Re: The Tony-Shaped Hole in my Heart:
Writing this was tough. I’ve put off writing the Anthony Bourdain post for such a long time, for months. His book took me weeks to read; I took many breaks. This has taken weeks to write; I took many more breaks.
Tony’s memoir, Kitchen Confidential, was initially slotted as my first book of 2019; I was going to kick off my theme and creative learning curve with my favorite silver fox and read up on a profession I view as a truly creative and transformative one. However, Big Magic squeaked in and saved me from meeting up with Tony before I was ready. I was terrified to do him an injustice; I hold him in such high regard. Always will. My ever-present fear was that maybe I didn’t have the energy, courage, or the writing talent to adequately convey all that he was to me, all that he still is. In writing this, I’ve allowed myself to veer off on tangents to reminisce. Stories of Bourdain on TV worked their way in; the need to travel and try new foods may or may not have been harped on. I’ve mentioned more than enough times my admiration of his nonjudgmental air. That’s what he’s left behind. This is the man’s legacy. It’s a good one.
Kitchen Confidential was not what I expected. I do know a bit about Tony, mainly from TV. My introduction to the man happened by way of his travel shows. The documentary-style 45-minute escapes based on his love of food and travel was where we met. I saw him dissect dishes ingredient by ingredient just by smell and taste. The show highlighted culture and love of food – how they go hand in hand. I’ve seen him eat many local lunches and dinners on plastic chairs or standing in the street; I’ve seen him throw axes and try martial arts and ride four-wheelers. He lived; authentically as people did in whatever place he was visiting. That’s the man I know. The book is so much less about that; it was written long before his television stardom. It is about the true life in a kitchen. It’s about cooking, real cooking. None of that semi-homemade stuff. Actually, I have read Tony’s other book Medium Raw, I’m pretty sure he calls Sandra Lee the spawn of Betty Crocker and Hitler. He was not a fan. I was ill-prepared, for this book as a whole though. I know him from television, and the intro to the book was very much on par with the theme of the show. It set me up and gave me hope that this would be a book I could yank any number of uplifting, creative, inspirational tidbits from. It started like this; the rest of the book knocked me flat on my ass though.
Back to the inspirational beginnings: Deeply hoping for something easy to tie in with my theme of creativity, I dove into reading. After a beautiful chapter in which Tony details his childhood trip to France and first memories of understanding the potential of food, we are thrust into the behind-the-kitchen-doors sections. The beginning of the chapter titled “Who Cooks” describes professional cooks as artists. Their work a beautifully composed “high-speed collaboration resembling, at its best, ballet or modern dance.” Cooks have technique, speed, skill, and ninja-like grace and endurance. At this point, I knew this was the book for me. This is exactly what I wanted to talk about in terms of creativity. Cooking as an art. Cooking as a skill, something difficult and demanding, but ultimately providing the world with beauty, culture, and community. I figured we’d go from a childhood trip to France to the backstory on the life of a beginning chef; learning from great cooks, apprenticeships, things of that nature. We’d hit essays on Tony’s time learning the trade. I imagined artistic parallels of all kinds: painting apprentices cleaning brushes and wood workers sweeping floors. Maybe fry cooks and dishwashers are the equivalent for the path to chefhood. I was ready for all the nitty gritty details that I was sure would have a current of the love of food running throughout. There was a chapter of Tony’s time in the Culinary Institute of America, yes. More about all the snobby people that attend the CIA than anything else. There were many chapters on his early restaurant work, a few good joints amidst a lot of seemingly terrible ones. Some where they boil veggies in bags and reuse bread from tables. (Apparently, this is very normal.) There was little reminiscing of the good old times though. Little to no tips on how to be a great cook, or cooking as an art. What we quickly got into was the particularly harsh life of a real cook. Not at all the artsy, evocative talk of spices, flavors, textures, and aromas that I was seeking.
Tony set out to write a book for cooks. He didn’t want anyone reading it to be able to say he was a poser, that he didn’t know life behind the doors. He laid it all out. It was harsh, it was rude, it was scary at times. Drug use is all over the page, sex and debauchery too. I was seemingly in over my head. This was a raw look at life from a maybe disenchanted, tired cook who wanted to give his colleagues a memoir they could look at and say, “I hear you” or “been there.”
There were moments while reading that I just thought, “I’ve been fooled. This is the wrong book for me to write about.” A few other times, the terror of “How in the world am I going to fit this into creativity? He is saying the opposite of what I want to convey.” Jump just seven pages from the comparison of chefs to ballerinas and Bourdain says there’s no place for an artist in the kitchen. He says,
“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 artists’ 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.”
*Insert my biggest heart break. In a book where artists are billed as annoying and delusional, there’s not a lot to pull for a positive post about artistic pursuits.
Bourdain’s clearly not a fan of the artist. Maybe not in general, but as the moniker relates to people who cook. Working in a kitchen in the midst of dinner rush madness leaves no room for artistic leeway. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday night, there’s zero opportunity for experimentation “to make your soul grow” as Vonnegut would say. Dinner is the time to make every move matter, speed is valued above all else. Speed and consistency. There’s mention of “creative expediency and the technical satisfaction of being fast enough to keep up.” Cooks are part of an assembly line. This is not what I was looking for when I wanted to talk about cooking as a means of creating. I wanted to talk about cooking from the heart. Where was the flair for spice and nuance and experimentation? Where was the love of simple, yet beautiful ingredients? Where were all the sensual adjectives associated with good food? That scene from Ratatouille where Remy eats the cheese and strawberry together and all his senses sharpen and become swirling neon lines around his head! The near orgasmic pleasure of great food! That’s what I wanted to write about. We were not on that topic any longer.
For the Love of Food:
I know Tony’s deep love of food, even if that’s not what the book was mostly about. Real food, simple ingredients, maybe not necessarily beautifully plated, but definitely beautifully tasting. Maybe the dinner rush squashes the love of food out of you for a little while. Maybe everyone looks back fondly at times and also really pissed off at times about all the shit they went through in various kitchens. All the heat, hazing, and burns (both from coworkers or bosses and the hot surfaces). However, you need only to read the intro to Kitchen Confidential or watch a few minutes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown to see Tony’s unending love of people and their food, of ingredients and what makes them go well together to satisfy a tired man at the end of his day. This makes us human. We all gotta eat. Most of what you eat should be enjoyed. Being the one to make that food for unkind and ungrateful dinner guests at a restaurant is different than making food at home for those you love. Food is beauty and art and love and culture all in one, but maybe not in every restaurant every evening. It was difficult to reconcile the two ideas: food as important culturally and artistically vs. food as something to crank out as consistently as you can, as fast as you can, coming from the same mind. Even more difficult to hear them contradicted in the same chapter.
Again, this is a book for cooks; that is explicitly stated at the very beginning. Contradictions are okay, really. Different restaurants, people, or working conditions from his past brought up different emotions on every page. This is his story. All the ups and downs associated with climbing the ladder and finding your place in any chosen field. It never was a ‘how to cook’ kind of book, or a’ how to be creative with potatoes and tomatoes’ memoir. This is not the book for a woman in the midst of her quarter-life crisis, seeking creativity and beauty because she thinks it will answer the eternal questions that render her confused and anxious. Bourdain says that he didn’t want any cook to read this and think it was bullshit. The truth of what happens behind the kitchen door is laid bare. All these details and lessons have very little to do with creativity and everything to do with real life in a real kitchen. I still pulled a lot out of this book for my purposes though. I think that’s a testament to Tony’s ability to connect with you even if you have next to nothing in common. It is his love of food that radiates off the pages even in the middle of a tirade about late nights and sore backs.
Each person could think he’s an artist, tradesman, craftsman, genius, or any other self-proclaimed title. All those words carry their own connotation and baggage. Both for the person considering himself as such and for people outside of him. Tony thought himself a chef, with that particular skill set and craft, never the artist. I do. That’s how I see him. Maybe that would piss him right off, but I don’t care. I am in a space where I look at art as something straight from the soul. All art should be made with love from a place of peace and tranquility, should be made to make the world better, to unite us, and show us who we are as humans. That’s how I feel about Tony, because of my background with him. There are glimpses of this in the memoir, but it’s not the point of it. I think Tony started with food that way, with his wonderful story of that summer in Paris. I think he ended that way; getting to travel and eat without the pressure of making it. These types of experiences with food served as book ends for his time in kitchens. Maybe you lose something for a while when your passion is your hustle. Tony even says that just because you throw a good dinner party does not mean you should open a restaurant. You run the risk of losing the love this way. I went into this book knowing Tony in a different light – from his second life, really. I knew him deeply as a person of the world. A person obsessed with food and finding and scarfing down the best of it. He’s always been snarky, a bit jaded, and harsh. Maybe residual anger from the kitchen. But he’s also always always fair and understanding and poignant. Probably because he deeply loves food and the people who make it despite the kitchens, he’s been in. Even if he’s gruff and angry most days, the man loves food. Maybe you have to go through hell to have that perspective later on. To be able to share it and instill it in others. It’s all timing, what you went through, and when that ultimately makes you who you are.
Time and Place:
This was something I always think Tony understood. Time and place. When he traveled for his shows, he never set out to uncover something and bring it back to America. To copy from other cultures and use it here. He understood that if he was visiting working class people at a coastal town, they will live and eat and work differently than working class people in the mountains or the desert. Different areas grow different crops, have different histories of war and invasion and trade, forced or not. All that stuff matters; history matters. You can’t recreate any single dish here. You can never bring an area’s true food, with all the culture and history associated, back home. He saw every place as it was, never trying to twist it for his benefit or the benefit of an American audience. He didn’t only show the parts that would be comfortable or safe. He showed everything, but with a supportive, non-judgmental eye. I remember an episode where Tony walked through a street carnival of some kind. There were rides and kids enjoying themselves. All the rides were powered by people though. There was no electricity, no generators. Huge Ferris wheels were propelled by people pushing the wheel and climbing on and off it (in flip flops) to make it spin. He just walked on through never saying, “Where is your safety? Where is your electricity? Where are your shoes?” He didn’t chance a ride on the wheel, but he never thought these folks should do it any differently. This was simply the way of things and it was fine. Everyone is living their life as best they can where they are with what they have. Tony never tried to change anyone or fit any culture into some box that he deemed fit for consumption. Tony is a product of his environment just like anyone else and his views on food are because of that. I should never have gone in to excavate and erode all his important lessons and history to mine for myself the diamonds that fit my narrative. Maybe cooking in a kitchen isn’t creative. Maybe it is sometimes. There are so many maybes, but that’s okay. Maybes are okay. Tony didn’t necessarily have the most creative leeway in the kitchen, but he still loved food. He still made a living our of food in many different ways. That’s creative, right?
My life this year is being measured and cataloged by the books I read; this is usually the way of things. For creativity though, I wanted more in depth studies and interactions than most years. To take what I was learning in books and apply it daily. I want to do the creative things I read about. Since reading Kitchen Confidential, I have been cooking more at home. I help in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, stirring, but mostly taking pictures for Instagram so my followers can see I’m living my theme! I was asked once if cooking helped me feel closer to Tony. If being in the kitchen helped me channel him or understand him. The truth is – no. Cooking did nothing for me in terms of Tony. I enjoyed it – it was fun to hang out with my Christopher instead of watching him or reading in the other room while he cooked. The smells were fantastic up close, the veggies colorful. The truth is, that I feel Tony most when I travel. I try to emulate him in every new place. What would Tony do? I think this just proves again, that can’t force people or ideas into a box or mold them how you think they best fit your story. It would be wonderful to say, I read, I cooked, I connected; that I felt the creativity flow and it was Tony working through me. But that’s not what happened. I’ve felt the most connected to painting and writing this year. Cooking hasn’t even come close. I wish it did. I wish cooking was for me so I could be like Tony. I could absolutely feel him when I read; his tone and his exact voice in my head. That was very special and a big reason I drew out my reading so long. I know his voice well; I can hear it in everything. I never wanted it to end.
This Book is for the Cooks, but who is Cooking For?
Another question I was asked was about my urge to write for a living. While Christopher was reading this post in its draft form, he asked me if I was worried about writing as a career. Did I think that I would ultimately get disenchanted or angry because the joy of creating would leave me once I had investors or clients to answer to? I said no. That I wanted to write, I love writing. I think it wouldn’t matter too much, at least at first, what I was writing about so long as I was getting to do it. Maybe Tony felt the same for a while. Maybe he felt the same forever, he just has a different view on life than I do, and never thought about it in those terms. He didn’t consider cooking his ‘art’ and his ‘creativity’ like I consider my writing. This begs the question though, who is art for? Do we inherently always lose something when we are making art for someone else to consume? Does the art belong to the person enjoying it, or to the creator who set it free into the world? Maybe I end up writing creative content for something I care little about, and that, in the end, will crush me. Maybe making 300 identical steaks in four hours’ time, night after night squashes the love of cooking out of you. Who is this even for? You could say that steak is for the diner who dressed up and paid $40 for to eat in a candle-lit room. You could say it belongs to the chef who learned to make the seasoning that goes over the top. Can we call that art if we haven’t even decided who it belongs to? I think it depends on who you ask. Maybe ask the diner and they say the steak is in fact a work of art; ask the cook and he says no. This idea reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s blog post coming to George R.R. Martin’s defense regarding the final book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. On Gaiman’s post he states that Martin does not work for the reading public. When people complain about the last book taking forever and think Martin should never grocery shop, take a shower, or enjoy a ball game, Gaiman has an opinion.
“George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.
This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.
People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.”
That’s a clear stance for writers, but is it clear for cooks? Is it clear for any kind of art? We all complain about movies, and songs, and claim parts of pop culture as “our thing”, but is it? Does Star Wars belong to you? Does Lord of the Rings belong to me? I don’t think so. Anything mass produced may lose its core. Anything you have to crank out, may not be the best it can be ever time. But does that make you love it any less? Does a good steak at a restaurant still make the world a little bit better or someone’s dinner a little bit nicer? A great bottle of wine or a pretty dessert, can turn a day around. There’s skill there, to make these things. Talent. Also, no small amount of love. There is love, even if your back hurts, from bending over the stove, computer screen, or easel. Something of beauty, made for the consumption of another, still belongs to you, its maker. Even producing what you can for someone else’s enjoyment at top speed counts, be it chapters, potatoes, or paintings. Even fast art is still art. We should try to stay away from that though. Eat slower, have patience, think more about the creator. We should learn to appreciate creating and creativity without so much pressure. Because really, all artists, all cooks, all writers, want to love what they do. They also deeply want people to enjoy it. All of us want to love art and appreciate ours and others’. We “are [all] sentimental fools. And in the end, maybe it is all about the food.”