Kitchen Confidential - by Anthony Bourdain


Kitchen Confidential - by Anthony Bourdain

Read: 2024-05-26

Recommend: 8/10

This book reignited my passion for cooking and provided an insider’s perspective on restaurant kitchens. After reading about the dirty tricks Anthony Bourdain mentioned, I’m now more cautious about what I order in restaurants.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. I can’t imagine a better example of Things To Be Wary Of in the food department than bargain sushi. Yet the place had customers. I wonder, had the sign said ‘Cheap Sushi’ or ‘Old Sushi’, if they’d still have eaten there.

  2. Here are the two words that should leap out at you when you navigate the menu: ‘Monday’ and ‘Special’.

  3. Here’s how it works: the chef of this fine restaurant orders his fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning.

  4. I don’t eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef personally, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them. More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss in the bottom of a reach-in. Some restaurants, I’m sure, have special containers, with convenient slotted bins, which allow the mussels to drain while being held — and maybe, just maybe, the cooks at these places pick carefully through every order, mussel by mussel, making sure that every one is healthy and alive before throwing them into a pot. I haven’t worked in too many places like that. Mussels are too easy. Line cooks consider mussels a gift; they take two minutes to cook, a few seconds to dump in a bowl, and bada-bing, one more customer taken care of — now they can concentrate on slicing the damn duck breast.

  5. Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights or for the scraps generated in the normal course of business. You see a fish that would be much better served by quick grilling with a slice of lemon, suddenly all dressed up with vinaigrette? For ‘en vinaigrette’ on the menu, read ‘preserved’ or ‘disguised’.

  6. While we’re on brunch, how about hollandaise sauce? Not for me. Bacteria love hollandaise. And hollandaise, that delicate emulsion of egg yolks and clarified butter, must be held at a temperature not too hot nor too cold, lest it break when spooned over your poached eggs.

  7. Cooks hate brunch. A wise chef will deploy his best line cooks on Friday and Saturday nights; he’ll be reluctant to schedule those same cooks early Sunday morning, especially since they probably went out after work Saturday and got hammered until the wee hours.

  8. Most chefs are off on Sundays, too, so supervision is at a minimum. Consider that before ordering the seafood frittata.

  9. I will eat bread in restaurants. Even if I know it’s probably been recycled off someone else’s table. The reuse of bread is an industry-wide practice.

  10. I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. This isn’t a hard call. They let you see the bathrooms. 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. Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean. Kitchens are not.

  11. Chilean sea bass? Trendy. Expensive. More than likely frozen. This came as a surprise to me when I visited the market recently. Apparently the great majority of the stuff arrives frozen solid, still on the bone. In fact, as I said earlier, the whole Fulton Street market is not an inspiring sight. Fish is left to sit, un-iced, in leaking crates, in the middle of August, right out in the open. 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 over-extended fishmonger and buy up what’s left at rock-bottom prices. The next folks to arrive will be the cat-food people. Think about that when you see the ‘Discount Sushi’ sign.

  12. ‘Saving for well-done’ is a time-honored tradition dating back to cuisine’s earliest days: meat and fish cost money. Every piece of cut, fabricated food must, ideally, be sold for three or even four times its cost in order for the chef to make his ‘food cost percent’. So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin, that’s been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that’s a total loss, representing a three-fold loss of what it cost him per pound. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can ‘save for well-done’ — serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won’t be able to tell if what he’s eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What’s not to like?

  13. Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Pigs are filthy animals, say some, when explaining why they deny themselves the delights of pork. Maybe they should visit a chicken ranch. America’s favorite menu item is also the most likely to make you ill. Commercially available chickens, for the most part (we’re not talking about kosher and expensive free-range birds), are loaded with salmonella. Chickens are dirty. They eat their own feces, are 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. And chicken is boring. Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat.

  16. Shrimp? All right, if it looks fresh, smells fresh, and the restaurant is busy, guaranteeing turnover of product on a regular basis. But shrimp toast? I’ll pass. I walk into a restaurant with a mostly empty dining room, and an unhappy-looking owner staring out the window? I’m not ordering shrimp.

  17. The key is rotation. If the restaurant is busy, and you see bouillabaisse flying out the kitchen doors every few minutes, then it’s probably a good bet. But a big and varied menu in a slow, half-empty place? Those less popular items like broiled mackerel and calves’ liver are kept festering in a dark corner of the reach-in because they look good on the menu. You might not actually want to eat them. Look at your waiter’s face. He knows. It’s another reason to be polite to your waiter: he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a 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 pain of death, to move that codfish before it begins to really reek. Observe the body language, and take note.

  18. Watchwords for fine dining? Tuesday through Saturday. Busy. Turnover. Rotation. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to order fish in New York.

  19. Weekday diners, on the other hand, are the home team — potential regulars, whom all concerned want to make happy. Rested and ready after a day off, the chef is going to put his best foot forward on Tuesday; he’s got his best-quality product coming in and he’s had a day or two to think of creative things to do with it. He wants you to be happy on Tuesday night. On Saturday, he’s thinking more about turning over tables and getting through the rush.

  20. If the restaurant is clean, the cooks and waiters well groomed, the dining room busy, everyone seems to actually care about what they’re doing — not just trying to pick up a few extra bucks between head-shots and auditions for Days of Our Lives — chances are you’re in for a decent meal.

  21. Do all these horrifying assertions frighten you? Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant? No way. Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.

  22. You need, for God’s sake, a decent chefs knife. No con foisted on the general public is so atrocious, so wrongheaded, or so widely believed as the one that tells you you need a full set of specialized cutlery in various sizes.

  23. If you need instruction on how to handle a knife without lopping off a finger, I recommend Jacques Pepin’s La Technique.

  24. Numero uno — the indispensable object in most chefs’ shtick — is the simple plastic squeeze bottle.

  25. As you’ve probably gathered by now, restaurants go out of business all the time, and have to sell off their equipment quickly and cheaply before the marshals do it for them. I know people who buy whole restaurants this way, in what’s called a turnkey operation, and in a business with a failure rate of over 60 percent they often do very well. You can buy all sorts of professional quality stuff. I’d recommend pots and pans as a premium consideration if scavenging this way. Most of the ones sold for home use are dangerously flimsy, and the heavyweight equipment sold for serious home cooks is almost always overpriced. Stockpots, saucepans, thick-bottomed saute pans are nice things, even necessary things to have, and there’s no reason to buy new and no reason to pay a lot — just wait for that new tapas place on the corner to go out of business, then make your move.

  26. A non-stick saute pan is a thing of beauty. Crepes, omelettes, a delicately browned fillet of fish or tender skate wing? You need a nice thick non-stick pan, and not one with a thin veneer of material that peels off after a few weeks. And when you buy a non-stick, treat it nice. Never wash it. Simply wipe it clean after each use, and 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.

  27. But if you can throw together a decent meal, can read a cookbook, well then, you can do a lot better if you spend some time playing with the toys I’ve mentioned.

  28. 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.

  29. Roasted garlic. Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago, garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Please, treat your garlic with respect. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas, don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press. I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellow and sweeter if you roast it whole, still on the clove, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown. Try a Caesar dressing, for instance, with a mix of fresh, raw garlic for bite, and roasted for background, and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing will permeate your food more irrevocably and irreparably than burnt or rancid garlic. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screwtop jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.

  30. It’s easy! 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. Life without stock is barely worth living, and you will never attain demi-glace without it.

  31. Stock. Stock is the backbone of good cooking. You need it — and you don’t have it.

  32. You need zero talent to garnish food. So why not do it?

  33. Use fresh! Good food is very often, even most often, simple food. Some of the best cuisine in the world — whole roasted fish, Tuscan-style, for instance — is a matter of three or four ingredients. Just make sure they’re good ingredients, fresh ingredients, and then garnish them. How hard is that?

  34. Take one fish — a red snapper, striped bass, or dorade — have your fish guy remove gills, guts and scales and wash in cold water. Rub inside and out with kosher salt and crushed black pepper. Jam a clove of garlic, a slice of lemon and a few sprigs of fresh herb — say, rosemary and thyme — into the cavity where the guts used to be. Place on a lightly oiled pan or foil and throw the fish into a very hot oven. Roast till crispy and cooked through. Drizzle a little basil oil over the plate — you know, the stuff you made with your blender and then put in your new squeeze bottle? — sprinkle with chiffonaded parsley, garnish with basil top

  35. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen cunning, powerful, even wildly successful men fall victim to this kind of delusional power grab, this sudden urge to expand the empire — only to find their personal Stalingrad waiting for them. Some get away with it for a while, and though things aren’t exactly rocket-to-the-moon, they aren’t going too badly, either: the second place isn’t losing money, it looks like it might even make money someday, so why not open two more at the same time? When they finally go to the well once too often, find themselves overextended, have to start ignoring the original operation — the one that made all the money for them in the first place, eventually bleeding it dry — next thing you know, the Russian tanks are rolling through the suburbs, misusing your womenfolk, and Mr Restaurant Genius is holed up in the bunker thinking about eating his gun.

  36. I worked for Bigfoot part-time while I attended CIA, and years later — over ten years later — I washed up on his shores again. It was a low point in my career. I was burnt out from my five-year run in the restaurant netherworld as a not very good chef — in rehab for heroin, still doing cocaine, broke — and reduced to working brunches at a ridiculous mom and pop restaurant in SoHo where they served lion, tiger, hippopotamus braciole and other dead zoo animals. I was determined never to be a chef again

  37. Bigfoot understood that there are two types of people in the world: those who do what they say they’re going to do — and everyone else.

  38. He didn’t have to be on the floor all the time. The people who worked for Bigfoot were sure that he could sense what was going on. Think an evil thought, and he’d suddenly be there. Drop a tray and Bigfoot appears. Running low on soup? Bigfoot somehow feels it, as if the entire restaurant were simply an extension of his central nervous system.

  39. I have to say, I did pretty well, using every dirty trick I’d learned at CIA. I turned leftover steaks into say, Salade de Boeuf en Vinaigrette, transformed dead pasta and veggies into festive pasta salads, made elaborately aspic’d and decorated trays out of sliced leftover roast. I made mousses, pates, galantines, and every other thing I could think of to turn the scrapings into something our aged but wealthy clientele would gum down without complaint.

  40. It was but one of many food crimes I witnessed and took part in during my time at the Rainbow Room. During service, châteaubriands — big hunks of beef tenderloin for two — if ordered well done, were routinely thrown into the deep-fryer until crispy, then tossed into an oven to incinerate further until pick up. Everything was seared off in advance. When the expeditor called for the order, one simply heated the plate — vegetable, garnish and all — under a salamander, drizzled a little sauce over the item and sent it out to the unsuspecting rubes. Any magic I’d imagined about a big-time fancy New York kitchen was replaced by a grim pride in creative expediency and the technical satisfaction of being fast enough to keep up, getting away with trickery, deception and disguise. ‘An ounce of sauce covers a multitude of sins,’ as we used to say.

  41. It is one of the central ironies of my career that as soon as I got off heroin, things started getting really bad.

  42. Something had to change. I had to get it together. I’d been the culinary equivalent of the Flying Dutchman too long, living a half-life with no future in mind, just oozing from sensation to sensation. I was a disgrace, a disappointment to friends and family and myself — and the drugs and the booze no longer chased that disappointment away. I could no longer bear even to pick up the phone; I’d just listen to the answering machine, afraid or unwilling to pick up, the plaintive entreaties of the caller an annoyance. If they had good news, it would simply make me envious and unhappy; if they had bad news, I was the last guy in the world who could help. Whatever I had to say to anybody would have been inappropriate. I was in hiding, in a deep, dark hole, and it was dawning on me — as I cracked my oysters, and opened clams, and spooned cocktail sauce into ramekins — that it was time, really time, to try to climb out.

  43. I was utterly depressed. I lay in bed all day, immobilized by guilt, fear, shame and regret, my ashtrays overflowing with butts, unpaid bills stacked everywhere, dirty clothes heaped in the corners. At night, I lay awake with heart palpitations, terrors, bouts of self-loathing so powerful that only the thought of diving through my sixth-floor window onto Riverside Drive gave me any comfort and allowed me to lull myself into a resigned sleep.

  44. ‘You know, Anthony,’ he said, ‘I have many, many enemies. It’s good, sometimes, to have enemies — even if you don’t know who they are. It means you are . . . important. You must be important. . . important enough to have an enemy.’ He clapped me on the back on the way out the door. I was thoroughly charmed — if damn near shattered by the experience.