The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 1: Kitchen Confidential

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

Is it embarrassing to admit that Kitchen Confidential—the 2000 memoir by Anthony Bourdain that injected sex, drugs, and rock and roll into the tame world of celebrity chefs—was the book that made me consider cooking as a career? Because it was.

I'd actually started cooking professionally the year before it came out,* but it wasn't until my dad lent me his copy of Kitchen Confidential that I saw cooking as anything more than a summer job.

* If you can call flipping shrimp and juggling asparagus tips as a "Knight of the Round Grill" at the local Mongolian grill "cooking," that is.

"Anthony Bourdain is just such a badass," I thought to myself as I, a college junior, punted my way through another problem set. I couldn't get the book out of my head. The world of cooking, as Bourdain described it, was like living every day in a post-apocalypse survival-horror TV show. Your wits and your brawn were tested at every turn. It didn't matter what your past life was. It didn't matter how important you thought you were. You, and the motley crew of cooks around you, survived on merit and performance alone. Every dinner service was a full syringe of adrenaline straight into your veins.

After flying through the last macho, drug-fueled, exhilarating page, I told my girlfriend at the time, "I think I want to be a cook."

"No you don't, Kenji. You want to be an architect."

"No, really, I think I want to be a cook."

She eventually took me at my word and bought me a Global chef's knife for my birthday (I still have that knife to this day). Right after graduation, I packed it into my knife roll and went door to door, begging for a job at every worthwhile restaurant in the Boston area. I was off to the races.

Skimming through the book now, 17 years later, having gone through the wringer in the restaurant business, the word "badass" comes with a bit of an eye roll. Bourdain's world is the world of pre-Disney Times Square. His compatriots are thieves, drug addicts, misogynists, and ne'er-do-wells. It's the kind of stuff that seemed cool to a socially repressed 19-year-old, but doesn't exactly cause a stirring in my loins these days. Don't get me wrong—working in a restaurant kitchen is like a nightly shot of adrenaline. But the darker sides of those pages come to life only if you try real hard to make sure they do.

The types of kitchens Bourdain writes about in Kitchen Confidential still exist, I'm told, but they're becoming more and more scarce. This is a good thing: Kitchens that are run with discipline and order, kitchens that encourage curiosity and experimentation, kitchens where bullying and misogyny are treated like the anachronisms they are—these are the kitchens that thrive these days, and our food is all the better for it.

Still, who doesn't like to immerse themselves in the world of badasses (eye roll) every now and then, especially when that world is so vividly and humorously brought to life?

Who should read it: Folks who are in the Venn diagram intersection of "loves cooking," "loves survival horror," and "loves rockumentaries."

You can buy Kitchen Confidential here (free if you have Kindle Unlimited).