“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman—not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen—though not designed by them.”
At the close of my high school career, a few professional options appealed to me. One option was to attend an acting school and pursue the theatre. The other was to attend a culinary school and become a chef. Instead I studied ancient Greek and Latin, then went on to Seminary and am now a pastor. I never saw that coming. And while I’ve given up on the acting bit completely, still, somewhere in the back of my mind has lurked the idea, however buried and latent, that some day, if things don’t work out as a pastor, I might still pursue to the culinary trade. Then I read Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by New York chef Anthony Bourdain.
The best term I can think of to describe Bourdain is that he is a ‘character’—used in such a way to describe both his genuine eccentricities as well as, politely, his grating personality. He is passionate about food, infectiously so, and his writing has a compelling potency about it. Some of his paragraphs leap off the page, and his brutal honesty and polished prose make for a highly entertaining read. Of course, some of the (lengthy!) paragraphs composed entirely of lists of French cuisine left my eyes crossed, but there was enough of compelling memoir in this to keep me going through those tough patches.
No doubt, if you’re heard of Bourdain or his book, you’ve heard about the ‘shocking’ revelations he presents regarding behind-the-scenes kitchen work. This assessment is, on the whole, true, and if you’re the kind of social hypochondriac who avoids McDonalds because you watched “Super Size Me,” then after reading this book you’ll probably never eat in a restaurant again. I won’t document any of his tales here—you’ll have to read the book to get those—but let’s just say that Bourdain embodies the compellingly sinister charisma of the bad boy raconteur, regaling us with his exploits. In this, he reminded me of that Uncle, you know, the one your parents are a little reticent to leave you with as an impressionable young adult because they know that when they leave the room he’ll start telling you sordid stories about his exploits from earlier in life. And Bourdain’s the kind of figure that you can’t quite turn away from, or shut out of your mind, because the stories are too outrageous and/or grotesque for you to ignore. In telling them in all their foul detail he displays a near complete remorselessness about his life; there are few regrets here, and even if he claims them his tone invalidates those claims. Bourdain enjoys telling the stories because he knows they’re shocking, and he feeds off the shock value of his life.
So, what did I walk away with from this book? As the quote at the beginning of this review indicates, Bourdain is convinced that good professional cooks are, first and foremost, craftsmen and not artists, and this simple assertion opened my eyes to a revelation regarding my own cooking. I’m, in his estimation, the very worst kind of cook—I dabble, play, and fudge all my recipes. Nothing I cook is ever the same way twice. And thus, I fall convicted by Bourdain’s assessment of real professional cooking:
“What most people don’t get about professional-level cooking is that it is not at all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner. Line cooking—the real business of preparing the food you eat—is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef’s recipes and presentation. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.”
What all this means, as best I can interpret, is that I am (in the very best sense of the term—look up its etymology when you get a chance) an amateur—I cook because I love to cook. And reading Bourdain has illuminated the reality that if I were to pursue cooking professionally there’s a good bet that my joy would be utterly and systematically siphoned from the activity.
Still, I picked up a few tips from Bourdain in the process of reading the book. I’ll probably purchase a good quality chef’s knife. I’ll make my own stock and use it liberally in my cooking. I’ll incorporate more shallots into my cooking. I’ll continue to use lots of butter. I’ll continue to buy fresh ingredients. I’ll probably work on and refine some my dishes into more consistent recipes.
But the best cooking tip I picked up was that I should probably continue to do what I enjoy, and leave the professionals to do what they do. Here is Bourdain’s particularly poignant challenge to this effect:
“So you want to be a chef? You really, really, really want to be a chef? If you’ve been working in another line of business, have been accustomed to working eight-to-nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off, holidays with the family, regular sex with your significant other; if you are used to being treated with some modicum of dignity, spoken to and interacted with as a human being, seen as an equal—a sensitive, multidimensional entity with hopes, dreams, aspirations and opinions, the sort of qualities you’d expect of most working persons—then maybe you should reconsider what you’ll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with.”
Thank you very much. I think I’ll remain a happy amateur.