Anthony Bourdain Found the Heart of Kitchen Life

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Bourdain in 2003. Photo: Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Anthony Bourdain, who died today at the age of 61, was so convinced that people could be made to care about the everyday work of cooks that he channeled their exploits into crime fiction, of all genres. The excruciating, often inscrutable, and randomly glorious inner lives of decidedly un-celebrity cooks popped up throughout the then-chef’s first two novels, which in the 1990s he typed out in whatever hours he had free between 12-hour shifts and drinking sessions at places like Siberia and Holland Bar.

Take Mickey, a character from his 1997 novel Gone Bamboo, who has a bar on the beach yet dabbles in Escoffier-style lobster. “You gotta reduce, reduce, reduce,” Mickey says. “And you don’t let the brandy flame the shells. That’s the mistake everybody makes. You burn the little hairs the lobster got on his tail there,” he explains. For a few lines, the book’s perma-grit transforms into tutorial, and it becomes clear that Bourdain is giving the reader a bonus recipe for beurre monté. No weights, measurements, cooking times; instead, he writes it exactly the way a cook would tell another cook on a smoke break before dinner service.

Two years later, in 1999, his landmark New Yorker piece “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” implored readers to come behind the line and spend some time in the depths of the metaphorical walk-in refrigerator. Bourdain denounced brunch as the food-safety nightmare it is. At the time, fish wholesalers took weekend days off, so he recommended that diners skip the tuna on Monday, lest they be left with bigeye that’s been festering and cross-contaminated in a refrigerator over the course of several dinner rushes.

The big surprise: A world of readers took the advice to heart. (So much so that the fish myth still prevails to this day, and Bourdain himself sent it up in 2015’s The Big Short.) More importantly, after decades of M.F.K. Fisher’s concise, sublimated foodie-isms, Joseph Wechsberg’s privileged visits with the titans of French food, and Craig Claiborne’s cheery and erudite spectatorship, Bourdain arrived to make cooks everyday anti-heroes of the food-writing world. “In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit,” Bourdain wrote.

“Mission to Tokyo,” which appeared in the July 1999 issue of the now-defunct and influential trade magazine Food Arts, also happened to debut the chef’s photo, from a shoot by Courtney Grant Winston that also yielded the now-iconic cover photo for Kitchen Confidential. It’s a fascinating, hyperactive, and digressive 5,000-word account of opening a branch of Brasserie Les Halles in Tokyo. Jim Poris, Bourdain’s editor, knew he had received something unusual. “I don’t even recall whether he filed it via email or typed manuscript,” Poris said this morning. “I do recall that I said something to myself along the lines of buckle up.”

I grew up working in exactly the types of kitchens about which Bourdain wrote. This morning, after a friend texted me with the news, I asked him what it was about Bourdain’s writing that he loved. This friend and I had worked together for ten years in anonymous, punishing, and thankless kitchens on Long Island’s South Shore, and he’s been out of the business for 15. “I’m not sure,” he texted. “Most everything he writes about, I can say I have experienced in one way or another.”

In 2000, Kitchen Confidential nailed the sometimes-brutal nature of cooks’ lives. Bourdain wasn’t afraid of the ugly, and the restaurant business is full of it. Further essays, screeds, and first-person travelogues evoked the already-here dystopias of Philip K. Dick, the hard-boiled punch of Raymond Chandler, and visceral poetry of Jim Harrison. Bourdain embraced the hedonism of A.J. Liebling, but took it to an extreme that had rarely, if ever, been explored in print, yet he was more likely to glorify a longtime dishwasher from Mexico than he was to praise a highfalutin chef who had just earned a new Michelin star. Bourdain shredded the unofficial guidelines that suggested food writing was, by design, reverential and stately. After Anthony Bourdain arrived on the scene, food writing no longer needed to be doled out in nice, tidy portions.

How Anthony Bourdain Forever Changed Food Writing