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Difficult Man: ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and the Early Days of Anthony Bourdain’s Legend

Bourdain’s incendiary industry tell-all was at once a colossal act of mythmaking and one of self-flagellation. Twenty years after its publication, and more than two years after his death, it feels just as urgent today as it did upon its release.

Leonardo Santamaria

As late as 1999, Anthony Bourdain’s principal vocation remained his position as executive chef at the venerable but self-consciously middle-brow steak-frites joint Les Halles, on Park Avenue between 28th and 29th streets in Manhattan. Always a blessing and a curse, Bourdain’s restless mind continuously kicked the tires on other career avenues—Random House had published his Elmore Leonard–style culinary crime novel Bone in the Throat a few years previous—but by no means was he walking away from his calling in the kitchen. He was 43 years old, rode hard and put up wet, a recovering addict with a number of debts and a penchant for finding trouble in failing restaurants across the city. At Les Halles—at last—he had found sustained success and something resembling stability. This is what Anthony Bourdain would have had us believe.

But in the spring of 2000, his sublimated literary ambitions suddenly caught up with and then quickly surpassed his cooking. Brought forth by the boutique publishing house Ecco Press, Bourdain’s long-gestating, industry-disrupting, love-letter-cum-horror-show-confessional Kitchen Confidential became an immediate sensation. Flippant and funny, but vested with a deep reverence for his chosen field, the memoir tapped into a rich vein of industry lore and personal history. Bourdain’s prose was robust, witty, gossipy, outrageous, and informative. All at once, the possibilities were endless, the implications exhilarating and terrifying. He was a world-building raconteur, whose handsome visage and wiry 6-foot-4 frame seemed factory-assembled for the biggest stage. He was a ready-made star of the book tour circuit with a clear path forward. The Tony Bourdain show was headed for television.

In the just over two years since his tragic death, Bourdain has taken on a near-mythic stature as an emissary for food culture, an individual whose far-flung televised travelogues evolved over time from carousing misadventures into full-blown celebrations of genuine cultural exchange. By the time of his death, Bourdain had played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming and democratization of food culture, essentially bulldozing centuries-old elitist notions of fine dining by dint of his fierce advocacy and boundless enthusiasm. Bourdain’s overarching hypothesis—that political and social inequality could be both better understood and significantly redressed through an investigation of what and how we eat—has become so widely accepted that it can be strange to reflect that just two decades previous these ideas were largely alien. His big move from workaday chef to revolutionary frontiersman began in earnest 20 years ago, and the journey it would take him and his audience on was breathtaking.

By the time Kitchen Confidential was published, the modern food-media-industrial complex that had elevated cooking shows and celebrity chefs to household-name status was well under way, embodied by ubiquitous Food Network personalities like Emeril Lagasse and, later, Rachael Ray. Indeed, it could be argued that Bourdain undertook Kitchen Confidential as a kind of insurrectionist rebuttal to what he perceived to be an unacceptably false narrative that was cropping up about the industry he derived so much of his identity from. For Bourdain, the Food Network was an all-consuming bête noire, one that he complained about incessantly and with seemingly endless rancor in his writing and during his early forays on TV (a brief, unhappy stint on the network only added napalm to this fire). Like David Letterman or Steve Allen before him, Bourdain was driven by a pathological impetus to define himself against some real or perceived existing order.

If his journey from the kitchen to the TV screen was practically preordained in the immediate aftermath of his literary triumph, Bourdain’s persona was still a work in progress. So often in Kitchen Confidential, the keen intelligence of his observations are undermined by a transparent coarseness meant to burnish him as a rough-and-ready punk rock chef. Forced efforts at tough-guy panache often come off as needlessly demeaning and bullying, in the form of stipulations like: “Women who can survive and prosper in such a high-testosterone universe are all too rare.” Kitchen Confidential is very much a contest of wills between the avuncular, compassionate persona Bourdain would eventually embody and the shitty, Vassar-dropout rich kid overly proud of his drug habit and record collection.

In a recent phone conversation, GQ food writer Brett Martin, who also authored the excellent 2013 survey of the early days of prestige television Difficult Men, reflects on this through the lens of two decades of hindsight: “I think people forget, in the sanctification that’s followed Bourdain’s death, that his persona early on was really sort of an asshole, shot through with this adolescent, faux-gonzo narcissism. He and [creator of The Wire] David Simon shared that weakness. But they also shared a clarity of vision and this jubilance and brilliance.”

Martin believes that Bourdain embodies many of the contradictions common to the group of driven male auteurs of his era, men like David Chase of The Sopranos and Simon, whose self-styled machismo and obsession with perceived authenticity could periodically obscure their well-intentioned progressive views.

“You can’t read Kitchen Confidential without seeing how deeply a kind of damaged manhood was baked into restaurant culture. Kitchens are the most Freudian places in the world,” Martin says. “With all three—Bourdain, Chase, and Simon—their work is about men who remain essentially unknown to themselves, who are deeply fucked up by the neuroses of modern masculinity. I think Bourdain spent a lot of his later years recognizing and repenting for that.”

Kitchen Confidential also mirrors some of the former newspaper reporter Simon’s uncanny talent for explaining complex hierarchies and ecosystems. Just as Simon laid bare the Byzantine world of Baltimore’s drug trade and the futile attempts at policing it, Bourdain’s rogues’ gallery of investors, managers, food purveyors, inspectors, underworld operators, and rank-and-file staff involved in a typical restaurant venture is an exhilarating window into what civilians might have misconstrued as prosaic. Little wonder that Simon would eventually hire Bourdain to write multiple episodes of his post-Katrina, New Orleans–set HBO drama, Treme.

Conscious of his influences and the inheritance of a specific literary legacy, Kitchen Confidential is often cannily referential. Martin correctly points out how closely Bourdain follows the beats of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a 1933 social-realist depiction of the anarchic and frequently thrilling life of restaurant staff laboring in a pitiless metropolis, which doubles as a Marxist critique of the desperate and even inhumane conditions encountered by those workers.

“Like Orwell, Bourdain renders this incredibly compelling, romantic account of that life,” Martin observes. “But he never really gets to the Marxist part. Instead, he flips the script into a celebration: ‘We’re not drones or slaves; we’re pirates! We’re not being oppressed; it’s the squares in the dining room that are the losers!’ It’s this incredible seizure of power.”

Both in print and on television, Bourdain was rarely more appealing and articulate than when emphasizing the intrinsic role of immigrant labor in fine dining, and the stinging irony of frequently marginalized and persecuted populations rendering the three- and four-star meals so complacently received by more well-heeled diners. His profound esteem for the overlooked backbone of American restaurant culture resonates even more powerfully in the current moment when the demonization of Hispanic and Latinx immigrants has become a favored tactic for the country’s most cynical and toxic political entities.

“No one understands the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards more than a non-American,” Bourdain writes. “The Mexican, Dominican, and Salvadorian cooks I’ve worked with over the years make most CIA-educated [Culinary Institute of America] white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks.” There is little doubt that Bourdain understood that the “CIA-educated white boys” epithet applied to himself.

Inevitably, Bourdain’s complicated relationship to his own privilege serves as a crucial subtext to both Kitchen Confidential and the work that would follow it. Raised under well-to-do circumstances in the New Jersey suburb Leonia, he bristled against the placid stability of his upbringing, and clearly carried the self-applied stigma of his white-shoe circumstances with a modified shame throughout his life. A dedicated scion of punk rock and ’70s-centric notions of antiauthoritarianism, Bourdain’s privilege and access only accelerated his hatred for all things bourgeois. No amount of his gutter-dwelling enterprises ever seemed to fully remove the self-perceived residue of weakness. In an unsettling essay, “The Happy Ending,” which appeared in his Kitchen Confidential follow-up Medium Raw, Bourdain writes: “I bridled bitterly at the smothering chokehold of love and normalcy in my house … I’d wanted to be a junkie, after all, since I was 12 years old.”

It was a form of self-loathing that seemed to never fully leave him, one equally apt to manifest itself as reckless behavior or extraordinary art. It may ultimately explain why he left the kitchen, a venue he zealously romanticized as a purifying and meritocratic proving ground. As his media profile increased and his obligations as a chef wound down, Bourdain’s writing became littered with references to his soft hands and fraying work ethic. This was a bit unfair—Bourdain’s astoundingly prolific world traveling and television-making undertakings would have promptly broken a brace of lesser-driven individuals—but on some level he seemed later in life to regard himself as the man who couldn’t cut it as a cook.

Hiding in the final third of Kitchen Confidential, the travelogue “Mission to Tokyo” quietly represents the full flourishing of Bourdain’s gifts while subtly implying a shift in destiny. Sent to Japan to consult on the opening of a Tokyo-based branch of Les Halles, he proceeds to render the experience in all of its jet-lagged, native-terrified, migraine-experiencing, drunk-on-novelty-and-alcohol mania appropriate to the occasion. It’s mesmerizing.

“Mission to Tokyo,” ever more discernibly with the passage of time, is the functional first episode of the global travel adventure series No Reservations and Parts Unknown, which would ultimately account for the lion’s share of Bourdain’s legacy. There may be no other voice to date that has migrated so easily off the page and onto the screen.

Things were moving fast in his world. In Kitchen Confidential’s Proustian final chapter, “Kitchen’s Closed,” which advances his story right up to the fateful moment of the book’s publication, Bourdain is wrenchingly caught in mid–spiritual crisis—seeming to simultaneously pledge his devotions to a chef’s life while desperately appealing for parole. He enumerates his accumulated injuries in florid detail (“Trying vainly to reattach a flap of skin that was destined to become necrotic …”) and attempts to track down the lost old friends from early in the book, largely unsuccessfully. The reflective tone resembles Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves, the 1974 album that presaged the end of a long-tenured marriage at the start of an endless tour. Bourdain had long persuaded himself that his authentic place was cloistered among the unseen misfits and degenerates and idiot-savants of the restaurant world. Now it transpired that his true talent was something like the opposite: He was an unlikely global ambassador. But he was the best ambassador.

The “Aftermath” addendum included in the 2007 edition of Kitchen Confidential is sadder still, composed by an addled Bourdain checking in from his TV tour: “Bali, Indonesia, following a long swing through Seoul.” Obviously his days as a chef are done, replaced by the jungle-cat world traveler that was his invention and burden. And then Bourdain says this: “I once felt safe and at home in the kitchen. I knew the rules—or thought I knew the rules. It was a life of absolutes—of certainties—and that comforted me in a way nothing since has.”

And nothing ever did. For the first time but not the last, Bourdain was saying goodbye.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.