Chef Lit

Anthony Bourdain raised the veil on down-and-dirty kitchen life. This year's crop of food writers keeps on dishing

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Stephen Kroninger for TIME

The hero of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London makes his living as a plongeur, which is what French people call the dishwasher/gofer/house elf in a restaurant. He starts off at a hotel in Paris: "The kitchen was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined — a stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans." The book recounts his descent into the culinary hell of a busy professional kitchen: a dirty, angry, vulgar, drunken, pressurized little world that's oddly invisible to outsiders. "There sat the customers in all their splendor," he observes, "spotless tablecloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth."

It was invisible then. Now we recognize it right away: this is Anthony Bourdain's world. Bourdain is no Julia Child or Hervé This — he's not a culinary innovator — but in 2000 he changed forever the way we think about food with the publication of Kitchen Confidential, his scabrous, astoundingly funny, weirdly touching tell-all about his career in New York City restaurant kitchens. It's not just that he told us not to order fish on a Monday (because it's probably been around since last Thursday) and that the bread on our table probably got recycled from the table of somebody else who maybe sneezed on it. He changed our whole cultural idea of what a kitchen is. Pre-Bourdain, it was a warm, cozy, maternal place. Now it's a profane, brutal, masculine crucible, where human frailty is rendered away like so much tasty bacon fat.

The literature of the post-Bourdainian era is vast and unfortunately mostly forgettable (with a few notable exceptions, like Bill Buford's Heat). But to those who crave them, even bad chef memoirs have a certain mesmerizing quality. Take John DeLucie's The Hunger. Unlike Bourdain, DeLucie is not a particularly gifted writer. Also unlike Bourdain, he is annoyingly successful as a chef: he runs Manhattan's sceney Waverly Inn. All the stuff about models hitting on him makes him substantially less relatable.

And yet The Hunger is far from unfinishable. When Bismarck said laws are like sausages, his point was that you shouldn't watch them getting made. But who among us has not wondered about sausages — or about where the prepared food actually comes from in an upscale purveyor like Dean & DeLuca? DeLucie worked at a Dean & DeLuca fresh out of cooking school, and he has the answer: a windowless, battleship-gray underground kitchen, where a Flying Dutchman crew of lost, disaffected and recently deinstitutionalized — but not necessarily untalented — cooks labors robotically over 25-lb. (11 kg) stainless-steel bowls of Red Bliss potato salad.

One is somehow richer for possessing this knowledge. Food, especially restaurant food, comes to us as a highly wrought object, but who wrought it and how is a matter that's usually concealed from us. Books like The Hunger — along with satisfying our curiosity about who has sex in the walk-in freezer, and how exactly — restore the link between food and the labor that created it. They're Marxist gastronomy.

The new crop of chef memoirs includes a rather haughty cooking-school diary (Katherine Darling's Under the Table) and the life and times of a pastry chef (Dalia Jurgensen's Spiced) — naughtier than you'd expect — but the best of them by a mile is by a former chef of no particular distinction named Jason Sheehan, now an extraordinarily good food writer. Cooking Dirty is his account of a career spent largely at what he calls "the low end of the culinary world": late-night shifts at diners, bars and neighborhood joints. Some of it is pure drudgery — like prepping a "literal ton of corned-beef briskets" at an Irish pub the week before St. Patrick's Day — but when the orders start pouring in, the pace and chaos and heat in even a low-end kitchen somehow fuse into a kind of mass lunatic joy. "I am God of the box," he writes, "the brain-damaged Lord Commander of a kingdom of fifty feet by five and made entirely of stainless steel, industrial tile, knives, sweat and fire."

The Melting-Pot Kitchen
Some of the stuff in Cooking Dirty beggars belief — like the time Sheehan accidentally stuck an 8-in. (20 cm) chef's knife right through his hand, pulled it out and went back to chopping — but so far there has been relatively little actual post-Bourdainian fiction. Possibly the first novel of consequence is Monica Ali's In the Kitchen, set in a hotel restaurant in London. The restaurant's executive chef, Gabriel, has clawed his way up effortfully from the working classes, but having done so, he is now, at 42, having a midlife crisis. He's not having much luck starting a restaurant of his own or marrying his girlfriend Charlie. He does manage to cheat on her with a porter named Lena, a Belarusian girl who has herself just escaped a life of prostitution. Meanwhile, another porter has turned up dead, Gabriel's father is dying, and his mother is subsiding into dementia.

Ali, who wrote the celebrated Brick Lane, gets the kitchen just right: the crushing pace, the fistfights, the grills and griddles and salamanders, the guy who's always walking around with a leek hanging out of his fly. But her interest in it is somewhat different from, say, Sheehan's. For Ali it is — at the risk of sending you screaming back to high school English class — a microcosm of Britain, a country that is also, not coincidentally, having a midlife crisis. The kitchen is a strange crossroads zone where high culture and manual labor collide. It's radically globalized and borderless, with workers from Liberia and India and Moldova. (The hotel is called, inevitably, the Imperial.) Ali's kitchen is, like Britain, something of a muddle: "If the Imperial were a person, thought Gabe, you would say here is someone who does not know who she is."

If you're in search of pure high-octane kitchen action, though, In the Kitchen is unfortunately a bit of a drag. Although they resemble each other in their manic masculinity, Ali's kitchen turns out to be the inverse of Bourdain's, and it demonstrates exactly what made Kitchen Confidential so appealing. The Bourdainian kitchen is not a muddle. It is in fact the last redoubt of clarity in a muddled world. Hot and filthy it may be, but it's the place where all the stuff that bedevils the modern human's attempts to pull together a stable, clear identity — race, class, history, gender — finally gets sorted out. Good and bad are not ambiguous or relative. If you're weak, you'll break down like a poorly emulsified vinaigrette, but if you can hack it, then wherever you're from, whatever language you speak, you know where and who you are and what you're doing: you're a saucier, or a sous, or a prep monkey, or a plongeur, or a chef.

As Sheehan puts it, the restaurant kitchen is "the last true American meritocracy. No one cares about your past or what you do on the outside. Can you cook? That's all anyone cares about." Gabriel is a sympathetic and beautifully realized character, but one suspects he wouldn't last a night at the Waverly Inn.