefs and critics, but he presumes you already know who these people are. I didn’t, and had to google the names I could remember later on. A little backstory could have really helped.
This is more of a collection of essays than a true memoir. He does have memoir-like passages, such as the tale of meeting a psycho rich girl in the Caribbean. I liked reading about St. Bart’s, a place I will also probably never go, and I loved his vicarious thrill of the 50Euro burned chicken piece at the restaurant that the dumb rich still shelled out for. Who doesn’t like a good travel story?
Bourdain can write well, and he can especially write well about food. He has an entire chapter which is basically just food porn, lush descriptions of exotic food that us ordinary mortals will likely never consume. For some of the dishes, it’s just as well we ordinary eaters will never consume such fare. For example, the opening scene (a description of a once-in-a-lifetime meal of endangered French finch) was described with orgiastic detail, like a man describing kinky sex with an underage girl: fascinating in its perversity, but doesn’t make me want to have kinky sex with underage girls. It just clarified all the ways in which I find that disgusting.
I enjoyed the mini-biography chapters the most. I liked hearing about the genius fish-filleter from the Dominican Republic. I liked hearing about the tormented genius David Chang, and about Bourdain’s friend, who lost on Top Chef. (I also was relieved to hear that my favorite reality show is played straight.) I also enjoyed some of his soap-box moments, like when he said why every person should learn to cook (though some of the ‘basics’ he proposes are things that even I would have to research–and I am a widely-read and self-taught home cook who cooked every day for over 10 years.) His rant against first-world vegans proseltizing made me nod approvingly. I get the feeling that he’s the kind of guy who spouts off what he’s most angry about at the time, even knowing that he’s likely to not care that much about it later–a trait I share.
My main complaint about this book is that it was not written for me, or people like me. In fact, I felt a little looked-down on, especially when he talked about how his jaded palette gets bored with tasting menus, or how poor Thomas Keller can’t go anywhere without being served bad knock-offs of his own dishes. For a guy who claims he’s never had health-insurance, Bourdain doesn’t seem to understand the middle class. My unsolicited advice for Bourdain is that he should eat nothing but his own cooking for a few years, with ingredients purchased at the local supermarket, punctuated perhaps every two weeks with very inexpensive takeout (the kind where you order your food by picture and number). After he’s lived like a normal American for a while, he might once again have a fine appreciation for dining out. He might grow to see eating in restaurants, especially classy restaurants, for what it is–a luxury.
I recommend this for foodies, chefs, and people who like reading about such.