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Remembering Anthony Bourdain on the 20th Anniversary of ‘Kitchen Confidential’

Food + Drink
by Elisabeth Sherman May 20, 2020

I was 26 when I discovered Anthony Bourdain. I’d never heard of him until I pulled a battered, well-worn copy of Kitchen Confidential off of my partner’s book shelf. On the cover, a young Bourdain, who openly admitted that he wasn’t a very good chef, has two swords tucked into his white kitchen apron, one arm draped protectively across his body. Like many who pick up that book, I was intrigued and a little bit in awe of the man who looked audacious yet oddly shy.

I had just been hired at a magazine focused on restaurants and chefs — my first foray into food writing — and, as it turned out, it would become not just necessary but absolutely pertinent to know everything about Bourdain. The more I learned about him, the more enamored with him I became. I think that was true for anyone who devotedly followed his career. We all simply fell in love with Tony. That’s why reading Kitchen Confidential is such a let down today. He should have known better.

At first, I was shocked but secretly delighted by what he revealed in the pages of Kitchen Confidential, which was published on May 22, 2000 — an astonishing 20 years ago. Particularly memorable are the stories about chefs having sex with customers in the walk-ins; the revelation that he had a dangerous cocaine habit when he worked at Les Halles that carried over to the kitchen; and his strict instructions on what to eat and what to avoid in a restaurant, which I parroted to everyone I dined out with for the next three to five years (“Tony says skip the shrimp, only order the fish on Tuesday and Thursday”).

He was provocative on purpose, poking the reader with a stick with each taboo topic. This all seemed very romantic to me, learning about the bad boys of the restaurant world. Ah, how naive I was then.

I simply accepted that chefs were aggressive, raunchy, and loud, yet had an undeniable swagger that I supposed came from surviving brutal, long hours stuffed together in a tiny, hot kitchen while being constantly burned, berated, and otherwise abused. This is the environment that shaped Anthony Bourdain, the coolest guy in the world. I figured there must be something redeeming about it. I was wrong.

In 2017, I was sitting at my desk at the same food magazine when the news broke that Mario Batali had been credibly accused of sexual harassment. The news triggered an avalanche of accustations ranging from mistreatment to assault to rape in the restaurant industry. Exposing the abusive practices rampant in restaurant kitchens became a linchpin in the #MeToo movement. I realized pretty soon after, as I think Bourdain did too, that it was time to rethink Kitchen Confidential.

In the 1999 New Yorker essay that launched him to fame and a book deal for Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote that “ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue.” That line might be at the heart of the problem with Bourdain’s then-attitude about restaurant work. It takes the abuse endemic to the restaurant industry at face value. Restaurants had to be that way, according to the Anthony Bourdain of 1999 and 2000, when the book was published. But he had it wrong.

Enduring cruelty shouldn’t have to be the tradeoff for wanting to cook food professionally. Bourdain romanticized the type of man who routinely made kitchen unsafe spaces with raunchy jokes, sexually explicit language, and unchecked aggression.

In the book, he writes, “Assume the worst. About everybody … Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious and corrupt asshole shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them or finding them entertaining.” That is the very type of cook who might have been accused of assault in 2017, or who is still getting away with it today, and no one should be forced to “enjoy their company” for fear of losing their job or being assaulted. People who live under that type of reign of terror don’t have the privilege of finding such abhorrent behavior entertaining.

“It has been dismissed many times by women in this industry, and rightly so, as the bro bible,” Bourdain told the 2017 graduating class at Culinary Institute of America. “If there’s a harasser in the kitchen who’s a jerk at work, chances are he’s got my book at his station, and I am going to have to live with that.”

He didn’t exactly denounce Kitchen Confidential, but from that moment forward, it became a relic. Today, the book reflects why the industry is in desperate need of more women and people of color in charge — more people who can cultivate a culture of decency, support, and accountability. Bourdain missed an opportunity to be a little more critical of a world that glamorized the abuse, coercion, and fear that made restaurants some of the worst working conditions in America.

Luckily, once Bourdain left the kitchen, he became one of the most compassionate, curious people on the planet who spent the rest of his life using food as a way to build understanding and empathy between cultures. He was also an outspoken supporter of the women fueling the #MeToo movement, in particular his partner at the time, Asia Argento, a prominent survivor of assault by Harvery Weinstein. Bourdain repeatedly voiced his support for Argento on Twitter, writing that he was “honored” to know her and praising her bravery for coming forward. He stopped talking and started listening, basically.

But it’s possible the trauma and addictions of his restaurant days stayed with him forever. The day he died, I drank too much beer after work and watched the Houston episode of Parts Unknown, silent tears running down my face.

“It’s great because your grandfather and my grandfather … crammed themselves, snuck, bought their way, or was dragged onto a boat and one way or another allowed themselves eventually to dream. You can. There’s still room. And in some places in America, apparently, you’re still welcome. Welcome, stranger. This land is your land,” Bourdain narrates at the end of that episode.

That is the legacy of Bourdain today, not the inflammatory, outrageous-on-purpose Kitchen Confidential. It’s still an entertaining, lively book, but it’s not Bourdain at his best. Bourdain at his best found normal people making good food, raising families, and supporting their cities, and gave them the spotlight. That’s how I’ll remember him. He is still one of my heroes, after all — despite how disappointed I ended up being in the book that made me love him in the first place.

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