Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Book Summary

The book that kickstarted Anthony Bourdain’s second life as a storyteller of food and travel. Kitchen Confidential is an insider’s look into the underbelly of the culinary world. Bourdain shined a light on what it was really like to work on the frontlines of the restaurant business. As a memoir, it’s also a personal tale of Bourdain’s experiences as a chef.

If you’d like to read Kitchen Confidential, you can grab a copy at Amazon. For the sake of transparency, please note that I get a small commission if you decide to buy it.

Notes and Quotes

Kitchen Confidential Summary

Bourdain’s first experience really enjoying food came aboard a cruise to France. He ate this soup called “Vichyssoise” that was cold rather than hot.

  • “I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl, the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as a garnish, the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato, the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.”
  • The ride from New York to Cherbourg felt like “riding atop a giant lawnmower.”

Another landmark moment in Bourdain’s discovery of food: his parents left him and his brother in the car for three hours while they dined in this called La Pyramide.

  • “Food, it appeared, could be important. It could be an event. It had its secrets.”
  • La Pyramide is one the best restaurants in the entire world. A “Mecca for foodies.”

After these experiences, he was motivated by spite to understand food in a way that his parents wouldn’t be able to understand.

  • “Whatever has the most shock value became my meal of choice.”

“This, I knew, was the magic I had until now been only dimly and spitefully aware of. I was hooked. My parents’ shudders, my little brother’s expression of unrestrained revulsion and amazement only reinforced the sent that I had, somehow, become a man. I had had an adventure, tasted forbidden fruit, and everything that followed in my life – the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether I was drugs or sex or some other new sensation – would all stem from this moment.”

  • How eating oysters in France’s changed Bourdain’s life.

His first job in the restaurant business as a dishwasher. He noticed that the chefs were treated like gods.

  • “These guys were master criminals, sexual athletes, compared to my pitiful college hijinks. Highwaymen rogues, buccaneers, cut-throats, they were like young princes to me, still only a lowly dishwasher. The life of the cook was a life of adventure, looting, pillaging and rock-and-tolling through life with a carefree disregard for all conventional morality. It looked pretty damn good to me on the other side of the line.”

During the 1970s, food culture was still in its infancy in America.

  • Squid was considered “garbage fish.
  • Tuna was sold usually as cat food.
  • “Monk fish was yet to be called little and make its appearance on Manhattan dinner tables.

“If the chef is anything like me, the cooks are dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers motivated by money, the peculiar lifestyle of cooking and a grim pride. They’re probably not even American.”

Tony Bourdain on who cooks.

What is good line cooking?

  • It is “economy of movement, nice technique and, most important, speed”.
    • Professional level cooking is not all about the “best recipe, the most innovative presentation”.
    • “Line cooking – the real business of preparing the food eat – is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over and over again in exactly the same way.”
    • Chef needs the line cook to execute unquestionably without any challenge.

Bourdain’s opinion of American cooks:

  • They are “lazy, undisciplined and, worst of all, high-maintenance lot, annoyingly opinionated, possessed of egos requiring constant stroking and tune-ups, and, as members of a privileged and wealthy  population, unused to the kind of ‘disrespect’ a busy chief is inclined to dish out.”

“No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American. The Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadoran cooks I’ve worked with over the years make most CIA-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks.”

The days of underpaid, exploited illegal immigrant cooks were over by the time Tony wrote this book.

  • The non-Americans had become “well paid, much sought after by other chefs. Chances are they’ve worked their way up from the bottom rung; they remember well what it was like to empty out grease traps, scrape plates, haul leaking bags of garbage out to the curb at four o’clock in the morning.”
  • “Women line cooks, however rate they might be in the testosterone-heavy, male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens, are a particular delight. To have a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking female line cook on your team can be a true joy – and a civilizing factor in a unit where conversation tends to center around who’s got the bigger balls and who takes it in the ass.”

What is mise-en-place?

  • A cook’s workstation. “The religion of all good line cooks”
  • You never mess with a cook’s set-up: 
    • “As a cook, your station, and its condition, it’s state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system…”
  • “If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup.”
    •  “Messy station equals messy mind.”
    • Clean and dry side towels are a must.

What’s found in a typical mise-en-place?

  • Kosher or sea salt
  • Crushed black peppercorns (hand-crushed – not ground on a blender)
  • Ground white pepper
  • Fresh breadcrumbs
  • Chiffonade parsley
  • Blended oil in wine bottle with speed pourer
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • White wine
  • Brandy
  • Chervil tops in ice water for garnish
  • Chive sticks or chopped chives
  • Tomato concasse
  • Caramelized apple sections
  • Garlic confit
  • Chopped or slivered garlic
  • Chopped shallots
  • Softened butter
  • Favorite ladles, spoons, Tongs, pans, pots
  • “All sauces, portioned fish, meat menu items, specials and back-ups conveniently positioned for easy access.”

Who are the people that work as line cooks?

  • Restaurant biz attracts people “people for whom something in their lives has gone terribly wrong.”

The three groups of line cooks according to Bourdain:

  • Artists: “the annoying, high-maintenance minority.” Includes pâtissiers (the neurologists or cooking), sous-chefs, butchers, garde-manger psychos, the occasional saucier whose sauces are so ethereal and perfect that delusions of grandeur are tolerated.
    • When I hear ‘artist’, I think of someone who doesn’t think necessary to show up at work on time. More often than not their efforts, convinced as they are of their own genius, are geared more to giving themselves a hard-on than satisfying the great majority of dinner customers.”
  • Exiles: people who want to work a normal 9-to-5 or refugees from other countries where cooking in America is “preferable to death squads, poverty or working in a sneaker factory for 2 dollars a week.”
  • Mercenaries: “people who do it for cash and do it well.”“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. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable, and satisfying.

“Good food and good eating are about risk.”

  • Sometimes you’re going to get sick from eating food. That shouldn’t stop you from trying it.
    • “The more exotic the food, the more adventurous the serious eater, the higher the likelihood of later discomfort.”

Bourdain’s Tips On Eating Out

  • Never order fish on a Monday.
    • Most seafood served on that day is about four to five days old.
  • Don’t eat mussels in restaurants unless you know the chef personally or you’ve seen how they store them for service.
    • “More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss in the bottom of the reach.”
  • “You see a fish that would be much better served by quick grilling with a slice of lemon suddenly all dressed up vinaigrette? For ‘en vinaigrette’ on the menu, read ‘preserved’ or ‘disguised’.
  • Bacteria love hollandaise sauce. It’s never made to order. The “stuff on your eggs was made hours ago and held on station.”
    • The butter used for this is melted table butter likely “heated, clarified, and strained to get out all the breadcrumbs and cigarette butts.”
  • The brunch menu is usually made of “old nasty odds and ends”. Cooks do not like brunch.
    • Chefs schedule their best cooks for Friday and Saturday night. Same cooks probably went out and got hammered after their shifted
    • “Brunch is punishment block for the B-Team cooks, or where the farm team if recent dishwashers learn their chops. Most chefs are off on Sundays, too, so supervision is at a minimum. Consider that before ordering the seafood frittata.”
  • Bread has likely been recycled from someone else’s table. 
    • “The reuse of bread is an industry wide practice.”
  • Don’t eat in a restaurant with a filthy bathroom.
    • “If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.”
  • Probably leftovers: Beef parmentier, Shepherd’s pie, chili special.
  • Bourdain didn’t eat swordfish because his “seafood purveyor” had “seen too many of those 3-foot-long parasitic worms that riddle the fish’s flesh.”
  • Chilean sea bass: more than likely frozen, not caught cresh.
  • “What isn’t bought early is sold for cheap later. 
    • “At 7 a.m. the Korean and Chinese buyers who’ve been sitting in local bars waiting for the market to be near closing, swoop down on the overextended fishmonger and buy up what’s left at rock-bottom prices. The next folks to arrive will be cat-food people. Think about that when you see the ‘Discount Sushi’ sign.”
  • “Save for well done” – the scrap ends of sirloin that’s been pushed constantly to the back of the pile is served to people who want their meats cooked “well done”.
    •  “Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. This dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What’s not to like?”
  • “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”
    • “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
  • “I’m not even going to talk about blood. Let’s just say we cut ourselves a lot in the kitchen and leave it at that.”
  • Chicken is the most likely kind of meat that will make you ill.
    • “Commercially available chickens, for the most part…are loaded with salmonella.”
    • Chickens eat their own shit, “kept packed close together like in a rush-hour subway, and when handled in a restaurant situation are most likely to infect other foods, or cross-contaminate them.”
    • Chicken is boring. “Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat.”
  • Regarding any food: if it looks fresh, smells fresh, and the restaurant is busy, then you’ve likely got a good order on your hands.
    • The less than popular items are on the menu because they look good on it, but you probably don’t want to eat them.
  • Be polite to your waiter or waitress: “he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or sigh.”
    • “If he likes you, maybe he’ll stop you from ordering a piece of fish he knows is going to hurt you. On the other hand, maybe the chef has ordered him, under the pain of death, to move that codfish before it begins to really reek.”
  • When to Eat Out (in New York)
    • For fresh fish: Tuesday and Thursday
    • Tuesday is a great day actually to eat out. The chef is well rested after a Sunday or Monday off.
      • “It’s the real start of the new week, when you’ve got the goodwill of the kitchen on your side.”
    • Friday and Saturday: the food is fresh but they’re really busy nights, so the chef and cooks don’t pay as much attention to your food as they and you would like.
  • Good restaurants are clean, cooks and waiters well groomed, dining room is busy, and the people who work they’re seem to care about what they’re doing…the food should be good.
    • “Plumber walking through the dining room with a toilet snake? Bad signs.
    •  “Watch the trucks pull up outside the restaurant delivery entrance in the morning if you’re in the neighborhood. Reputable vendors of seafood meat and produce? Good sign.

If you want to cook like a professional, there are few tools that Tony recommended you have in your kitchen:

  • A decent chef’s knife.
    • An inexpensive vanadium steel Global (the name of the brand) knife, a very good Japanese product.
    • Use the tip of the knife for the small stuff, the area near the heel for the larger.
      • Read Jacque Pepin – La Technique to learn how to handle a knife.
  • Additional knives to have:
    • A flexible boning knife. Get one made by Global.
    • Pairing knife
    • Offset serrated knife
      • Among many things, this is good for slicing bread.
  • Plastic Squeeze Bottle
  • Toothpicks
  • Metal Ring
    • “A thin metal ring, or cut-down section of PVC pipe, about an inch and a half to two inches tall and varying inches across, is the backbone of pretentious food presentation.”
  • Pastry bag
  • Mandolin: “a vertically held slicer with various blade settings.”
    • Cheap but great quality ones are made in Japan.
    • Can’t cut meat so “I highly recommend, if presenting sausage or meat on the buffet, that you slip the neighborhood deli guy a few bucks to slice what you need before you arrange it on platters.”
  • Pots and pans
    • Pro tip: along with these items, scour for notices of restaurant auctions. Restaurants go out of business all the time and need to sell off your equipment quickly and cheaply.
    • Stockpots, saucepans, thick-bottomed sauté pans are nice to have and there’s no reason to buy them new or pay a lot. You can just wait for a restaurant to go out of business and then make your move.
      • Make sure they’re heavyweight.
        • “A proper sauté pan, for instance should cause serious head injury if brought down against someone’s skull.”
      • “A non-stick sauté pan is a thing of beauty.”
        • Treat it well.
      • Never wash it. Wipe it clean after each use.
      • Don’t use metal in it. “Use a wooden spoon or ceramic or non-metallic spatula to flip or toss whatever you’re cooking in it. You don’t want to scratch the surface.”

Basic Ingredients You Should Have in Your Kitchen

  •  Shallots
    • A basic prep item in every mise-en-place that makes restaurant food taste different from home cooked food.
    • Use for sauces, dressings, and sauté items.
  • Butter
    • “I don’t care what they tell you they’re putting or not putting in your food at your favorite restaurant, chances are you’re eating a ton of butter.
    • “In a professional kitchen, it’s almost always the first and last thing in the pan.”
      • Chefs and cooks “sauté in a mixture of butter and oil for that nice brown, caramelized color”.
      • Every sauce is practically finished with butter which is why they’re richer, creamier and mellower than home cooked sauces. Also why it’s got “that nice, thick, opaque consistency.”
  • Roasted garlic
    • “Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly.”
    • Sliver it for pasta, don’t burn it.
    • Smash it with the flat of your knife blade but don’t put it through a press.
    • Roasting garlic makes it “mellow and sweeter if you roast it whole, still in the clove, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown.”
  • Chiffonaded parsley
    • Garnish your food with this. Just don’t chop it in a machine. Dip the picked sprigs in cold water, shake off excess, allow to dry for a few minutes, and slice the stuff, as thinly as you can with a chef’s knife.
  • Stock
    • The “backbone of good cooking”.
    • How to make it:
      • “Just roast some bones, roast some vegetables, put them in a big pot with water and reduce and reduce and reduce. Make a few months’ worth, and when it’s reduced enough strain it and freeze it in small containers so you can pull it from the freezer as needed.”
  • Demi-glaze
    • How to make it:
      •  “I recommend you simply take your already reduced meat stock, add some red wine, toss in some shallots and fresh thyme and a bay leaf and peppercorns, and slowly, slowly simmer it and reduce it again until it costs a spoon. Strain. Freeze this stuff in an ice-cube tray, pop out a cube or two as needed, and you are in business – you can rule the world.”
      • Don’t forget to add butter to the sauce you make with the demi-glaze.
  • Chervil, basil tops, chive sticks, mint tops, etc.
    • Buy them fresh. Why?
      • You can use them to garnish food.
      • You can use them to flavor.

 “Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.”

  • “Some of the best cuisine in the world…is a matter of three or four ingredients. Just make sure they’re good ingredients, fresh ingredients, ingredients then garnish them.”

Bourdain on restaurant ownership:

  • The odds are stacked against you to succeed.
    • “The chances of ever seeing a return on your investment are about one in five. What insidious spongiform bacteria so riddles the brains of men and women that they stand there on the tracks, watching the lights of the oncoming locomotive, knowing full well it will eventually run them over? After all these years in the business, I still don’t know.”
  • Why do some people go into the restaurant business?
    • Some people go into it because of ego.
      • Friends encourage you to start a business because you’re good at hosting dinner parties, so you entertain the idea.
        • “All these original geniuses will be more than happy to clog up the bar, sucking down free drinks, taking credit for this bold venture – until the place starts running into trouble, at which point they dematerialize, shaking their heads at their foolish dentist who just didn’t seem up to the job.”
    • Some people face a mid-life crisis and a chance to get laid with “amiably round-heeled waitresses, most of them hopelessly untalented aspiring actresses for whom sexual congress with older, less attractive guys is not entirely unfamiliar.”
    • Most “dangerous species of owner…is the one who gets into the business for love.”
      • “Other operators feed on these creatures, lying in wait for them to fold so they can take over their leases, buy their equipment, hire away their help. Purveyors see these guys coming, rarely extending more than a week’s credit from the outset, or demanding bill-to-bill payment.
  • Who are the smart restaurant owners?
    • “They know from the get-go what they want, what they are capable of doing well, and exactly how much it’s going to cost them at the outset. Most important, they have a fixed idea of how long they’re willing to lose money before they pull the plug. Like professional gamblers, a slick restaurateur never changes his betting style.”
    • “A smart operator will, when he realizes things haven’t worked out, fold up his tent and move on – before he’s knocked out of the game for good.”

A Day in the Life of a Chef

  • Lots of mental preparation going on as soon as Tony wakes up. He begins doing a mental inventory of all the products he needs.
  • Weekend menus differ from weekdays.
    • “The weekend is a time for buzzwords: items like shrimp, lobster, T-bone, crabmeat, tuna and swordfish.”

“As I’ve said before, I greatly admire tough women in busy kitchens. They have, as you might imagine from accounts in this book, a lot to put up with in our deliberately dumb little corner of Hell’s Locker-room, and women who can survive and prosper in which a high-testosterone universe are all too rare.”

The Culture of the Kitchen

  • the real international language of cuisine: “one long, never-ending game of the dozens, played out in four of five languages.”
  • “Does a locker-room environment like this make it tougher for women, for instance? Yep. Most women, sadly. But what the system seeks, what it requires, is someone, anyone, who can hold up their station, play the game without getting bent out of shape and taking things personally.”
  • Restaurant-specific Lingo
    • 86: “A dish is 86’ed when there’s no more. But you can use the term for someone who’s just been fired, or about to be fired, or for a bar customer who’s no longer welcome.”
    • #-top: a table of #
      • Example: Four-top is a table of four.
      • Table of two = deuce
    • Waitron: floor personal, a term from the 1970s.
    • Gruel: the meal
    • “Order!”
      • When yelled at a cook means ‘Make initial preparations’ such as searing, half-cooking, setting up for finishing.”
    • “Fire!”
      • Means ‘Finish cooking’ and get ready for ‘pick up’.”

Other Restaurant Roles

  • What is a runner?
    • “Runners are the chef’s Imperial Guard: half-breeds who dress like waiters, are paid out of front-of-the-house payroll, but whose loyalties lie (ideally) with the chef and the kitchen.”
      • Irrelevant to have language skills in this position. More important for this person to have “dedication, speed, the ability to gauge quickly what the hell is going on in a busy and hectic situation, pick out the next order from a busy array of outgoing orders, carry multiple plates at one time without dropping them, remember position numbers and donenesses at the table, and prioritize sensibly.
    • Tony made a point of taking very good care of his runners.
  • What is a night porter?
    •  “Somebody has to clean the restaurant after service, take out the garbage, clean and scrub the insides of the ovens, toss out the dead mice, kill the dying ones, empty the grease traps, hose down the kitchen – all the tasks that no one else in his right mind would do for love of money.”
    • Can take advantage of some “certain fringe benefits” too:
      • Call family on the house phone, eat whatever is available, keep whatever he finds in the dining room (jewelry, credit cards, wallets, cell phones, handbags, drugs, etc.)
  • Tony on bartenders:
    • “There has long been a happy symbiotic relationship between kitchen and bar. Simply put, the kitchen wants booze, and the bartender wants food.”
      • “Everyone, sooner or later, forgets that the bartender is not really like a doctor or a priest and obliged to keep confidences.”
      • Most common bartender hustle is the “buy back”: giving free drinks every second or third resound to an appreciative customer.
        • “An extra ten-or twenty dollar tip to the generous barkeep is still a bargain.”

If you want to be a chef, here’s what Bourdain suggested:

  • Be fully committed.
    • “Ready yourself to follow orders, give orders when necessary, and live ‘with the outcome of those orders without complaint. Be ready to lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
  • Learn Spanish
    • The backbone of your staff will be speaking this language.
  •  Don’t steal.
    • “If you’re a sneak and a liar, however, it will follow you forever.”
  • Always be on time.
  • Never make excuses or blame others.
  • Never call in sick.
    • “Except in cases of dismemberment, arterial bleeding, sucking chest wounds or the death of an immediate family member.”
  • Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad.
  • Be prepared to witness every variety of human follow and injustice.
    • “You will simply have to endure the contradictions and inquires of this life.”
  • Assume the worst.
    • “But don’t let this poisoned outlook affect your job performance. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Be amused by what you see and suspect.”
  • Try not to lie.
    • “You made a mistake. Admit it and move on. Just don’t do it again.”
  • Avoid restaurants where the owner’s name is over the door.
  • Think about that resume!
  • Read!
  • Have a sense of humor about things.

Looking to learn from more great books?

Then sign up to my newsletter The Dime. I share big ideas and knowledge from books I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, and people I admire.

    I won’t send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.