May 22nd will mark the 20th anniversary since Anthony Bourdain’s iconic memoir of his life in the restaurant industry. At the time, I was just finishing up a short-lived partnership in a restaurant venture in Ireland. Without question, this was the most challenging year of my life and concluded my foray into the service end of the industry. I’d held other jobs during school and travelling; dishwasher, prep cook, server and wine waiter. So, I had some small degree of experience in the trade. And I came to respect it can be a physically and emotionally demanding choice of vocations.
“Everyone should be required to complete 1 year in service or retail to become better citizens.”
Kitchens are hot, pans fly at you when you’re in the dish pit, knives are out and burns from the oven or salamander are completely the norm. And, tempers can be short when you’re in the weeds. You’re at work when your non-restaurant friends are getting together at the pub or home with family. It’s intense both back of house and front. So when I read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, it was like a revelation. It was an irreverent (and accurate) depiction of life as a cook in a restaurant – at least some of the ones I’ve worked in. I howled with laughter at his accounts of debauchery, substance abuse and the chef lifestyle. But I also loved the way he embraced real food and cooking. He was classically trained and spent much of his cooking tenure in French fine dining, which is largely about tradition and technique. Sounds proper. But at the end of a service, people are wound up and need to blow off steam before heading back to do it all over again the next day. Thus, debauchery.
He also gave readers advice. “Don’t order the fish on Mondays as it arrived on Friday and they were closed Sunday. It won’t be fresh”. Or, “Never eat at a hotel Sunday buffet as you’ve got hungover apprentices doing the cooking” and “Specials are how restaurants clean out their fridges”. He illuminated the reader on some of more unsavory goings on behind the scenes. No one else had done that before. And he took flack for it. Many of his peers thought he was demeaning the trade. But many others viewed it as someone telling their stories.
The huge success of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ launched Bourdain into the role of Anti-Hero stardom. He had four different food & travel shows between 2002 and 2018. These gave him the opportunity to showcase the cuisines and cooks around the world whom he held in high esteem. He came to have regrets about letting the world in on some of those establishments. An inadvertent result of the success of his TV stardom was the growing popularity of food tourism and fans flocking to the restaurants he put in the spotlight. Several experienced such giant increases in traffic that it took away the integrity he saw in those local restaurants who had modestly cooked their family recipes for years. I’ve been one of those tourists myself. A few years ago I went to Mexico City to experience some of the restaurants he featured. At one, most of the diners were there because of the show. You knew because you could hear everyone talking about it. It was odd.
But if you watched many of his different programs (I had approximately 80 different episodes PVR’d), he showcased those pioneers that helped shape culinary culture (Paul Bocuse) and brilliantly creative minds of cooking. However, it wasn’t all fine dining and Michelin starred chefs he was trying to show the world. Many times you’d watch him enjoying the simplest of fares; meats and cheeses with a glass (or bottle) of wine in a small French village or a bowl of Pho in Vietnam. Bourdain scorned the gimmickry of many of the types of contrived shows you see now on Food Network. He was vocal in his criticism of those chefs he felt were selling out or attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But he also realized his word wasn’t scripture. In ‘Kitchen Confidential’, he wrote of his low opinion of Emeril Lagasse for doing those very shows. Lagasse is the real deal; proper chef, cookbooks, awards. And after meeting him, Lagasse related to Bourdain that he owned several restaurants and needed to do the schtick to get diners in, keep his staff employed and the lights on. Bourdain retracted his criticism of Emeril in a revised version of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ in 2007. I truly respected that he sucked up any ego and admitted he’d made errors in thinking. AB was irreverent, sarcastic and sardonic, but, also self- deprecating. The man was an avid lover of food but never felt he was a great chef. He knew he was flawed and he owned it.
To say I was a fan of Chef Bourdain wouldn’t quite be elaborate enough. I’m not an expert on his life and this was not meant to be a bio. I can’t speak of him in great depth but I read all his food-related books and, to the best of my knowledge, watched every show he produced. His curiosity and fearlessness to taste as many things as possible inspired me. And while I realized I didn’t have what it took to own and run a restaurant, I can sincerely say that my love for food and quality of living was better defined courtesy of the perspectives he shared.
Halibut Poached in Duck Fat
as taken from Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites: A Cookbook”
- 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon canola or other neutral oil
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- Seeds from 2 cardamom pods
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- 2 halibut fillets (about 12 ounces each; ask your
- fishmonger to remove the white belly skin but to leave the dark dorsal skin
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 quart rendered duck fat (available at various
- gourmet retailers and some butcher shops)
- Mashed potatoes
- SPECIAL EQUIPMENT:
- Microplane grater
- Instant-read thermometer
Using the microplane grater, finely grate the lemon
zest into a small mixing bowl and add the oil, fennel and cardamom seeds, bay leaf, and garlic, mixing well. Rub the fish on all sides with the mixture and
refrigerate in a casserole or zip-sealed plastic bag for at least 2 hours and up to 24.
Remove the fish from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before you’re ready to poach it. Brush off the excess garlic and seeds. Season it on all sides with salt and pepper. In a large, heavy-bottom pot, heat the duck fat over medium heat until it reaches 150°F, monitoring the temperature with the instant-read thermometer. Slip the fish into the pot and ladle the fat over so it is submerged. Let cook for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes, until the fish has an internal
temperature of 150°F.
Carefully remove the fish from the pot with a slotted
spoon or fish spatula, adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve with mashed potatoes.