If you’re an aspiring chef, hoping to preview the glamorous life of celebrity sightings and slavishly devoted patrons that lies before you, this book will be a sharp kick to the gonads/ovaries. Bourdain does not paint a pretty picture of the NYC restaurant scene, but I will say, he writes about ghoulish goings-on with panache.
I’ve never tasted this man’s cooking (much to my chagrin), but his vocabulary is delicious. Fiefdoms, putative, dipsomaniacal… Private school education may not have taught him how to saute, but it shows to advantage when he’s penning a book. At one point he refers to kitchens that restrict their chefs to a paltry two towels per shift as “criminally parsimonious”. SWOON.
Military metaphors abound, as Bourdain likens the mass production of meals to running an army campaign.
“-next thing you know, the Russian tanks are rolling through the suburbs, misusing your womenfolk, and Mr Restaurant Genius is holed up in the bunker thinking about eating his gun.”
So, it’s nasty. How nasty? Here’s a wee dose, see how you take it:
“All the cooks’ necks and wrists were pink and inflamed with awful heat rashes; the end-of-shift clothing change in the Room’s fetid, septic locker-rooms was a gruesome panorama of dermatological curiosities.”
Is there swearing? Obscenities GALORE. The F-word is the LEAST of your worries. If you’re averse to profanity, run-don’t-walk far away from this book. If you’re okay with some vulgarity but not the whole cock-filled enchilada, skip the chapter titled “The Level of Discourse”.
Is it honest? Phew. No holds barred! Let’s take the skeletons out of my closet and dance with them! Brutal unflinching honesty.
Is it charming? Very. This passage made me clap and squee:
“My last semester at Vassar, I’d taken to wearing nunchakus in a strap-on holster and carrying around a samurai sword — that should tell you all you need to know.”
Is it funny? Oh yes. Black humour to be sure. But you’ll laugh.
“He has an unusual and frankly terrifying tic; when he eats, one eye rolls up into its socket. I’m told he makes funny faces when he has sex, too, but I try very hard not to picture that.”
Will I learn anything about cooking?
While Bourdain does his best to shoot off quick explanations of what’s going on in his kitchen, I would have liked a handy glossary, for us non-chef folks who have no clue what a “navarin” is, or what goes in the ominous sounding “boudin noir”.
The real benefit to a glossary is that it wouldn’t be nearly as snarky as Bourdain, who always has to add a dash of condescension to his definitions, as per: “Rouille – that’s a garlic pepper mayonnaise garnish, for the newbies.” At one point, he asks, “Does anyone need ‘livornaise’ explained… again?” and I actually put my hand up in the air and waved it around while reading.
Navarin d’agneau, boudin noir, demi-glace, choucroute garnie: I don’t know what the hell any of these things are, but now I want to put them in my mouth and find out. And isn’t that why we read? To vicariously experience someone’s struggles and loves and hatreds, to discover new tastes and new places, to add items to the ever-growing “must try” list?
That’s why I read, anyway. This book delivers on all accounts.
Some other books (and a movie!) that will make your mouth water…
4 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, autobiography, comedy, 312 pages, Publisher: Harper Perennial (2007 – updated edition; first pub 2000)
Read from July 30 to August 06, 2012