Anthony Bourdain talking about his big break is my favorite video right now pic.twitter.com/83Zaiyp6CC— writer (@Yoh31) February 20, 2021
In 1999, Anthony Bourdain’s career seemed to have stalled. While his “principal vocation remained his position as executive chef” at New York’s Les Halles, restless intelligence and wanderlust kept him looking for other opportunities. “He was 43 years old, rode hard and put up wet,” writes Elizabeth Nelson at The Ringer, “a recovering addict with a number of debts and a penchant for finding trouble in failing restaurants across the city.” He had fought for and won an undeniable measure of success, but he hardly seemed on the threshold of the major celebrity chefdom he would maintain until his death twenty years later in 2018.
Then, “in the spring of 2000, his sublimated literary ambitions suddenly caught up with and then quickly surpassed his cooking.” Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential “became an immediate sensation,” introducing his iconoclasm, acerbic wit, and outrageous confessional style to millions of readers, who would soon become viewers of his try-anything travelogue series, A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, as well as loyal readers of his subsequent books, and even fiction like as Gone Bamboo, a crime novel soon to become a TV series.
How did Bourdain first get his winning personality before the masses? It all started with a 1999 New Yorker article called “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the predecessor to Kitchen Confidential and an essay that begins with what we might now recognize as a prototypically Bourdainian sentence: “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay.” In the interview clip above, from Bourdain’s final, 2017 interview with Fast Company, he talks about how the story led to his “huge break” just a couple days after it ran, when a Bloomsbury editor called with an offer of “the staggeringly high price of fifty thousand dollars to write a book.”
Everyone who loves Bourdain’s writing—and who loved his generous, ecumenical culinary spirit—knows why Kitchen Confidential changed his life overnight, as he says. Yes, “food is pain,” as he writes in the book’s “First Course,” but also, “food is sex”—”the delights of Portuguese squid stew, of Wellfleet oysters on the halfshell, New England clam chowder, of greasy, wonderful, fire-red chorizo sausages, kale soup, and a night when the striped bass jumped right out of the water and onto Cape Cod’s dinner tables.” Bourdain’s prose lingers over every delight, preparing us for the escapades to come.
In Kitchen Confidential, the exhaustion, “sheer weirdness,” and constant “threat of disaster,” that attend New York kitchen life (and life “inside the CIA”—the Culinary Institute of America, that is), becomes fleshed out with scenes of culinary decadence the likes of which most readers had never seen, smelled, or tasted. Fans craved more and more from the chef who wrote, in 1999, just before he would become a bestselling household name, “my career has taken an eerily appropriate turn: these days, I’m the chef de cuisine of a much loved, old-school French brasserie/bistro where… every part of the animal—hooves, snout, cheeks, skin, and organs—is avidly and appreciatively prepared and consumed.”
Read Bourdain’s New Yorker essay here and see his full 2017 interview with Fast Company just above.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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