Deeply masculine and a champion of counter-culture, Anthony Bourdain revealed the soul of the professional kitchen to America. He told the world what every cook knew – kitchens were raw and rude, cut-throat and macho. Though his refined tough-talk, Bourdain revealed deliciously dirty truths about the restaurant industry, captivating industry professionals and hobbyists alike – he was an insider to a lifestyle championed by those who survive it. Although the professional kitchen can be inexcusably unprofessional, he captured how it can also be liberating and refreshing. Its straight-forwardness coupled with witty banter, a fondness for pleasure and excess is the stuff of sit-coms and mini-dramas. Although its devotees sacrifice any normal social life and work grueling hours, they simultaneously escape the drudgery of decency and reality. Whether it’s the rush of adrenaline from working on the line, the afterhours (or all day) drinking or simply feeling a sense of superiority over a well-to-do patron who prefers his steak well-done, cooks are masters of visceral satisfaction. Bourdain artfully revealed every bite of it in all its juicy glory.
I feel simultaneously defensive and disgusted by the kitchen. I’ve succeeded in it, mastered difficult personalities, armored my femaleness, and made some great food alongside some crazy, eccentric personalities. I’ve had fun in Bourdain’s world. But ultimately, since Kitchen Confidential came out eighteen years ago (2000), the narrative of the kitchen hasn’t really changed. The core of the profession remains masculine, asses are still grabbed and women still feel like they have something to prove. I never typed #MeToo, because I felt I’d somehow knowingly signed up for all of it. Today, allegations against the Spotted Pig feel nearly forgotten and Mario Batali’s crocks and cock are already a thing of the past. Chefs will be, after all…
From the moment I started culinary school, where many of the instructors were old, Frenchmen and Germans, I was treated as a darling granddaughter. Somehow, there was a shadow and I was a woman first and a student second. It was subtly and charmingly offensive. While the food quality and general class protocol were of course a primary focus, more than one instructor innocently reminded me how incompatible the toils of the industry were with raising a family, should I ever want one…I’m pretty sure no one was discussing potential reproduction with my male colleagues. I had the sinking feeling that my abilities were prorated. I had a handicap. I was a woman. As I continued along my journey as a cook, I learned that the female version of Anthony Bourdain doesn’t exist because it can’t. The profession still doesn’t belong to us.
Bourdain gave the industry a truthful and beautiful narrative about the simultaneously freeing and condemning lifestyle of the professional kitchen. Yet, now it feels like we need to do something with his information. He was a poetic storyteller, using food to reach people all over the world. He connected with others through food, revealing sensitive aspects of humanity. He left as a keen observer. It is up to us to define the call to action.