New York Chef Bourdain begins by directly addressing us, promising to dish secrets that will shock us about the restaurant business. He implies that he’s a rough, tough, outlaw type of guy (“If I need a favor at four o'clock in the morning, whether it's a quick loan, a shoulder to cry on, a sleeping pill, bail money, or just someone to pick me up in a car in a bad neighborhood in the driving rain, I'm definitely not calling up a fellow writer.”) but then tells us about his wealthy childhood, vacationing in France, where he discovers his love of food.
Why Bourdain might be hard to identify with: Suddenly, he’s sailing to Europe in “cruise ware” to “summer” in France! I quit reading there the first time I tried to read the book. When I tried again, I kept reading and discovered that a few pages later, he calls himself “a sullen, moody, difficult little bastard,” which is annoying enough with average kids, but even more off-putting in rich kids.
- Lots of fascinating bizarre details about life in France: “Houses had two kitchens, an inside one and an outdoor ‘fish kitchen’.”
- As with any good foodie memoir, the sensory information overwhelms us on every page: “I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl, the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as garnish, the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato, the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.”
- Looking past these ten pages, we’ll get all sorts of memorable details that you’d only get by being there, such as cooks snorting coke through uncooked penne pasta.
- In the intro, it seems like maybe he’s had a rough life and he’ll be sympathetic, but that quickly dissipates in the next chapter.
- But there is the moment where his parents go to a great restaurant at night and just leave their kids alone in the car out in the parking lot for three hours so they can eat in peace. Crappy parents always cause us to give a lot of leeway to a hero, and rich parents can be just as crappy as poor ones, if not more so. Most importantly, the moment has irony: “And there came a time when, finally, they didn't take the kids along. I remember it well, because it was such a slap in the face. It was a wake-up call that food could be important, a challenge to my natural belligerence. By being denied, a door opened.” That basic ironic sentence fuels many books.
- Looking past these ten pages, we don’t really start to care for him until he suffers absolute humiliation in his first attempt to work at a real kitchen job in a high-end restaurant. When he burns himself and asks for burn cream, his trainer shows him all of his own burn damage and “the other cooks cheered, hooted and roared at my utter humiliation.” (I think he should have started with that incident, then went back and filled us in on his childhood, so that readers like me didn’t put the book down on first try.)
- “Spite, always a great motivating force in my life, caused me to become suddenly adventurous where food was concerned.” We like driven heroes, and spite is a great driver. People only want what they want.
- His ability to appreciate food is obviously great, from his orgiastic descriptions, and he seems to have been a very successful chef from what he tells us.
- In the French countryside as a little kid, he kills lizards with explosives for fun, so he’s a little badass.
- He’s a brave eater: “But I, in the proudest moment of my young life, stood up smartly, grinning with defiance, and volunteered to be the first”. Readers always want heroes to grin with defiance.
- He keeps comparing cooks to pirates, and he knows we love to read about pirates. If we go past the first ten pages, we see the first time he meets a chef’s crew: “In the kitchen, they were like gods. They dressed like pirates: chef's coats with the arms slashed off, blue jeans, ragged and faded headbands, gore-covered aprons, gold hoop earrings, wrist cuffs, turquoise necklaces and chokers, rings of scrimshaw and ivory, tattoos — all the decorative detritus of the long-past Summer of Love.”