Anthony Bourdain behind the scenes in fancy restaurants

The late Anthony Bourdain shot to fame as a celebrity chef following publication of his book Kitchen Confidential that went behind the scenes in the kitchens of fancy restaurants. That book grew out of a 1999 article Don’t Eat Before Reading This that he published in The New Yorker. It is a wildly entertaining account. Here are some excerpts.

Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish.

When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef.

Then there are the People Who Brunch. The “B” word is dreaded by all dedicated cooks. We hate the smell and spatter of omelettes. We despise hollandaise, home fries, those pathetic fruit garnishes, and all the other cliché accompaniments designed to induce a credulous public into paying $12.95 for two eggs. Nothing demoralizes an aspiring Escoffier faster than requiring him to cook egg-white omelettes or eggs over easy with bacon. You can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.

Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public—and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans—as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.

Like most other chefs I know, I’m amused when I hear people object to pork on nonreligious grounds. “Swine are filthy animals,” they say. These people have obviously never visited a poultry farm. Chicken—America’s favorite food—goes bad quickly; handled carelessly, it infects other foods with salmonella; and it bores the hell out of chefs. It occupies its ubiquitous place on menus as an option for customers who can’t decide what they want to eat. Most chefs believe that supermarket chickens in this country are slimy and tasteless compared with European varieties. Pork, on the other hand, is cool. Farmers stopped feeding garbage to pigs decades ago, and even if you eat pork rare you’re more likely to win the Lotto than to contract trichinosis. Pork tastes different, depending on what you do with it, but chicken always tastes like chicken

If you are one of those people who cringe at the thought of strangers fondling your food, you shouldn’t go out to eat. As the author and former chef Nicolas Freeling notes in his definitive book “The Kitchen,” the better the restaurant, the more your food has been prodded, poked, handled, and tasted. By the time a three-star crew has finished carving and arranging your saddle of monkfish with dried cherries and wild-herb-infused nage into a Parthenon or a Space Needle, it’s had dozens of sweaty fingers all over it. Gloves? You’ll find a box of surgical gloves—in my kitchen we call them “anal-research gloves”—over every station on the line, for the benefit of the health inspectors, but does anyone actually use them? Yes, a cook will slip a pair on every now and then, especially when he’s handling something with a lingering odor, like salmon. But during the hours of service gloves are clumsy and dangerous. When you’re using your hands constantly, latex will make you drop things, which is the last thing you want to do.

Finding a hair in your food will make anyone gag. But just about the only place you’ll see anyone in the kitchen wearing a hat or a hairnet is Blimpie. For most chefs, wearing anything on their head, especially one of those picturesque paper toques—they’re often referred to as “coffee filters”—is a nuisance: they dissolve when you sweat, bump into range hoods, burst into flame.

The fact is that most good kitchens are far less septic than your kitchen at home. I run a scrupulously clean, orderly restaurant kitchen, where food is rotated and handled and stored very conscientiously. But if the city’s Department of Health or the E.P.A. decided to enforce every aspect of its codes, most of us would be out on the street.

Long ago, I read George Orwell’s semi-autobiographical classic Down and Out in Paris and London where he recounted his days working as a dishwasher in fancy restaurants in those two cities. He said that if you see what goes on in those kitchens, you will never want to eat in those restaurants again.

Bourdain’s descriptions are not as dark as Orwell’s but still should disabuse those who think that high-end restaurants practice high levels of cleanliness.

One tip that he gives is to not order any fish dish on Mondays. In fact, don’t eat out on Monday’s at all. Tuesday is the best day to dine out. He explains why.


  1. anat says

    The fact is that most good kitchens are far less septic than your kitchen at home.

    Way back, probably in the 1990s, some journalists in Israel sent food samples from various restaurants, as well as from their own kitchens to labs to be tested for microbiological safety. The home kitchen samples came back much lower in bacteria counts than the restaurant samples.

    As for red meat vs chicken vs vegetarian and vegan foods -- as an omnivore child, red meats were foods I had to be guilted into eating (‘your mother worked so hard to make this food for you, how dare you refuse it’) whereas quite a few forms of chicken were actually tasty to me. As a young adult the only way I liked red meat was if it was ground up and mixed with a sauce. Fish and chicken were much preferred. Of course I haven’t had any of either since going veg and just don’t find any of it attractive at all. When I walk past restaurants that sell meat dishes I notice an odd smell, and have to remind myself that this is the smell of what many people consider food. Just feels alien.

  2. John Morales says

    anat, the fact is that I worked as a kitchenhand when I was 15-16yo.
    And I have a kitchen at home.

    Actions such as scraping the fuzz off the stew and then turning it into, um, goulash were routine. Well-aged stuff, that was.

    Finding uses for dubious product was routine.
    Picking things up off the floor was routine.

    (Mind you, this is in the mid 70s)

    PS Ever watched any episodes of Kitchen Nightmares?

  3. anat says

    I’m pretty sure I blockquoted the first line in my previous post. So just for calrity: the first line is a quote from the interview, the rest is mine. [I corrected it -- Mano]

    John, my experience with preparing food for a large number of people comes from working at a kibbutz one summer -- I worked at various places, including 2 weeks in the kitchen. The logistics were fascinating -- preparing foods for all the various dietary restrictions in the community. Every day there had to be main dishes for the general public, the vegetarians, the vegans, the young children, the one person who was allergic to onions, the diabetics, the salt-restricted, etc. That kitchen seemed reasonably clean in its practices. OTOH when i had kitchen duty during my military service I saw some awful stuff.

  4. John Morales says

    Thanks, anat. I did misread. Sorry.

    Clearly, it very much depends, and Bourdain was essentially saying commercial kitchens may be less than perfect, but that home kitchens are generally worse than that.

  5. Ridana says

    Mano, if you liked that, you might enjoy this New Yorker article about egg cooks in Las Vegas casinos (and other venues). They seem to very much enjoy their work, and even refuse opportunities to become “real” chefs of the sort that look down on them, as Bourdain seems to, or at least the skills required to feed “the brunch people.”

  6. K says

    Funny how tastes differ. As a child, I never liked chicken--too pasty and bland. As an adult, I’ve had pastured chicken and realized chicken *does* have a taste…and it’s…okay? Fish and shellfish? Yuck; the reek is a turnoff, then there’s the sewage and pollutants that so much of it swims in and consumes. Might as well be eating bugs you find in a muddy, shallow puddle. But somehow many vegetarians will eat fish because somehow they’re not alive?

  7. txpiper says

    You cannot get french fries there. They do not use computers. The waiters communicate with the cooks by the way they set up the plates. FEMA gauges the severity of natural disasters by whether or not Waffle House is open. I always sit at the bar to watch the cooks. Trained chefs cannot do what they do. Every move they make counts.
    “Rockstar Grill Operator is Waffle House’s term for its best short-order cooks, after the entry-level Grill Operators and more senior Master Grill Operators. Rockstars like Charles must be nominated by several of their peers and managers and pass various food safety examinations. They also take a “volume based” cooking test that Waffle House isn’t particularly happy discussing in detail (I suppose it’s proprietary) but that one employee told me meant you had to cook $1,500 worth of orders on a single six-hour shift. I have no true sense of how difficult that is, but my steak and eggs, the most expensive item on the menu that day, cost $8.50, so the math is available to be done. Waffle House only recently codified these classifications after years of more haphazard ratings, such as the impressive-sounding Super Master Grill Operator and the subtly undermining Master Blaster. About 10 percent of Waffle House’s cooks currently qualify as Rockstars.”

  8. tuatara says

    K @6.
    I do not know even a single “vegetarian” who eats fish, given that ‘a fish’ is an animal, and ‘fish’ is the flesh of said animal.
    If you do know a “vegetarian” who does eat fish perhaps you could encourage them to examine their definitions to see if they are a “vegetarian” or actually a vegetarian?

  9. rgmani says

    @ tuatara
    Unfortunately, too many people in the United States are rather imprecise in describing their food habits to the point where the word “vegetarian” has become synonymous with occasional fish eating -- even though there is a perfectly good word for someone who abstains from all animal meats other than fish. Heck the current mayor of New York has described himself as vegan -- and he occasionally eats fish!

    For most of my time in the US, I have been vegetarian (vegan for the past 3 years) and there have been quite a few occasions when, after learning I was vegetarian, people have asked me whether I eat fish.

  10. tuatara says

    I have frequently experienced the misfortune of being invited out to dinner with work colleagues to restaurants unknown to me, but establishments those same work colleagues have assured me do cater to vegetarians.
    It turned out that yes, they had chips (french fries) on the menu, and I could get a side of salad. All the other “vegetarian” dishes were based on fish or chicken.
    “What, you don’t eat chicken? Or fish? What kind of “vegetarian” are you?
    To which I reply, “The type that does not eat the flesh of an animal, so just a regular run-of-the-mill no-frills vegetarian”.

    I have experienced this phenomenon in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, so it is not just a USAian problem. It is a general and rather widespread educational issue.

  11. Deepak Shetty says

    @tuatara @6

    I do not know even a single “vegetarian” who eats fish, given that ‘a fish’ is an animal,

    I am a gravytarian .
    2 decades ago when we went to Paris and went to a McDonald’s and asked them for a vegetarian option (The McDonalds and Buger king in London did have a vegertarian option) -- The server looked at us and asked Fish ?

  12. John Morales says


    … we went to Paris and went to a McDonald’s …


    I’ve eaten McDonald’s exactly twice in my life, and both times only because I was desperate and I had a voucher for two-for-the-price-of-one.

    Each time it was a dismal experience, a leaden lump of fatty meat stuff and fatty, fatty soggy salty chips. And not even cheap, without the voucher.
    Not for the grub you get, anyway. Calories, I suppose, but I’d rather chomp into a loaf of bread by itself — cheaper, healthier, and better all around.

    Last time was like, um, 30 years ago. I doubt they’re any better now.

    But… again!
    What gets me is that you went to one of the world’s premier culinary sites, and you chose generic USAnian glop as eating-out your option.


    As for the topic, I once tried to watch an Anthony Bourdain episode.

    It was not about food, as such. It was basically a travelogue.

    (So, far as that goes, I’ve indulged in Bourdain more than in Mc[fucking]Donalds)

  13. John Morales says

    Um, also, I kinda feel bad riffing off you, Deepak.


    Do you have any vegetarian or vegan menu options?

    May 23, 2022
    Does Macca’s have any vegetarian or vegan menu options?

    Unfortunately, no McDonald’s menu items are certified as vegan or vegetarian. While some ingredients may not contain animal ingredients, we cannot guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination of ingredients during transportation, storage or preparation in our kitchens.

    So your substantive point stands.

    Gotta love “While some ingredients may not contain animal ingredients”, right?

    Easy enough to get the subtext from the PR-speak:
    Basically, maybe (who could possibly know?) some (most certainly not all) ingredients (not referring to our actual products that we actually sell) may not contain (mmmhmm) animal ingredients, we cannot (will not) guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination of ingredients during transportation (as if cross-contamination were the issue), storage (we store it all together) or preparation (we prepare it all together) in our kitchens (by which we mean “factory kitchens staffed by the lowest-possible-paid labour force).

  14. Holms says

    #13 Deepak
    Your Times of India article appears to use ‘vegetarian’ to mean ‘vegan’, which made me smile given the conversation turned to the (mis)use of the word vegetarian.

  15. rgmani says


    The Times of India article does not conflate vegetarian and vegan. Usually, when you say ‘vegetarian’ in India, it is taken to mean lacto-vegetarian. The concept of veganism barely exists in India and most people do not have a clue what it means. I say ‘barely exists’ because awareness is beginning to creep in but India is a long way behind the West when it comes to veganism.

  16. Deepak Shetty says

    @John Morales


    Low budget and not much savings at that time :). The vegetarian option that we could see was a hard baguette with a hard cheese and tomato and our experience with McDonalds in London was atleast they had a veggie patty and I still fondly remember Burger King’s vegetarian bean burger.

    What gets me is that you went to one of the world’s premier culinary sites,

    No offense -- but most French food is non-vegetarian and atleast for the people who just stepped out of India , French food is extremely bland. It takes years to start appreciating the differences in other cuisines. Its still probably towards the bottom of my list of preferences , beaten out only by British food. (my personal tastes rather than a commentary about cuisine)

    Where did you get that ? Most of Indian vegetarians have no problem with dairy so they are not vegans . The controversial item is Eggs. There are also more restrictive vegetarians (Jains for e.g.) who wont eat anything that causes the death of the entire form by their definition(so they wont eat carrots, onions, garlic or pasteurized milk). We do have a version of vegans who wont touch any animal product -- whether it be milk or wear leather .

  17. Mano Singham says

    When I firsts came to the US many decades ago as a graduate student, I used to eat quite a lot at McDonalds. It was cheap, conveniently located, and I actually enjoyed the hamburgers. But over time, I noticed that I started to feel slightly nauseous after eating one and so I stopped. I haven’t eaten one for decades.

    I don’t know why my body’s response changed so that it now rejects the McDonald’s hamburger. I don’t think my food tastes have become more refined over time. I do not as a rule eat hamburgers but when I eat them at some social event that has a cookout, they do not bother me.

  18. Holms says

    #19, #20
    Vegetarianism means not eating the flesh of an animal, it does not mean avoidance of eggs or dairy. Yet the article presents multiple vegetarian ‘types’ as if they were somehow bucking the trend of vegetarianism in the main.

    The article intro sets the scene: “In India more than 40 percent people claim to be vegetarians . While for some it is a matter of personal choice, for a large number of people vegetarianism comes in varying degrees. Their being a vegetarian is conditional and sometimes these conditions are quite amusing. …”

    Emphasis added. That passage presents these vegetarian types as if they are selectively straying from vegetarianism. Yet the eggitarian is an example of ‘vegetarian type’ that does not stray at all. The layer did not die for the sake of the meal. The egg itself is not the flesh of an animal. Virtually all eggs consumed are unfertilised, and even those that are fertilised are frequently unable to develop due to being taken from the mother’s nest and allowed to cool. Only dishes like balut can really described as the flesh of an animal and hence a breach of vegetarianism.

    Even more indicative of my point though is the cakeitarian. Description: “They are an extension of the eggetarian category, who don’t mind eating cakes, breads or cookies to which egg has been added. On all other cases they are a vegetarian.” Emphasis added. The article treats the addition of egg (and possibly dairy, given the food items being referenced?) as a non-vegetarian food. But egg (and dairy) are not non-vegetarian, they are only non-vegan.

  19. rgmani says

    @Holms #23

    The Times of India article is meant to be a little tongue in cheek. The first two (pure vegetarian, eggitarian) are the only real categories of vegetarian (corresponding to lacto-vegetarians and ovo-lacto-vegetarians respectively). The rest are backsliders of various kinds who still use the ‘vegetarian’ label from time to time.

    Regarding eggs being vegetarian -- I get your logic but with many Indians, it is really not about logic. Most people in India are not vegetarian because of some health-related or ethical reason. They are vegetarian because their parents, grandparents and so on were vegetarian -- in other words, because of tradition. And so, by tradition, eggs are considered to be in the ‘meat’ category while dairy is not. The tradition is followed blindly without much thought.

  20. Deepak Shetty says

    Given that I call myself a vegetarian and eat egg I agree with your definition. However there is a set who call themselves “pure” vegetarians , including restaurants which market themselves this way (shudh shakahari). You could argue the definition with them , but I suspect they would , like me , point out that these traditions pre-date the existence of western dictionaries! I will even eat the gravy of a non-vegetarian dish or the Rice from a Chicken Biryani (A practice I excused to spare my mother from having to cook separately for me, as I was the only vegetarian in the family. So im quite flexible with the definition.
    Also this is not a serious article -- its funny to us because we mostly can identify atleast a friend who falls into one of these categories. It gets more amusing when some of us come to places in a different timezone. So the ones who eat/dont eat meat on specific days sometimes dont eat based on the Indian timezone (so they and their families didnt eat on the same day!)

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