Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
If the chef is anything like me, the cooks are a dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers motivated by money, the peculiar lifestyle of cooking and a grim pride. They’re probably not even American.
What most people don’t get about professional-level cooking is that it is not all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner. Line cooking—the real business of preparing the food you eat—is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef’s recipes and presentations. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automation-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.
Generally speaking, American cooks—meaning, born in the USA, possibly school-trained, culinarily sophisticated types who know before you show them what monster au beurre means and how to make a béarnaise sauce—are a lazy, undisciplined and, worst of all, high-maintenance lot, annoying opinionated, possessed of egos requiring constant stroking and tune-ups, and, as members of a privileged and wealthy population, unused to the kind of ‘disrespect’ a busy chef is inclined to dish out. No one understand and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American.
A guy who’s come up through the ranks, who knows every station, every recipe, every corner of the restaurant and who has learned, first and foremost, your system above all others is likely to be more valuable and long-term than some bed-wetting white boy whose mom brought him up thinking the world owed him a living, and who things he actually knows a few things.
If I want an opinion from my line cooks, I’ll provide one.
I never order fish on Monday. Here’s how it work: the chef of this fine restaurant orders his fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning. He’s ordering a pretty good amount of it, too, as he’s not getting another delivery until Monday morning. The chef is hoping to sell the bulk of that fish on Friday and Saturday nights, when he assumes it will be busy. He’s assuming also that if he has a little left on Sunday, he can unload the rest of it then, as seafood salad for brunch, or as a special. Whatever is left over the from the weekend is used up on Monday. Both the restaurant and seafood purveying are emptying there their fridges.
I don’t eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef personally, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service.
Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights or for the scraps generated in the normal course of business.
Bacteria love hollandaise. This lukewarm holding temperature is also the favorite environment for bacteria to copulate and reproduce in. Nobody I know has ever made hollandaise to order. Hollandaise is a veritable petri-dish of biohazards.
Brunch is punishment block for the ‘B’-Team cooks, or where the farm team of recent dishwashers learn their chops. Most chefs are off on Sundays, too, so supervision is at a minimum.
I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. Just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.
‘Beef Parmentier’? ‘Shepherd’s pie?’ ‘Chili special?’Sounds like leftovers to me. How about swordfish? I like it fine. But my seafood purveyor, when he goes out to dinner, won’t eat it. He’s seen too many of those 3-foot-long parasitic worms that riddle the fish’s flesh.
Amoebas, however, are transferred most easily through the handling of raw, uncooked vegetables, particularly during the washing of salad greens and leafy produce.
The key to dining at a restaurant is rotation.
Watchwords for fine dining? Tuesday through Saturday. Busy. Turnover. Rotation. Tuesday and Thursday are the best nights to order fish in New York. The food that comes in Tuesday is fresh, the station prep is new, and the chef is well rested after a Sunday or a Monday off. It’s the real start of the new week, when you’ve got the goodwill of the kitchen on your side. Friday and Saturday, the food is fresh, but it’s busy, so the chef and cooks can’t pay as much attention to your food as they—and you—might like. And weekend diners are universally viewed with suspicion, even contempt, by both cooks and waiters alike; they’re the slack-jaws, the rulers, the out-of-towners, the well-done-eating, undertipping, bridge-and-tunnel pre-theater hordes, in to see Cats or Les Miz and never to return. Weekday diners, on the other hand, are the home team—potential regulars, whom all concerned want to make happy. Rested and ready after a day off, the chef is going to put his best foot forward on Tuesday; he’s got his best-quality product coming in and he’s had a day or two to thing of creative things to do with it. He wants you to be happy on Tuesday night. On Saturday, he’s thinking more about turning over tables and getting through the rush.
Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s a ‘play you pay’ sort of an adventures, but you.
You need, for God’s sake, a decent chef’s knife. Most of the professionals I know have for years been retiring their Wusthofs and replacing them with the lightweight, easy-to-sharpen and relatively inexpensive vanadium steel Global knives, a very good Japanese product which has—in addition to its many other fine qualities—the added attraction of looking really cool.
I recommend Jacques Pepin’s La Technique.
I carry a flexible boning knife, a paring knife and an offset serrated knife. F. Dick makes a good offset for about twenty-five bucks. It’s stainless steel, but since it’s serrated it doesn’t really matter; after a couple of years of use, if the teeth start to wear down, you just buy yourself another one.
The indispensable object in most chef’s shtick is the simple plastic squeeze bottle.
Let me stress that again: heavyweight. A thin-bottomed saucepan is useless for anything. I don’t care if it’s bonded with copper, hand-rubbed by virgins, or fashioned from the same material they built the stealth bomber out of.
You need a nice thick non-stick pan, and not one with a thin veneer of material that peels off after a few weeks. And when you buy a non-stick, treat it nice. Never wash it. Simple wipe it clean after each use, and don’t use metal in it, use a wooden spoon or ceramic or non-metallic spatular to flip or toss whatever you’re cooking in it. You don’t wan’t to scratch the surface.
Shallots are one of the things—a basic prep item in every mise-en-place—which make restaurant food taste different from your food. You should always have some around for sauces, dressings and sauté items.
There are a lot of ways to make demi-glace, but I recommend you simply take your already reduced meat stock, add some red wine, toss in some shallots and fresh thyme and a bay leaf and peppercorns, and slowly, slowly simmer it and reduce it again until it coats a spoon. Strain.
Take one fish—a red snapper, striped bass, or dorado—have your fish guy remove gills, guts and scales and wash in cold water. Rub inside and out with kosher salt and crushed black pepper. Jam a clover of garlic, a slice of lemon and a few sprigs of fresh herb—say, rosemary and thyme—into the cavity where the guts used to be. Place on a slightly oiled pan or foil and throw the fish into a very hot oven. Roast till crispy and cooked through. Drizzle a little basic oil over the plate and sprinkle with chiffonaded parsley, garnish with basil top.
Inarguably, a successful restaurant demands that you live on the premise for the first few years, working seventeen-hour days, with total involvement in every aspect of a complicated, cruel and very fickle trade. You must be fluent in not only Spanish but the Kabbala-like intricacies of health codes, tax law, fire department regulations, environmental protection laws, building code, occupational safety and health regs, fair hiring practices, zoning, insurance, the vagaries and back-alley back-scratching of liquor licenses, the netherworld of trash removal, linen, grease disposal.
Character is far more important than skills or employment history. He understood, and taught me, that a guy who shows up every day on time, never calls in sick, and does what he said he was going to do, is less likely to fuck you in the end than a guy who has an incredible resume but is less than reliable about arrival time. Skills can be taught. Character you either have or don’t have. Bigfoot understood that there are two types of people the world: those who do what they say they’re going to do—and everyone else. He’d lift ex-junkie sleaze-balls out of the gutter and turn them into trusted managers, guys who’d kill themselves rather than misuse one thin dime of Bigfoots receipts. He’d get Mexicans right off the boat, turn them into solid citizens with immigration lawyers, nice incomes and steady employment. But if Bigfoot calls them at four in the morning, wanting them to put in a rooftop patio, they’d better be prepared to roll out of he’d and get busy quarrying limestone.
Nothing made him happier then discovering fraud or deception or even a simple white lie.
That I have to know everything, that I should never be surprised.
Don’t be a fence-sitter or a waffler. If you’re going to be a chef some day, be sure about it, single-minded in your determination or achieve victory at all costs.