Written March 1, 2015
Written by famous traveling TV star chef Anthony Bourdain, the novel predictably follows a sous-chef. I heard somewhere the writing advice of write what you know, and I guess that applies here. I think some people might be thinking, what does a chef know about writing novels, but then you have to wonder, most all writers only write in their spare time, that they all have other jobs whether accountants, cooks, waiters, bartenders, real estate agents, etc. Not all are blessed enough to be able to quit their day jobs, and few studied literature in college and then started out writing novels for a living. But Bourdain is actually an atypical chef in that he is actually I believe quite well read, at least he says so. But you can tell in his flourishing, poetic language, not only from his TV narratives but also from Kitchen Confidential. However, this book lacks many of his cool adjective adverb-heavy descriptions laced with expletives. At first, I kept hearing his melodic voice narrating the book, but later it just went away. I guess he just has a different voice here, more serious.
The crime novel follows a number of different characters and stories, but it centers around Tommy the sous-chef. (A sous-chef is the second-in-charge chef who usually does most of the work). Tommy comes from that typical Italian mob family. While his uncle Sally (it helps to know Sally is a dude at first) first lavished the kid with gifts, he now burdens him with his ties to the criminal mob world, and early on we discover a gruesome murder. We also follow small side stories including Sally’s, a shady FBI agent, a Jewish restaurant manager, and the chef who’s a heroine, pot, cocaine junkie. It is without a doubt that not only does Bourdain write knowledgeably about chefs but he must have had a lot of contact with mobsters. Living in a small city, you really don’t run into much organized crime and major criminals. Of course, in a big city you can mostly avoid them, but there is still the possibility you walk into some store in Little Italy and accidentally bump into some mobster and he might follow you out and break your knee caps. In Tokyo, you have to worry about accidentally walking into a Yakusa club and unwittingly ordering a bottle of whiskey, and they charge you $1000 and shake you up if you don’t pay up. In Reno, you only have to worry about getting mugged which is rare.
Unlike the glorified mobsters you see in the movies and on TV, real life mobsters are not glamorous, and I think Bourdain does a really good job of portraying them as rather psychotic, greedy, dangerous, and violent thugs. Some of the violence is gruesome, and it really makes you realize just how gruesome mobsters are. I read once that a cartel boss liked to kill people by throwing them in boiling oil and frying them alive. I don’t think people realize just how much pop culture glorified both mobsters and gangsters and how ruinous it was for so many youth who joined either in search of the glamour that just wasn’t there. Sure you get money to buy a car and party and take women out but it’s blood money and the evil things you have to do for it makes it all tainted and worthless. I really didn’t like the novel in that it was a bit too gritty and sad. On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed Kitchen Confidential for Bourdain’s writing style and rock star treatment of the chef life which I know is also glorified. The vast majority of the chef’s life is not partying, drinking, and snorting coke and hanging out with celebrities. It’s cutting things up, standing all day long, and working in a hot, frenzied environment, and 99.99% of chefs are not celebrities and make shitty wages and they get health insurance if they’re lucky. Bourdain could have at least made one of the chefs a rockstar and had him party and get laid at least once. I just realized it but outside of the sous-chef’s girlfriend who gets auxiliary treatment, the book is exclusively about dudes.