So, do I wanna be a cook? – Anthony Bourdain- Kitchen Confidential
“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime…Please, treat your garlic with respect…Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screwtop jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.” (Words I also live by.)
I read this the day Anthony Bourdain passed away two years ago- unknowingly. There was a constant tinge of anxiety that made its way through my stomach, the self-doubt and perhaps some sadness or maybe I might be even mistaking it for self-pity. Do I wanna be a cook?
I fell in love with this book, the minute it started. The narrative spilled on top of each other, parts of his life just missing (perhaps due to the cocaine and other drugs use), words thrown raw and unhinged (“Don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife.”) and words written down honestly addressing all the anxieties I have when I think that what I this is what a career in the kitchen will be like. He divides cooks into three parts:
The artists: high maintenance minority.
The exiles: people who can’t do anything else, especially a 9-5 job and can’t blend in with society.
Mercenaries: people who do it for the cash and not the cooking because they are professionals.
I belong possibly come into the first category and these are the ones who never survive.
“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman—not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen—though not designed by them. When I hear “artist”, I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up at work on time. More often than not their efforts, convinced as they are of their own genius, are geared more to giving themselves a hard-on than satisfying the great majority of dinner customers. Personally, I’d prefer to eat food that tastes good and is an honest reflection of its ingredients, than a 3-foot-tall caprice constructed from lemon grass, lawn trimmings, coconuts and red curry. ”
This year I was going to go to culinary school. I wanted to understand the craft- I wanted to refine my knowledge. I wanted to learn. If it weren’t for Corona I would have probably been packing my bags to September and going off to school. What really hit me while reading was when he said he can teach how to cook but he cannot teach character. I have so much ego, too much for my own good sometimes. I think too much of myself in my head, I’ll probably combust in the kitchen. I know I don’t mind doing dishes and peeling potatoes for as long as I can- these things do not get to me. What does get to me is probably the fact that inside my head I think I’m better than everyone else, I probably wont last two days with my pretentious air in a kitchen where cook talk is all about involuntary rectal penetration, penis size, physical flaws, and perhaps a dozen of cusswords all directed at me. There is a part in the book, where a female cook, who referred herself to as Grill Bitch, got pinched by a cook, who found himself later bent over the cutting board with Grill Bitch dry humping him to teach him a lesson. (Do I have such guts? I sometimes speak so low that even I can’t hear myself. I’d rather just live through such behaviour and keep it to myself then act on it)
I’m not sure I can take the physical labour of it. Standing for 14 hours- I do that with this photography business I’m pursuing right now- but can I afford to have high blood pressure with constant stress 14 hours a day. Probably not. When I was 21, three years ago, I underwent a kidney transplant, both my kidneys seemed to have undergone utter hatred towards my body and seemed to have shut off without a heartfelt good-bye. Do I really want to risk it all? The rebelious teenager thats stuck in my brain still really wants to. A part of me thinks I don’t love cooking enough because I’ve given up before I’ve even started my journey. This rant seems to just be that- a rant.
“Bigfoot (Anthony Bourdain Mentor and boss) understood that there are two types of people in the world: those who do what they say they’re going to do—and everyone else. ”
Dismayed as I have been, after reflecting about the this for awhile I realised I came to the conclusion that its okay not work in the kitchen- there must more than I can bring out for my love for food than just working for a restaurant. .
“UNLESS YOU’RE ONE OF us already, you’ll probably never cook like a professional. And that’s okay.”
The truth is that most people in the food world including the writers, bloggers and all sorts of food enthusiasts (Somebody Feed Phil) who belong in this slot of the hierarchy don’t know much about the craft of food. What is the science behind the food- what is the logic behind why certain eggs are cooked with a certain temperature and what makes it better than those that are not? What is the class that the food comes from- what does it mean to the people who eat it (not in a restaurant)? How accountable are these people to discuss food? These are all things which you can go politically terrible with- and thats what Bourdain does correctly. In his episode where he goes to Lyon in Parts Unknown- he is respected as a chef. He talks the language of the kitchen because he knows what it is like. When he goes to Hanoi- he asks what it means to the people to serve him an American, when the two countries have had a rough past. He carries himself with humility and doesn’t make it seem like he’s gone and discovered a region and had a fun time being a tourist. There is so much self- awareness, brutal honestly he is checks his privilege, correct his faults with time and stands for what he thinks is right. He is everything that makes talk of food politics work without it being disingenuous and haughty.
There is so much I have learnt from reading this- I want to embody so many of his philosophies into my own life. Like him, I want to talk of food but not until I understand the subject well enough to do so. (Which is why I’ve started reading all sorts of subjects linked to food than just cooking.) I do not want to be a part of the culture that give expertise with zero idea on what it takes to make something. It feels cheap and most importantly disrespectful to a craft that takes years from cooks- from washing dishes for years, having their hands and arms scared terribly because of it.
I want to be a cook- in my own kitchen perhaps. I want to keep practicing- the crazy way that I do, staying up till night and keep making them brownies over and over again till I get it right. I want to learn and read all the books on food and perhaps not on food to understand what food means to me. I want to be honest in my work. I want to be disciplined with my craft. I’m not sure where it will take me but it makes me happy in my own way- and it seems enough for now.