August 13, 2009
I'm on a culinary binge, a mental one, and it may last for a while.
I've been reading and watching Anthony Bourdain for a few months now, following his tracks, trying to see what he's about and what he has to teach me. I've enjoyed a few episodes of No Reservations, his cooking and traveling show. I loved the episodes in Spain, Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, Colombia, New Orleans and San Francisco.
In San Francisco, he talked and dined and drank with Augie Kleinzahler, who is the poet laureate of Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I now live. On Sunday night, Augie, Donna, Nelson, Tom M. and I, friends from the Fort Lee Film Commission, dined together at Inapoli's in Fort Lee. Augie said that Bourdain loved his book, Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained One, and knew he came from Jersey (Bourdain is from Leonia), so his people contacted him for the show. Augie, I might add, has been living in San Francisco for a few years now, and his book is set in bars there. He is home now for a few months to sell his mother's house. Augie said there was a lot of drinking and that he couldn't remember what he said, only that he was sure that what Bourdain said "was much worse." It was an engaging episode, of course.
Bourdain looks tired. He drinks too much. I am sure this is no news to him or to any of the people who follow his shows or his writing. But I like the guy. Mostly, I think because he reminds me of my brother -- which is no reason to like anybody, really.
But as far as No Reservations goes, I am beginning to view Bourdain as a one-note toot. After reading his highly entertaining and energetic memoir, Kitchen Confidential, and being mildly impressed (certainly impressed by the good looks of the guy on the cover), I have moved on to Bill Buford's Heat, about Buford's experiences working in the kitchen of a famous chef. I'm not as "into" this memoir, as it's chalk full of too many details for me -- too many characters and too many recipes. I often have the feeling the writer, Buford (who left writing at The New Yorker in order to launch into his culinary adventures), is talking to himself and a coterie of highly sophisticated and knowledgeable writers and foodies, neither of which I am. What I like most about Bourdain's writing style is that it's up front, plain-spoken and chatty as if he is sitting across from you in some restaurant, telling you the goods. I prefer Bourdain's style.
I'll say to my credit that I'm by no means uninformed, or unexperienced, when it comes to either reading or cooking. I come from a long line of readers. My mother got us started. She was a very sophisticated reader, loved the Brits, Anita Brookner and Graham Greene and passed on her love to her children, particularly my two sisters and me. My sister Marcela in particular is a voracious reader, and I am sure, were it not for the fact that my other sister Alexandra has to raise three kids, she would be right up there, consuming the best of the best -- as Mar does, and I aspire to do.
I'm not totally clueless as a cook either, which is one of the reasons I love watching the cooking shows, and Bourdain in particular. I put myself through college, working summers at Chez Pierre in Westport, Connecticut, and let me tell you, I have kitchen tales of my own. Chez Pierre was upscale, frequented by personalities like Paul Newman, who came in for beer and oysters almost every day.
I was the pantry girl and used to get regularly bonked in the rear by the assistant cook, Tom, who thought it was very cute to crotch bump me in the behind every time he had to slide past me in the narrow quarters in which we worked. I finally complained to the owner, who gave me a raise, which of course I took. The bumping stopped, but it was a crazy kitchen and the work, the hardest I have ever done.
All I had to do was make salads, shuck oysters and clams and get it all out on time, but it was more than that. The pressure was constant, and the cooks saw to it that I never had a free second. I was always doing more than one person should have had to do, prepping dishes, cleaning, shucking, and all the while taking crap, but also enjoying the cooks, Tom especially, who was a regular comedian.
I had a helper, Ana, from El Salvador, who was my assistant. One day it seemed like she was eating up all the fruit that I needed to have peeled for fruit salad. When I asked her to stop eating the fruit, she said, "Oh no, I'm not eating it, just peeling it" -- with her teeth!
We worked in a narrow space and once in a while a sweetbread that Tom was cooking would slip from his hand and fall into that groove where grease and the grime of ages collect. Tom would just pluck up the sweetbread, dust it on his pants' leg and plop it on the plate. It's true what they -- Bourdain, Buford and others-- say about the kitchen. It's peopled with wild characters and their habits would skieve out the funkiest of diners.