PAPERCUTS: Biting the Hand that Feeds You
If your idea of dining out is a Bacon Double Cheeseburger and Biggie Fries, you might want to skip this column and go directly to the comics. But if you've ever eaten in a restaurant where you had to book a table in advance, way in advance, I've got some required reading for you.
With the publication of his new book Kitchen Confidential (St. Martin's Press), Anthony Bourdain emerges as the Brenedict Arnold of the restaurant world. Hidden beneath the sparkling white table linen of many an upscale dining establishment is a shocking amount of dirty laundry, and with considerable panache and an finely honed sense of the ridiculous, Chef Bourdain reveals it all.
In order to serve hundreds of meals at a sitting, restaurant kitchens are as tightly choreographed as a performance of Swan Lake, as logistically complex as the Normandy invasion, and as nervewracking as flying Alaska Airlines. The discrepancy between the soothing calm of the dining room, and the scatalogical repartee and testosterone fueled antics in the kitchen, makes for the ultimate theatre of the absurd. Wielding a wit as sharp as a brand new Wusthof, Chef Bourdain lets us know what's really going on behind those swinging doors.
With thousands of dollars worth of food just waiting to spoil, there's good reason for unremitting anxiety. Flambe the wrong way, and you'll set off the automatic sprinklers, and flush the profit for the week down the floor drains. Bend down to tie your show laces, and in a split second, a couple of hundred dollars worth of Chilean Sea Bass turns into compost. Cut off a finger, burn your hand? Slap on a bandaid and forget it. You'll have to wait until the dinner rush dies down before you can go to the emergency room. Time and souffles wait for no man.
Want to know what to avoid eating in a restaurant? Chef Bourdain's advice is to make sure the words "Monday" and "Special" never appear together in the same sentence. Fish is generally ordered on Thursday for delivery on Friday, with the assumption that most of it will sell by Saturday night. If there's some left over on Sunday, the chef unloads it as seafood salad. "Monday? It's merchandizing night, when whatever is left over from the weekend is used up and hopefully sold for money."
Ordering the beef well done? You are the chefs' favorite customer, the final destination for the "tough, slightly skanky, end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile. He can throw it out, but that's a total loss, representing a three-fold loss of what it cost him per pound. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can save for 'Well-Done', serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat ... incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating this garbage. What's not to like?"
More caveats. Unless you're dining at Le Bernardin, never eat mussels unless you pick through them yourself and separate out the quick from the dead. One bad mussel can ruin your whole day. And night. And leave you writhing on the bathroom floor, a born again vegetarian.
Sunday brunch? Just another name for dumping off the detritus of the weekend. "Old nasty odds and ends, and $12 for two eggs with a free Bloody Mary". And you might want to skip the Eggs Benedict, because Chef Bourdain considers Hollandaise "a veriable petri dish of biohazards." 'En vinaigrette'? Forget it. Fish 'en vinaigrette' is generally a euphemism for "preserved or disguised". The same goes for many perishables on the verge of a Do Not Recusitate order.
More mysterious debris from the back of the walk-in: "Beef Parmentier? Sheperd's Pie? Chili Special? Sounds like leftover to me." The Chef suggests that you treat your waitperson with kindness, thoughtfulness, and respect. "He (or she) could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sigh."
It's not all negative. Chef Bourdain offers some great tips for home chefs, the best of which is to bypass all that pricey Solingen steel. "Unless you are really and truly going to spend 15 minutes every couple of days working that blade on an oiled carborundum stone, followed by careful honing on a diamond steel ... forego the Germans." Most professionals now use the "lightweight, easy to sharpen and relatively inexpensive vanadium steel Global knives." All you really need are one good chef's knife, a flexible boning knife, and an offset serrated knife. Plus a mandoline (did you really think all those exquisite vegetables were cut by hand?). Add the heaviest stockpots, saute pans, and saucepans you can afford, and you'll be cooking like a pro. Without the tantrums.
Of course, not every restaurant kitchen is knee deep in potato peels and rodent droppings, not every chef is a potty mouthed, cleaver wielding psycho, and not every owner is trying to pawn off the questionable fish on gullible customers. There are wonderful fine dining establishments, where it's all about the food, and a meal becomes a truly transcendent experience, a glimpse of the sublime. It pays to know the difference.