(2000), a memoir by chef Anthony Bourdain, is based on the essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This
published in The New Yorker
in 1999. Celebrated as a bracingly honest and well-written exposé of how the New York restaurant industry operates, it offers both salacious gossip about the lifestyles of professional chefs and practical advice for diners concerning the manipulative tactics restaurants often use.
After a brief introduction in which he asserts his memoir is not intended as revenge, as he loves cooking and working as a chef, Bourdain reflects on his introduction to cooking as opposed to simply eating. As a child, he was served Vichyssoise, a cold soup, while traveling on the Queen Mary
with his family heading for a vacation in France. This is the first food he remembers actually enjoying. When they arrive in France, Bourdain is initially unimpressed with French food until his parents, tired of his complaining, leave him and his brother in the car while they enjoy a sumptuous meal at the famous La Pyramide, leading Bourdain to think that food could be important as well as enjoyable. He begins to enjoy the hearty country staples of French provincial cooking.
Back home, Bourdain, eventually, gets a job as a busboy in a restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts while attending college. For the first time, he sees the incredible power of the chefs in the kitchen, the excitement and energy of professional cookery. At The Dreadnaught, learning the basics of how a kitchen works, Bourdain is exposed to the male-dominated “macho” tone of the cooking culture.
Bourdain offers a crash-course on how anyone can improve his or her cooking with a little expert advice, suggesting there is no difference between ingredients people have at home and what a restaurant works with. He tells the reader that owning professional-grade chef’s knives will make a huge difference. He offers advice on when to order seafood—never on Mondays, when it is likely left over.
After college, Bourdain, now inspired to be a chef, attends the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After two years, he graduates and gets a job at the Rainbow Room, where he is exposed to the techniques used to prepare food in mass quantities. He works at every station in the sweltering kitchen, learning everything he can, and when the older chefs abuse him, something Bourdain asserts is traditional in kitchens, he fights back. Bourdain then pursues a career in the New York City restaurant world, moving from restaurant to restaurant where he learns how to deal with his fellow chefs, the often difficult owners, and of course the customers. The work is exhausting, requiring working early and late hours, and Bourdain turns to drugs and alcohol—like many of his peers—in order to cope. Realizing his long night shifts are hurting his relationship with his girlfriend, he talks to his boss about cutting back his hours. He has to make a choice, and he chooses cooking.
Forming close relationships with several fellow chefs and kitchen workers, Bourdain begins hiring them wherever he finds himself as his reputation and confidence rise. He and friends Sammi and Dimitri are hired to open a new restaurant, Work Progress. They ignore the owners, whom they regard as inexperienced, and prepare the menu while doing a lot of drugs. They are excited, but the restaurant fails. Bourdain descends into drug addiction but his career goes on. He works at several restaurants, but his professional life and finances are chaotic; a restaurant of his goes out of business, and he faces the possibility of being jailed for tax evasion. Believing his career might be over, he seeks treatment for his addiction.
Bourdain enters a lengthy period of unemployment, as his reputation and the mistakes he makes in interviews leave him unemployable. Pino Luongo, the owner of La Mardi, gives Bourdain a break, offering him the role of executive chef at another of his restaurants. Although Bourdain eventually leaves under a cloud, his career has been re-established.
Bourdain explains how a commercial restaurant kitchen works, using his own relationships with the people he works with to illustrate the carefully coordinated tasks and roles that each member of the staff performs. This extends to people outside the kitchen, as Bourdain offers an overall view of the restaurant business, displaying a mastery of the whole enterprise. He asserts that being a chef is essentially masochistic, and only people with an obsession with cooking have a chance at being successful in what, in many ways, is a perverse business.
Bourdain closes his memoir with a reflection on the injuries he has suffered, shown by the knife scars and bruises on his hands, and the people he has worked with. He reiterates his love of food and cooking, and his intention to remain a professional chef for as long as he can find work.