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Haute Cuisine Lowdown

May 31, 2000|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

It's hard to think of a profession that has rocketed so quickly in public estimation as that of chef. Only 30 years ago, chefs were still considered essentially blue-collar workers. The handful who achieved success and fame were almost all (a) French, (b) working in Manhattan and (c) over 50. The vast majority of cooks labored in close, sweaty, hazardous environments, more akin to a factory assembly line than to an artist's studio.

Today, chefs are regarded with awe as part artist, part scientist, part saint; they are creative, they are proficient, they ennoble us. Parents debate whether to send their kids to an elite private college or a culinary school (they can cost about the same).

We have books exploring not only chefs' cooking but the inner workings of their souls. One chef even offers "lessons in excellence," adding self-help guru to an already long list of expectations. The whole thing is beginning to seem a little overdone.

Given all this, one cannot help but welcome the arrival of Anthony Bourdain's much talked about, brutally honest "Kitchen Confidential" (Bloomsbury Publishing, $24.95). It is a breath of fresh, albeit slightly overheated, air. Bourdain is a second-rung chef in Manhattan. His restaurant, Les Halles, is generally respected as a good place to eat, but it is not a place from which one expects to emerge transformed. It is the book's signal blessing that Bourdain understands the difference and even enjoys it.

Although he apparently comes from a relatively privileged background (the references are veiled, beyond a description of an early family trip to France and allusions to time misspent in the Ivy League), it is the blue-collar aspects of cooking that seem to appeal to Bourdain the most.

There are precious few moments of artistic inspiration in this book but plenty of exuberant appreciation of the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of the professional kitchen. "Kitchen Confidential" is being billed as a tabloid tell-all (it's subtitled "Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly"). Given that context, the two chapters excerpted so far in New Yorker magazine were actually pretty disappointing: "Don't order fish on Monday." Well, duh. On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time at all in a professional kitchen can't help but admire the way Bourdain effortlessly evokes that colorful, gritty, sometimes even borderline criminal world.

There is little artistic and certainly nothing spiritual in his view of the trade, yet the result is oddly inspiring. (That's the funny thing about honesty.) Brutish though it may sound, he is saying, this is what professional cooking is really like. While we may fantasize about the chef dreaming at his stove, inventing new works of art, in reality, restaurant work is much more about the endless repetition of small perfections. And this is where Bourdain shines. There is more genuine appreciation of the chef's craft in his description of the dance of the line cook--choreographed by years of performing dangerous chores at high speed in close quarters--than in most of those culinary hagiographies put together.

To be sure, this is a far from perfect book. Bourdain can't resist playing the bad boy, larding chapters with profanity and bad behavior even when they serve no useful purpose. He is someone who can't resist the urge to shock, even when the result is far from shocking. (Kitchens in the '70s and '80s were full of drugs and promiscuous sex! Oh, my!)

But in the end, that is not what you remember about "Kitchen Confidential." Instead, what you take away is an honest appreciation for the hard work of professional cooking, what complete devotion it demands of its adherents and how miraculous a truly great restaurant is. That is the greatest inspiration of all.

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