This article by me appeared in the Toronto Star, where I was food editor/columnist from 1989 to 2007, shortly after Bourdain’s bestselling book “Kitchen Confidential” was published in 2000. He has then gone on to be a star of several TV food-themed travel shows and other food-themed books. I made the beef stew included in this the other day – it is delicious.
“Can you give me two seconds to grab a cigarette?” asks the deep, gravelly voice at the other end of the phone.
It belongs to Anthony Bourdain, bad boy chef and author of the brilliant, irreverent new book Kitchen Confidential (Bloomsbury, $38.95), whom I’ve reached on his cell at his New York home.
“I just got off the plane from Washington, ” Bourdain offers cheerily, by way of explanation. “It was a one-hour flight and, of course, I couldn’t smoke.”
Somehow, this politically incorrect start to our conversation is no surprise. After all, Bourdain’s tell-all tome is chock-full of stories about his own life’s excesses and addictions – not to mention the sometimes sordid, often risque antics that pepper his book’s spicy portrayals of restaurant kitchens.
As for his three-pack-a-day habit, Bourdain, 44, is unapologetic. “I was recently on a book tour in California, ” he continues, “and was horrified to find there were no ashtrays in the Hells Angels’ bars.”
This pretty well sets the scene for our discussion of Kitchen Confidential. Aptly subtitled Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly, it’s up there with the best books I’ve read and a volume that should be mandatory reading for all chefs, cooks and restaurateurs. Likewise for anyone contemplating those careers.
“There are people who hate my book, ” Bourdain concedes, quickly adding, “but they hate it for all the right reasons. It is obnoxious. There’s a lot of sweeping hyperbole and there is too much testosterone.”
All of which, he says, reflects the restaurant biz as it really is. “The book sounds like a chef drinking cocktails after work and talking to others in the business, ” he explains. “It’s the tone and language I’ve heard all my life in kitchens – a language of extremes. In the kitchen, there is no middle ground.”
Bourdain should know. He’s been a restaurant chef, mostly in the Big Apple, for 28 years.
Chefs, cooks and people working in the restaurant business, he continues, “love the book unanimously.” Many have called to tell him so. “They pour their hearts out, ” he says, speaking quickly. “The book is a validation of their darkest moments.”
Being a chef, he’s quick to note, is no picnic. “It’s day after day of mind-numbing repetition, ” he says. “It takes a certain type of lunatic to crave that kind of life.” A life he compares to “serving on a submarine” because of “the enforced closeness, pressure and isolation.”
There are, of course, pluses that keep many like Bourdain hooked on cooking for a living.
“Kitchens are the last true meritocracy, ” he says. “They’re the last refuge of the politically incorrect, one of the few places men and women compete on a level playing field. In kitchens, people from the mountains of Mexico to people of every sexual, religious and ethnic background are forced to become intimate and trust one another.”
Bourdain traces the beginning of his writing career (he has also penned two novels) to his college days at Vassar when he operated “a cottage industry writing other students’ papers.” When asked about his favourite authors, he cites Hunter S. Thompson, Graham Greene, Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov.
As for his peers, Bourdain is a huge fan of Scott Bryan, chef and co-owner of Veritas in New York. “He’s a cult hero among chefs, ” he says, “a regular guy with no pretense, a serious soul who’s all about the food.” British chef Marco Pierre White also garners praise because “in his book White Heat, his was the first photo of a chef in whites smoking.”
Bourdain says that, for him, being a chef is the ideal career. “It’s the perfect mix of order and chaos, ” he explains. “They told my mother I needed a structured environment when I was a kid – and this is it.”
He’s been executive chef at Les Halles in Manhattan for two years now. “It’s the happiest situation I’ve had as a chef, ” Bourdain enthuses. “It’s old-school hooves and snouts – real carnivorous, working-class French brasserie food.”
In his book, Bourdain gives some important warnings to diners gleaned from years of experience behind the scenes. Among them: Never eat fish on a Monday. Don’t order mussels unless you know the chef. Under no conditions eat in a place with dirty washrooms.
When asked to name his favourite dish, Bourdain’s answer is unequivocal: “A humble stew, ” is his reply. “Braised beef shoulder in red wine with veal demi-glace, fava beans, fresh herbs, onion, carrots and a few tomatoes.”
Here’s a stew we’ve tried that comes close to that description. Fresh fava beans aren’t in season and veal demi-glace is hard to come by for home cooks but, even without them, I think Bourdain would approve.
By the way, Kitchen Confidential is sold in major bookstores and at The Cookbook Store, 850 Yonge St.
Beef Stew with Mushrooms and Orange
Adapted from Bistro Cooking (Workman) by Patricia Wells. Stewing beef sold in supermarkets is usually pre-cut in 1-inch cubes. Ask for it in one piece so you can cut it into larger pieces or get the butcher to cut it for you. Make this several days ahead to let beef marinate and cooked stew to mellow. Spoon off congealed fat on top of chilled stew before reheating. Great served with creamy mashed potatoes.
4 1/2 lb (2.25 kg) boneless chuck or stewing beef
4 carrots, sliced
3 onions, peeled, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 celery stalk, thickly sliced
1 sprig fresh parsley
3 bay leaves
1 tbsp chopped fresh (or 1 tsp dried) thyme
750 mL bottle dry red wine
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb (500 g) mixed mushrooms, e.g. button, brown, portobello, shiitake, oyster
1 tbsp tomato paste
Finely grated rind and juice of 1 orange
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cut beef into about 18 large pieces.
In a large non-metal bowl, combine beef, carrots, onions, garlic, celery, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, red wine, brandy and olive oil.
Tie peppercorns and cloves in piece of cheesecloth; add to bowl. Stir well. Cover; refrigerate 24 hours, stirring once or twice. Let marinated beef and vegetables return to room temperature. With tongs, remove beef from marinade. Using paper towel, pat dry.
Place strainer over large saucepan; pour liquid and vegetables into strainer. Set vegetables aside. Add liquid to large saucepan; bring to boil over medium-high heat. Boil 5 minutes to reduce slightly. Remove saucepan from heat.
In large skillet, heat 1/4 cup olive oil with butter over high heat. Add half of beef. Cook 5 minutes, turning occasionally, or until browned on all sides. Leaving behind as much oil as possible, transfer browned beef to saucepan. Repeat with remaining beef.
Add drained vegetables to skillet; cook over high heat 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until lightly browned.
Meanwhile, prepare mushrooms: If using shiitakes, discard stems. Tear large oyster mushrooms in two or three pieces; leave remaining mushrooms whole. With slotted spoon, transfer browned vegetables to saucepan. Add mushrooms to skillet over medium-high heat; cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until lightly browned. Transfer to bowl.
Stir tomato paste into saucepan. Bring to simmer over medium-low heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook 3 1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally, or until beef is very tender. Stir in mushrooms, orange rind and juice. Add salt and pepper. Discard cheesecloth bag and bay leaves.
Makes 8 servings. *Marion Kane is The Star’s Food Editor.