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A Voice in the Wilderness

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Kitchen Confidential - by Anthony Bourdain - My Review

My friend Tony purchased a house two years ago because the spacious kitchen had potential; plenty of counter space and a fireplace. Last year, I remodeled it and it is beautiful. The layout is like a command center where Tony can roll out appetizers and entrees while chatting it up with whoever he is cooking for as they belly up to the bar.

Now Tony isn't the warm and fuzzy type. His childhood was marked by tragedy and strife. While he's never talked about it, his mother died of Cancer when he was 12 years old. Her passing left his father, a New Jersey Italian who was enrolled in the school of education, at a small town southern Colorado community college with two boys and no family to rely on.

Much to his credit, Big Tony - Tony's 'Pops' finished up his degree and settled in Albuquerque where he taught, and eventually retired from Ernie Pyle Middle School - a predominantly Latino, under-privileged working class community. Raising the boys on a teacher's salary was tough but they made it. There were times when the gas got cut off and there was little to eat. However, to his credit, both of Big Tony's boys are successful in their own right. Tony has started up two charter schools with a focus on creating socially-conscious, community-oriented citizens and his little brother Ernie is a much loved High School Football coach in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Tony is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He is tough-as-nails but he also has a very gentle side - very affectionate with his kids and wife - and he loves to cook. I suspect this is where he gets to play that out. Food is love and this is how Tony shows it. It is a place where he can create delicious gifts of sustenance for his family and his friends. In Tony's kitchen, everyone is a welcome guest.

So, last year, during one of Tony's meal preparation adventures, I mentioned that I wanted to enroll in a cooking class. Tony retorted, "Don't be a pu**y, all you need is a sharp knife and a cookbook." Well, I never enrolled. I did get myself a good cookbook and I am progressing quite well. I'm no Tony but I am getting better every day.

This Christmas, Tony gave me, an autographed, boxed set of Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' and 'Medium Raw.' I must admit, I didn't really like Anthony Bourdain whenever I saw him on television because he presented as a bit of a food snob - someone I might not want to be around. Bourdain's, 'Kitchen Confidential' has proven otherwise.

What I find most compelling is that this is a book about a guy who works with his hands, it is the story of a craftsman and how he came to acquire the skills that all those who preceded him did - no different than the many other craftsmen who work with their hands have done regardless of their chosen field of expertise.

This is probably why the book worked for me; it has a decidedly Human side to it, it is not about perfect people living perfect lives. It is about making it through everyday struggles, dealing with the questioning and the despair. It is about overcoming hardship by never giving up and sometimes, through dumb luck that we reach a level of expertise and the sense of accomplishment when our trajectories finally do level out.

This is a book about developing a craft, building skills and earning respect through dedication and hard work. Yes, Anthony Bourdain is cocky, he is brash. But, he has earned it. Looking at him through the filter of the craftsman's perspective, I cannot help but admire him because - his delivery, albeit offensive to some - knowing who he is makes him easier to understand. He isn't an unqualified spectator, he is a doer.

Had I not received this book-set as a gift, I would have never picked it up and that was based on first impressions. Anyone who knows me knows I don't like bullies. That is why I dismissed Anthony Bourdain.

That is what disturbs me; now I am wondering about how many other books have is passed over, how many people or even professions have I elected to avoid on the basis for my ignorance? Just how many other potentially fulfilling experiences have I walked away from simply because I found them objectionable or off-putting - based on my lack of exposure - I will never know. I have friend John, who is a talented painter; his creations are so moving and real - why didn't I ever learn how to paint? Yet another friend of mine, Elaine, a retired professor is linguist - what a magnificent job and I never even knew what that work entailed - how could I have missed it?

I am certain of this reality, Anthony Bourdain has made me more cognizant that I ought not be so quick to dismiss what seems to be uninteresting at first blush. Curiously, this book makes me aware of all the things I passed up - things like learning how to cook and the many other things I never tried.

Since reading his book, I now watch his show on the Travel Channel - 'No Reservations' and am always amazed at the level of respect he has for people, their cultures and their cooking methods. He is the consummate guest - completely the opposite of what I imagined him to be. He definitely has the chops to speak from the perspective of a chef and his writing offers an insight to his abilities for food preparation because the craft of writing is every bit as intricate as the ability to cook. His mind-set and personal ethics come through quite clearly. His insights and advice are solid.

He is a guy I'd like to meet in person. He may have started out in a different place but he has paid his dues. He has done some living along the way - and part of living includes making mistakes which he does not try to sugar-coat. Consequently, his Humanity comes across in a way which is not disingenuous.

His story is a success and that he is able to tell it so articulately makes it even more engaging. He may as well be my friend Tony, his brother or their Pops, just another stand-up, tough, decent Human Being.

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