Around a year before I started at the CIA, Nelly and I were driving back to NYC from her Dad’s place in Rhinebeck, and steered off Route 9 onto the campus grounds, just to take a look.
I mentioned before: it’s hard to not be knocked out by the place—a beautiful, fountained piazza with the Hudson River hooking by, the stained glass scenes from the lives of the Saints, the Itallian villa.. But what grabbed our attention right then was the neck of a chubby young student in full uniform, flanked by his parents. A tattoo a little smaller than fist-sized was inked just below the line of his chin. It was ostentatious and looked brand new. And it looked familiar: a prison tat-style rendering of a skull, capped with chef’s toque, a long knife clenched between the teeth. The same one that’s scarred onto Anthony Bourdain’s arm and is on the cover of his cookbook.
Since every student is required to do a four-and-a-half month externship, it’s a perpetual topic of conversation. At yet another dinner where, chronologically, I could conceivably have fathered most of those seated at the table, two of the kids noted that when they had to do their extern, their number one choice was Les Halles. They wanted to cook next to Bourdain.
“You know,” I said. “he isn’t going to be there, right?”
This news was greeted with, first, a blank stare; next, dismay; and finally, anger.
“Yes,” one of them insisted. “He will be.
A few nights ago, a class had gone badly, and a few of us sat at dinner ignoring each other. Two nearby kids—I mean young—were swapping war stories about whiskey and cocaine. It seemed very important that each recognized in the other a battle-scarred, been-around-the-block veteran. I got bored and tuned out. I tuned back in when I heard one say, “Anthony Bourdain is my favorite all-time cook.” He paused for emphasis. “Actually, he’s about my favorite person on the planet.”
If, like I said earlier, that Thomas Keller is a God in the world of the CIA, I guess that would make Escoffier the holy spirit. But without question, the messiah and redeemer is Anthony Bourdain, and Kitchen Confidential is his Apocrypha.
It’s been a while since I’ve spent much recreational time in NYC’s East Village. One upside to Brooklyn’s hyperdevelopment was that it eliminated the need to hit Manhattan for thrills and kicks. But I remember the place being dense with a mob of rockers whose bands all played CBGB’s in the opening slot on a weeknight, emaciated legs jammed into black, skin-tight denim, their blood enriched with heroin, all them like living Madame Tussaud models of Johnny Thunders. The logic went roughly like this: Johnny Thunders shot up. If I shoot up, I will be Johnny Thunders. Thunders, of course, was one of many who went through the same cogitative circle looking at Keith Richards. The cautionary aspects always get ignored; Thunders is dead, and Keith looks like he is. But listen to Exile On Main Street and tell me the logic doesn’t almost make a perverse sense. Who wouldn’t want to create something that good? The logic breaks down if you believe in the transformational power of narcotics rather than in talent. But the idea of achievement through mimicry is potent and enduring.
Anthony Bourdain is a pretty fine writer: “My unemployment was running out, and the responses to the resumes I’d sent out inevitably invited me to meet with such a transparently doomed bunch of chuckleheads that even I, the seasoned carrion feeder, couldn’t stomach the prospect of working for them. There was a guy planning a Marla Maples restaurant; Marla would sing in the upstairs cocktail lounge, he confided, ensuring hordes of high-spending gourmets. The feng shui advisor was riding a cosmic groove around the half-completed restaurant when I arrived for the interview, boding poorly for the man’s prospects. I deliberately tanked the interview.” Every writer wants first and foremost to have their own voice, a set of linguistic tics that ID’s them immediately, and Bourdain has that gift in spades. He’s also got a magnetic on-screen personality, and he’s a handsome guy. The man’s cultured and literate, and pretty damn sharp. Plus he’s a riot (“Vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…”) If you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know it’s impossible to put down. I haven’t met a single person on campus who hasn’t read the book, and usually they’ve done so multiple times. The book is, person by person, probably one of the single biggest inspirations for the career choice they’ve made. More than anyone on the Food Network, more than anyone who has ever sautéed something in front of a camera, Bourdain and Kitchen Confidential are responsible for swelling the ranks of cooking schools over the last decade.
We were asked during the first day of CIA orientation how many of us wanted to have our own cooking show. I was stunned and slightly horrified to see the majority of hands in the room go shooting up in the air. Not, as I discovered afterwards while eavesdropping on a number of conversations, a show like Emeril or Giada or Sandra Lee, but a show like No Reservations. I guess, ultimately, that does beat the alternative.
Charlie Parker was cultured and literate. Keith Richards—channeling the ghost of Oscar Wilde with rotted teeth and a backbeat—is cultured and literate. William Burroughs was cultured and literate (Johnny Thunders always struck me as being a little slow, but I’d be happy to be corrected). A good rule of thumb is that if you’re the innovator, you’re probably a bit sharper than average. If you’re the mimic, a lot less so.
When you’re done making stock, you can use the bones and mirepoix a second time to make a second stock. This is called a remouillage. It’s pretty pale, and really weak.
A lot of us on campus who’ve read Kitchen Confidential have enough perspective to recognize the sheen of romanticization laid over those stories. A lot don’t. In their view the cook is a pirate. If you haven’t snorted blow off of a waitress’s breasts, you have not had an authentic kitchen experience. These guys tend to fetishize speed—speed and quantity over quality and everything else. They seem to believe that Bourdain’s penis is gargantuan—as long and lethal as a chef’s knife. They seem to want people to believe theirs measures up. It’s at least where a lot of them seem to keep their hands when they walk or stand still, and they’ve affected a serious swagger.
Bourdain can knowledgeably toss the names Saulnier, Soltner, Bocuse, et al into his writing. He’s got a lot of knowledge to back himself up, even if he is by his own admission a workman rather than innovator. Even when he gets a little drunk on his own mythology (“They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s…” Oh, come on now. You’re pushing it.), he has enough smarts and irony to know there are other and better trails he could have taken down the same path (“I went for the easy money,” he laments at one point). By contrast, during one in-class presentation on Antonin Careme—grandfather of Haute Cuisine—given by fellow students (one of whom had been at the table talking about Les Halles and his externship), chaud froid was repeatedly pronounced “chod froyd.”