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Book Review: The Culinary Underbelly

It's tough enough for a stage comedian to make you laugh out loud; more remarkable still when a supposedly comic movie does so. Rarest of all is an author achieving such result in print.

A short list of novels inducing audible chortles from me would include Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), East Is East (T.C. Boyle), and A Confederacy of Dunces(John Kennedy Toole).

To that group, I must now add a recently-published memoir by a classically-trained, personally-flawed master chef, Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

Aproned antics aside, a risk, some readers should be warned, is that the inside dope dispensed in these pages could dissuade them from ever wanting to dine out again. How pretty is it when a disaffected magician debunks his tricks?

Bourdain unquestionably loves his profession, and often writes elegantly about the intricate, precisely-timed ballet which differentiates an efficiently-run operation from a berserk, eight-burner corner of hell.

He also has a perceptive eye for personality types tending to gravitate toward the trade. Not unlike cabbies and bartenders, they seem possessed of devotion and dementia in fairly equal measure. You'd be hard pressed finding one who hasn't a story (or many) to tell.

A genuine sense of community emerges as well, though the relationships can rapidly shift from merely dysfunctional to downright dangerous (there are always outsized, perfectly-sharpened knives, and hot containers, and scalding fluids, within easy reach, it is wise to recall).

Much of the wildness and volatility is driven by unrelenting stress. Combustible characters, from busboy up to owner, complicate the mix. Bourdain spares no one, least of all himself. The cook’s self-deprecating, mordant humor revolves around respect for food and recognition of personal abusive and anarchic habits.

This account, if unexaggerated, confirms the prosperous potential for aspiring Cordon Bleu dope fiend/smart asses.

The book's served up cleverly, with course segments ranging from ‘Appetizer’ to ‘Dessert,’ followed by ‘Coffee and a Cigarette’ (in between are chapters entitled ‘Food Is Good,’ ‘Food Is Sex’ and ‘Food Is Pain’). While you could call many of our chef's gustatory exploits cuisine noir, he ends up as a sympathetic narrator.

He announces at the outset that he wishes to tell us ‘about the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly — a subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy and ethos of ‘rum, buggery and the lash’ make for a mix of unwavering order and nerve-shattering chaos — because I find it all quite comfortable, like a nice warm bath.’

Bourdain escorts us behind the counter, close enough to smell sizzling sauce-pans and be wary of broiling brain-pans. There's also a healthy portion of practical advice — on which days fish dishes are best avoided, for example, and clues that can tip diners to ‘food crimes.’

Kitchen Confidential is, in part, an autobiography, with recollections of rowdy youth and early exposure to exotic edibles such as (very) fresh French oysters. It's also a confessional, recounting routine narcotic binges and liaisons with individuals owning much more than ill repute. Turns out there's a mob-style code for those committed to hardcore cookery.

Bourdain is particularly adept at contrasting what the patron envisions, and gets, with what the preparer engineers and endures, to make that happen. He’s cooked up a unique casserole, a flavorful ‘special’ — but one not likely to be excerpted on many menus (or extolled by many restaurateurs).

The book jacket photo suggests he’s still employed at a high-class Manhattan bistro. Anecdotes and admissions between the covers lead one to wonder how that could be so. As Bourdain himself inquires, ‘What strange beasts lurk behind the kitchen doors?’

(Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury; $24.95; 307pp). Erik McMahon, a long-time contributor to the AVA in the early 2000s, died unexpectedly in San Francisco in 2004 at the age of 49. This essay was first published in February 2001.)

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