Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Autobiographies are strange beasts: not entirely to be trusted, yet enticing in a weird car-crash sort of way. What are we looking for in reading them? Reinforcement of our current notions of the author, a deep look into another side of their persona, or sex, scandal and rumour? Probably all of the above, and more besides. And that is just what you get with Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: sex, drugs, food, rock-'n'-roll, the mafia, the whole shooting match; from his start eating oysters on a French holiday when he was about eight, through low-life dives, to head chef in a New York restaurant.

I'd had this book hanging around the house for a couple of years, after a few people recommended it, but just hadn't gotten down to reading it. Then Bourdain's television documentary series, "A Cook's Tour", started playing here, my wife got hooked, read the book and pushed it in my direction. Still I resisted. I've recommended heaps of books to her which she tends to ignore in the main, so maybe I was just attempting to get my own back. Anyway, I started watching the cooking program as well and was impressed with his no-holds-barred approach to food: try anything and everything. (Who can forget his encounter with the dish of Pulsating Cobra Heart: "Hmm, you can still feel it beating as it goes down.") So reading this was an inevitability.

The first thing that comes across with Bourdain is the voice: he writes like he speaks. He's loud, brash and blunt. He says what he thinks and doesn't pull any punches. And the person he's most critical of, throughout the book, is himself. When he talks of his heroin addiction, his "wilderness years" when he wasted his life and his talent, you feel you are getting a level of honesty which carries you through; you trust the writer. Now, I'm aware that this level of openness has it problems, especially in the light of recent revelations such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and there may well be a level of embellishment going on here, however small. And I don't have a lot of trouble with that.

Bourdain isn't out to sell you a self-help remedy, a course on getting your life back on its tracks. He's there to tell you his story. And you can take it or leave it. I took it, and I'm glad I did.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 1, 2006 11:18 AM.

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