No Reservations

I read a book last weekend. A 302-page book. I was standing in Borders on Friday night, waiting for Joanna to get a drink, and I picked up a book, read the first few pages, and decided to buy it. Then I went home and finished it in three or four sittings.

In a minute I’ll have some words about the book itself, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but first I have to try to explain how strange it felt to stand in a bookstore and to feel absolutely no obligation to browse the fiction, drama, history, and literary criticism aisles. For the past seven or eight years, every trip to a book store has meant looking first for the titles I should read because my career and, perhaps, my identity (my sense of who I am/was) depended on it. In the final months leading up to my escape from academia I bought, began (with the very best intentions), and then discarded a whole stack of books, including Hardt and Negri’s Empire, Terry Eagleton’s After Theory, and Mark Kurlansky’s social history of 1968. I hope to finish them all eventually. I’ll certainly be a better-informed and more thoughtful critic and person for doing so. But it’s a relief to know I don’t have to read them or other books of their ilk, that I’ll never be tripped up in an interview or at a conference for revealing my ignorance of, I don’t know, late Foucault or something.

My dissertation work was in an area that I do genuinely find fascinating. Even just yesterday I got together with some friends for a lunchtime chat about Good Night, and Good Luck, and I was stung for a moment by the slightest twinge of regret as I launched into a breathless rant about the socio-political climate of post-WWII America and the making of people like Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy. I was enjoying myself, enjoying the unique pleasure of confident knowledge that comes from research and writing. I miss that.

But abandoning the dissertation has also made possible new and forgotten pleasures. Like the simple pleasure of being able to indulge, without guilt, the full scope of my curiosity. Maybe it’s just the passing of another birthday last week — 34, the first one so far that has felt in any way old — or maybe it’s the lingering effects of another recent read, Philip Roth’s ode to Death, Everyman, but recently I’ve become more conscious of how I regiment the hours of my life. I’ll get home tonight between 5:30 and 6:00, which gives me five good hours to get the living done. I’ll want to eat dinner and spend as much time as possible with Joanna. I’ll probably go for a run or mow the lawn. Then, around 9:00, I’ll get to do something that allows me to be more fully and completely myself. I’ll play the piano for a bit or listen to some music or watch one of the William Wyler DVDs sitting on my coffee table. Or I’ll read.

I think I’d like that to be my epitaph: “He indulged his curiosity, completely and without guilt.” I’ve been thinking about taking piano lessons again, for the first time in nearly 15 years, and I might sign up for a summer session French class. I’ve also been looking at this (I still have some birthday money to blow), and I’m checking around for introductory cooking classes.

Which brings me, finally, to Kitchen Confidential . . .

One of the few TV shows I try to watch each week is No Reservations, which is kind of like the old Jacques Cousteau series, except that, rather than voyages to the bottom of the sea, we instead join our host on a gastronomical tour of the world’s kitchens. Anthony Bourdain is the spitting image of John Cassavetes, right down to the NYC-born and -bred accent and attitude. That attitude, more than anything else, is the source of Bourdain’s charisma. He’s a fairly adventurous traveler and a reckless eater — the delight he takes in eating anything put before him wins him the instant camaraderie of every cook he meets, whether in a Paris bakery or a Moroccan hut — but he’s also sarcastic, foul-mouthed, unapologetic, and self-deprecating. He loves great food (and cigarettes and stiff drinks), and he hates bad food, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Bourdain got his Travel Channel gig on the strength and sales of Kitchen Confidential, his 2000 expose of the restaurant business. It’s actually as much a memoir as a behind-the-scenes tell-all. The back-jacket allusions to Hunter S. Thompson seem fair: Bourdain is more than a bit gonzo himself, and his writing is surprising enough and illuminating enough and funny enough to stand up to the comparison. He writes things like this (a snippet from a three-page tour of a cook’s anatomy):

At the base of my right forefinger is an inch-and-a-half diagonal callus, yellowish-brown in color, where the heels of all the knives I’ve ever owned have rested, the skin softened by constant immersions in water. I’m proud of this one. It distinguishes me immediately as a cook, as someone who’s been on the job for a long time. You can feel it when you shake my hand, just as I feel it on others of my profession. It’s a secret sign, sort of a Masonic handshake without the silliness, a way that we in the life recognize one another, the thickness and roughness of that piece of flesh, a resume of sorts, telling others how long and how hard it’s been.

That’s really nice writing. Even “in color,” a redundancy I’ve edited out of more than one technical paper over the years, works here, adding a short beat to the line before moving from the simple image of his callus to the clause that explains its significance. Bourdain, we learn in Kitchen Confidential, spent years as a struggling young cook, schlepping from kitchen to kitchen, earning and blowing more money than he deserved, indulging and, eventually, kicking a heroin addiction. He also went to private schools, including a year or two at Vassar, and spent childhood summers in France. That dichotomy is what makes his writing and his on-screen persona so engaging. He knows and loves “the life” and has the scars to prove it, but, without ever becoming detached or in any way condescending, he’s able to pull back just far enough to observe and describe a life that is so atypical — atypical, at least, to those of us who don’t work six or seven days a week, from the early morning hours straight through to, well, the even earlier morning hours.

Two nights ago, Joanna and I went back to Borders. (A new one just opened two miles from our home — cause for great celebration in the Hughes household.) I picked up a couple more books from the cooking aisle: Bourdain’s followup, A Cook’s Tour, and The Tummy Trilogy, a collection of Calvin Trillin’s food writing.

Anyone have a favorite food writer? Just curious.