A star in a kitchen-stink drama

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

This memoir caused a stink when a pre-publication chunk appeared in The New Yorker. Anthony Bourdain, the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a swanky joint on Park Avenue, revealed why he never orders fish on a Monday (presumably when dining at other restaurants): "I know how old most seafood is on a Monday - about four to five days old...! Chances are good that the tuna you're thinking of ordering on a Monday night has been commingling with the chicken and the salmon and the lamb chops for four days." He added: "Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to order fish in New York."

This memoir caused a stink when a pre-publication chunk appeared in The New Yorker. Anthony Bourdain, the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a swanky joint on Park Avenue, revealed why he never orders fish on a Monday (presumably when dining at other restaurants): "I know how old most seafood is on a Monday - about four to five days old...! Chances are good that the tuna you're thinking of ordering on a Monday night has been commingling with the chicken and the salmon and the lamb chops for four days." He added: "Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to order fish in New York."

But there simply isn't a good day to eat mussels: "More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss." Same for swordfish. Even Bourdain's seafood purveyor won't eat it: "He's seen too many of those 3ft-long parasitic worms that riddle the fish's flesh."

Anyone who orders their entrée well done is asking for trouble. Instead of taking a loss on a "tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin", the chef will "save for well-done". This means serving it to "some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavourless, leathery hunk of carbon".

Bourdain also advises us to avoid Sunday brunch: "A wise chef will deploy his best line cooks on Friday and Saturday nights... Brunch is punishment block for the B-team cooks." He scoffs at vegetarians: "Oh, I'll accommodate them, I'll rummage round for something to feed them. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant suits my food cost fine." Not that vegetarian food is any healthier, as Bourdain charmingly underlines by reference to a survey of amoeba-rich stool samples from the preparation cooks who wash the salad.

This onslaught, doubtless aimed at shocking the pants off germ-obsessed middle America, concerns New York's eateries. It could be that English restaurants are paragons of virtue, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Reading Bourdain's unarguable view that "I won't eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms... If a restaurant can't be bothered to keep its toilets clean, then imagine what the work spaces look like", I was reminded of a fearsomely smelly Gents I encountered in a fashionable Thames-side brasserie a few weeks ago. It struck me that the whiff persisted because none of the elegant staff wanted to get their hands dirty. Bourdain explains how one of his heroes, a restaurant manager he calls Bigfoot, deals with this problem: "He's going in with a plunger, and fast. No waiting for the toilet guy - he is the toilet guy now." A bit of that New York can-do would not go amiss over here.

Another chapter gives tips for anyone who wants to produce restaurant-quality food at home. A plastic squeeze bottle will enable you to produce those saucy swirls that currently decorate every dessert plate. This trick "enables chefs to charge another three bucks for two seconds of work that you could train a chimp to do". However, "a thin-bottomed saucepan is useless for anything" and the garlic press is "an abomination".

Though the book is undeniably readable, it is mainly spiced-up autobiography. Bourdain devotes much space to telling us what a wild bunch occupies New York's hellish kitchens. "Dirty, unkempt, obnoxious, uncontrollable, megalomaniacal" - and that's the guy who makes the bread. Later, Bourdain says he has spotted Mr Pastry on late-night TV "in chef's whites, exchanging witty banter with host and guests". What a bad-ass.

This tedious commis-chef-as-punk-star stuff is compounded by Bourdain's unappealing depiction of himself as heroin addict turned kitchen martinet. "Talking back to your leader? Wrong," he sneers. "You'll soon be dead to me." Bourdain adds: "The absolutes attracted me to this business... The black and white of it." It was fine for him to be a hellraiser when young - once daubing a naked accomplice with fake blood, then telling his manager about a "corpse" in the cold store - but now he says: "I want a salute and a 'Yes, sir'!" The kitchen anarchist has become a generalissimo.

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