The Cook-And-Tell Chef

He is imposingly tall, and lanky, towering over his crew of Mexican and South American cooks even without the white toque he disdains as effete and prone to catch fire. His hands are strong and his fingers exceptionally long, splayed and knobby-jointed. What you don't see, at first, are the calluses and scars, the little missing pieces that more than a quarter century of working with knives and red-hot sizzle platters and bubbling vats of molten fat got sliced or burned away and never quite grew back -- possibly because instead of seeing a doctor, he just covered the wound with towels and kept on working. Nor do you see the toll taken by 25 years of 14-hour days or the drugs he took to get through the days or the drugs he took to unwind when the days finally ended at 11 or midnight. And the feet. Don't even ask about the feet.

In the annals of chef memoirs, "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain is unique, and not only because he fails to provide a single recipe. Bourdain claims to love food, and no doubt he does. It should not count against him that the food he loves, and serves at his New York restaurant, Brasserie Les Halles, is as defiantly retro as an unfiltered Camel. You could eat here for a month and never consume a single flan of wild mushrooms on a bed of wasabi-ginger tapioca. Brasserie dishes like steak frites and breaded pig's feet can be wonderful, no doubt, but it would be a challenge to write a whole book about them. Instead of food, Bourdain writes about restaurants: cooking in them, eating in them, and certain other things that go on in them about which, until now, the less said the better. To New York's Nibbling Class of foodies, the chef's revelations in a New Yorker article last year about how to interpret a Monday seafood special on the menu (it means, Bourdain says, leftovers from Friday) had the same mesmerizing, horrifying effect as a glimpse into their parents' bedrooms. The full book may tend to leave people with the impression that, like some parents they've heard about, restaurant cooks are "moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths." If that's what you conclude, Bourdain says, you wouldn't be far wrong.

Oddly, the book that "Kitchen Confidential" most resembles wasn't written by a chef at all. It is "Down and Out in Paris and London," George Orwell's pungent memoir of a youth misspent, in part, as a lowly pot-swabber in some of the great kitchens of France, a half century before Bourdain first picked up a Brillo pad. There are the same tales of brutal, tyrannical chefs, mind-numbing labor amid volcanic heat, and the quasi-military pride of men (almost exclusively) bearing incredible hardship, night after night, to get a piece of meat on a plate and out to a customer in under 20 minutes. Orwell wrote of a kitchen apprentice who bravely sneaked into a competitor's pantry to steal a peach for an important customer; when the food processor breaks in the middle of the holiday rush, Bourdain writes, his favorite sous-chef "will slip out the door and be back in minutes with the part -- slightly used -- with another restaurant's shallots still in it." A French chef, Orwell observed, will literally spit in the soup, if he doesn't plan to eat it himself. That may not have happened in Bourdain's kitchen, but one of his associates has been known to powder inside his underpants by reaching into the kitchen's supply of cornstarch. You shouldn't look too closely into what goes into sausage, but who would have thought the same warning might apply to baked desserts?

The difference is that while Orwell loathed his period of kitchen servitude, Bourdain loved his, even the years he spent knocking around dishwashing sinks, saucier stations and prep tables on his way to becoming a chef. He loved the macho swagger of it, the rowdy rock-band-on-tour atmosphere, the quick-blooming late-night relationships (if that's not too high-blown a term for something that might transpire between a chef and a pastry cook in the walk-in refrigerator at 4 in the afternoon). Bourdain's dream is to stand all day in a hot, clamorous kitchen and bellow instructions to a crew of sweating acolytes, just like the chefs at his very first kitchen job, as a dishwasher in a seafood joint in Cape Cod. He was a spoiled overgrown preppy trying to earn his hash money. The chefs were grimy, profane bullies reeking of shrimp and booze but, oh, did they have style! "They tossed heavy saute pans like they were half dollars," he recalled, relaxing between the lunch rush and the dinner frenzy at Les Halles one day last week; "they carried these huge dangerous knives, they wore tattoos and headbands and they drank like madmen, stole everything they could get their hands on and slept with all the waitresses and half the customers." That included, in one memorable passage in his book, a bride taking a brief hiatus from her wedding celebration in the dining room a few feet away. "That was the life I wanted," Bourdain says.

Now it's obvious that not every professional chef lives up, or down, to Bourdain's standards. It's impossible to imagine the impeccable, polished Charlie Trotter admitting, as Bourdain does, that at family Christmas dinners he has to stop himself from bellowing, as he does a hundred times a day, "Pass the f -- -ing turkey, c -- -sucker!" But most of Bourdain's generalizations about tyrannical chefs, brutal working conditions and waitresses only too happy to take a load off their feet come as no big surprise to those in the know. "Sounds about right to me," says one former line cook and sous-chef with 25 years' experience in New York, California and elsewhere. "I worked at one place where I had to wash the chef's car between meals. In Japan there's a chef who makes his apprentices wash the river stones outside the window to improve the view for his customers. Stitching up wounds with larding needles so you can keep working? Sure--how else are you going to get through dinner?" And chefs were glamorous long before there was a Food Network, most of all to waitresses, agrees Geoffrey Zakarian, a rising star among New York chefs who recently left the ultraposh Patroon to start a place of his own. "Chefs have good hands," Zakarian says slyly, even if they may be missing parts of a few fingers, "and even better imaginations."

It shocks Bourdain that people think he's written an expose or a manifesto for change. True, it can be unnerving to read that this lover of tripe and blood sausage won't eat mussels in a restaurant unless he knows the chef personally, or that in all likelihood "the but-ter used in the hollandaise is melted table butter, heated, clarified and strained to get out all the bread crumbs and cigarette butts." But that doesn't make him a crusader. On the contrary, he says, "I love this business. I want it to go on like this forever." And chances are, it will. After all, despite the inventions of food processors, microwaves and Chilean sea bass with black-bean-lemongrass salsa and squid-ink risotto, what goes on behind those swinging doors hasn't changed all that much since Orwell peeled his first potato.