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What I Read on My Summer Vacation

July 22, 2010 | Frank Bonanno

(In the spirit of disclosure: Anthony Bourdain & Me at Mizuna)

I had a phenomenal vacation. I cooked for people I love every night in what can only be described as a magical setting; I spent a ton of time in the ocean with my sons (we line caught crabs together every morning, fished for mussels, surfed, swam, built castles)–but you know what took this vacation just a rating beyond “great?” I got to read. I read all the time—trade journals, food magazines, cookbooks—but I do so on a treadmill, or in my office, or in the bathroom–so to really just sit back and read two full novels, well, that was some vacation. Since these two books from my phenomenal vacation have salted my conversations and thoughts recently, and I wanted to write about What I Read on My Summer Vacation.

The first was Devil in the Kitchen, a gift from the Bones’ chef, Jared. I’d heard of Marco Pierre White and his legend my whole career. I’d read Gordon Ramsey’s view of him (last year’s vacation), and I wanted to see White’s side of those stories. What would he want to convey to readers? Was he really such a bastard?

Yes. Turns out this guy is not likable, and from chapter one he takes a great deal of pride pointing it out. His own words define him as someone who’s never done a kind thing for anyone except Marco Pierre White. I kept reading, though. People worked for this guy for years; they must have liked his training methods, what he brought to their careers. He must have inspired them. I was hoping White would reveal himself to be one of those secretly awesome coaches that nurtures his progeny—I’d love to get insight from a chef like that. Turns out he’s this lonely guy that beats people down to rise. Imagine how awful it must be to think that you’re the only one in the world who really cares? A line cook complains of heat—and White knifes ventilation holes in his chef whites (there’s a photo of the shredded jacket in the book). Cooks actually pass out from the heat and work conditions in the kitchen—White has their bodies dragged outside and dumped in the parking lot. He takes undeniable satisfaction in the inhumane. From reading Devil in the Kitchen, I came to understand that White really was a brilliant coach—of the Bobby Knight ilk. A general of the old school. What I liked about his writing was that it reaffirms the ingredients for success: focus, drive, determination and consistency. But the book was a clear juxtaposition to, say, Setting the Table or The Making of a Chef, in which Danny Myers and Michael Ruhlman achieve focus, drive, consistency—through completely opposite means. I like to think that the glory days of maintaining those standards through fear are over.

My second read was a lot more fun, though the figure is just as controversial: Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain. I read it on my Father’s Day nook, which was a gift of love, so maybe I went into the read with a more loving attitude– because I really, really, enjoyed reading it. Is it the most influential piece of food writing I’ve read? –No. Just a good solid set of essays from someone who’s stood in my clogs and vocalizes a lot of my own beliefs. I like that Bourdain acknowledges his limits in the kitchen, and roots those limits in drugs and alcohol. He devotes chapters to the notion of selling out— how mouths need to be fed in the wake of success–wives, children, talented staff who have to grow—and I agree that at some point “selling out” is actually just growing up and thinking beyond yourself. Providing for those you love. Although he calls this book a “bloody valentine,” my favorite chapter so intricately details the exquisite fish butchery of Justo Thomas that the style could only be described as “lovingly”—a valentine in the real, traditional sense. While Devil in the Kitchen took me a week to slog through, I read Medium Raw in just a couple days—maybe because I so wholeheartedly agreed with point after point—John Mariani; the impact of substance abuse on the industry, the beauty and mystery of figures like David Chang and Grant Aschatz. I see Bourdain as an Advocate for the Cook, because he admires chefs who raise the bar, and disdains “talent” that lowers it. Bourdain can say out loud what so many of us are thinking, and that act strengthens his career rather than sabotaging it. I live vicariously through reading Bourdain’s words. White’s made me die a little inside.

I’m pretty one-dimensional. The life I lead is kitchen centered, the books I read are food focused. That’s where my passion is; I can relate to the material intimately; I like to be informed; I like to be current; I like to be inspired. Omnivore’s Dillema took me two vacations to read, but it changed the way I view the food world and my role in it. So, when I have time to relax, I do so with material that I hope will be transformative. Are you a cook? What reading inspired you? What work transformed your career, peppered your thoughts and conversations? I’d love to start planning my Christmas reading. . .