Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

100 Books While 40: Kitchen Confidential

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Book: Kitchen Confidential
Author: Anthony Bourdain
Published: 2000

I miss the predictable rhythms of the restaurant business and the way they are made new by human quirks and foibles. Each dinner rush is the same plot just carried out by a new cast of characters. The peculiar composition of the waitstaff and the customers combine in endless ways to make each night have its own degree of efficiency and tone.

My first serving experience wrenched open my eyes to this world in unceremonious fashion. On my first day at The Old Spaghetti Factory, I got my apron, my first server book, and my first look at people, the kitchen staff to be specific, doing lines of coke. After inviting me into his office, the walk in, for my first interview, the chef invited me to have a line and to stay the fuck out of his way.

At a wide-eyed twenty, I was terrified and fascinated. And although I didn’t yet know it, that introduction to the service industry was most appropriate. Later in the evening I would have all of my family lineage insulted in a kaleidoscope of four-letter words capable of peeling the grease soaked beige paint over the grill as I learned what getting in his way meant.

The rest of the wait staff was only slightly less abusive. One of the servers appraised me one eyebrow slightly raised and flatly gave me a week and started organizing bets. In that same service I watched this same server make one of the other new hires cry over her failure to accomplish a task as basic as brewing coffee. That hire lasted until exactly that moment causing a shuffling of cash between the staff.

In that first week, I had only dreams of basic survival and reworking my budget in some way to give me time to look for a new job. But rent was due and I had no alternatives. So I did my best to work hard and avoid attracting attention.

It was somewhere in week three or four that the waitstaff bothered to learn my name. And although I initially assumed this was part of the hazing, I learned with experience that it’s more a reflection of how quickly people get and lose service jobs. At least half of the new hires would not last out their first month. With a staff of 60 people who are always in flux, it’s just a matter of economy to wait the newbies out until they’ve self sorted.

And in another month I would be thinking the rest of the staff part of my family, a weird boozy, occasionally abusive family. They would turn into the people I would call to bail me out or pick me up from the hospital. They would at once hug me fiercely and refuse to suffer a spec of my bullshit. And together we would survive the most asinine and generous extremes of customer behavior.

Kitchen Confidential had me reliving every insane, beautiful moment. I loved it. Bourdain refers to his kitchen staff as a band of pirates, this is the most apt description I have ever encountered for the weirdos who are attracted to restaurant work. They are people who for various reasons are not cut out for cubicles.

Some of them are ex-cons and don’t have access to the white collar world. Others are night owls and the discontented who eschew the confines of the nine to five. Still more are following a poorly paying passion and find waiting the most efficient way to supplement their income. Still more are steeped in gin, tattooed, and just too odd to be day walkers.

I miss that alternate reality. This book let me feel at home there once more. It reminded me that although I like what my nine to five affords me my heart belongs with the pirates.

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