June 8, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingRemembrances

What Life Is All About

Just finished Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Here are four things the sordid, elegant, contemplative, coke-infused pages of this wonderful book made me want to do:

1. Live in New York City

For Bourdain, it is the center of the world, and his depiction of it from the street, from the back of an overcrowded cab, from his sweltering kitchen, buzzes with life and teems with bacteria both human and microscopic. Of course, the New York I want to live in probably doesn’t exist anymore, as the palimpsest of historical, ethnic, upscale, and ruined neighborhoods that once was Manhattan is being rapidly smoothed over with a facelift of bright steel, glass, and stone. Cantilever is a word much more regularly used in the New York Times these days, as institutions like Katz’s Deli sometimes manage to survive the mallification but will have to sit incongruously next to a mixed-use behemoth. The shadows now cast on Central Park by residential skyscrapers change the temperature of the air, the quality of the light, the kind of movie scene you can shoot there. Bourdain’s New York City, I know, is probably too loud, fast, and dangerous for my taste as well, and in reality I probably wouldn’t like living there, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to do so.

2. Eat sashimi in Tokyo

Tokyo was never a place I wanted to visit, but after his descriptions of the lights, and people, and sound, and most of all, the food, it’s on my list. The colorful, violent beauty and biblical abundance of fresh seafood at the Tsukiji market, which “puts New York’s Fulton Street to shame,” is dazzilng, even in prose form. Again, like the alternatively grimy and glitzy, seductive New York he calls home, I probably wouldn’t want to eat all those different types of seafood if I were actually there, but from a distance, it sounds like a glorious prospect. The sheer strangeness of the foods and their packed-in juxtaposition make them seem more appetizing than any of these things have ever been in my eyes:

There were sea urchins, egg sacs, fish from all over the world. Giant squid as long as an arm and baby squid the size of a thumbnail shared space with whitebait, smelts, what looked like worms, slugs, snails, crabs, mussels, shrimp and everything else that grew, swam, skittered, clawed, crawled, snaked or clung near the ocean floor.

I can’t help but wonder if the market is the same these days, though, if all the “raking, dredging, netting and hooking” is bringing back as much fish flesh as it once did. According to chef Daniel Barber, whose TedTalk about fish is, for me, canonical, ninety percent of large fish (tuna, halibut, salmon, etc.) populations have collapsed. The earth-lover in me knows that the way we harvest life for spectacles like Tsukiji and Fulton Street is unsustainable, but the eater in me, the consumer, the devourer, is drawn in.

3. Write a book

When Bourdain peels back the layers of the Paramount Hotel, it reminds me why I love cities, why I love being loud and in a crowd and sleepless in them, why I like to be quiet and alone and write what I hear in them, usually focusing on the sounds coming not from people and cars and loudspeakers, but from the material, from buildings, from the street itself, from the hard surfaces that have absorbed the vibrations for scores of years of what we typically hear in the city. I want to write a book that conveys a world, gives the reader a sense that they’ve stepped into something secret, something deep, something haunted and lovely, like this:

The [Coco Pazzo Teatro] itself was beautiful. Randy Gerber’s Whiskey Bar was right next door, the outer-space-style lobby of the Paramount could be reached through a side door in the dining room, and the walls were done in Morandi-inspired murals, warm Tuscan colors against blond, unfinished wood. The waiters dressed like Vatican Guards. But the most truly amazing feature of my temporary kingdom was to be found deep in the bowels of the Paramount Hotel, through twisting catacomb-like service passageways adjoining our downstairs prep kitchen. If one squeezed past the linen carts and discarded mattresses and bus trays from the hotel and followed the waft of cold, dank air to its source, one came upon a truly awe-inspiring sight: the long-forgotten Diamond Horseshoe, Billy Rose’s legendary New York nightclub, closed for generations. The space was gigantic, an underground Temple of Luxor, one huge, uninterrupted space. The vaulted ceiling was still decorated with Renaissance-style chandeliers and elaborate plasterwork. The original rhinestone-aproned stage, where Billy Rose’s famously zaftig chorus line once kicked, was still there, and the gigantic space where the horseshoe-shaped bar once stood was empty, the floorboards torn up. Around the edges of the cavernous chamber were the remnants of private booths and banquettes where Legs diamond and Damon Runyon and Arnold Rothstein and gangsters, showgirls, floozies and celebrities—the whole Old Broadway demimonde of the Winchell era—used to meet and greet and make deals, place bets, listen to the great singers of the time and get up to all sorts of glamorous debauchery. The sheer size, and the fact that you had to slip through a roughly smashed-in wall to enter the chamber, made the visitor feel he was gazing upon ancient Troy for the first time.

4. Never Work in a Restaurant Again

I never worked in a kitchen as seedy as the ones Bourdain describes, but perhaps I came in after the turning of the tide, which he discusses in the Afterword of the updated and expanded edition:

Professional kitchens have become—for the most part—very different environments (at least at the top end) than the places described in the text. However silly and annoying the ‘celebrity chef’ phenomenon might be, it’s helped to transform the business. […] Where once, well-to-do parents would have been dismayed at the prospect of their child attending culinary school, they began cheerfully ponying up $20,000 a year and bragging about it. In real-world terms, what this means is that these days, the people cooking your food in any kind of a decent restaurant are less likely than at any time in history to be spitting in your food—or having sex in food preparation areas. They are probably not high on cocaine or heroin—or sauteeing your fish with one hand, while reaching for a tumbler of vodka with the other. That kind of activity is frowned upon these days—at least during the service period.

As a prep cook, I remember cutting my knuckles on a serrated grid of blades meant to chop an entire head of lettuce with one press. Not sure how efficient this invention is in the end, for after you inevitably catch a cut and bleed into the tub of 15 heads of shredded lettuce, it all has to be thrown away, and you have to do the work all over again, even slower as you work around a stiffly bandaged hand. Wouldn’t it have been faster just to use a knife and a cutting board? I remember thawing chicken skewers under water so cold it burned, using a brush to knock off thrice burnt cheese from a pizza pan when what I needed was a chisel, carrying the dripping trash bag weighing as much as a small, dead man out to the reeking dumpster in the dark, clocking back in so early it’s still dark, polishing the spots off of fifty wine glasses, then doing it all again when they came out of the steaming dish machine an hour later, listening to the constant barrage of ludicrous aphorisms and half-baked philosophies flowing from the mouths of inebriated line cooks, smelling like food—I miss none of these things. But, strangely enough, reading about these things, and writing about them, is a joy, one that nearly rivals the joy I find in making food, taking my time doing it, and then sitting down to do what seems to be, the more I live and the less I know for sure, what life is all about.