The 5280 restaurant critic contemplates the legacy of confidential cooking

Chef-owner Dana Rodriguez, who immigrated to Denver from Mexico in 1998, and her Work & Class team. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Anthony Bourdain’s 20-year-old book addresses topics that are more relevant than ever, including the richness and value of the American restaurant subculture.

In this weird year, there are people I needed to hear from again for the sake of my sanity. My two favorites are gone: Anthony Bourdain and Christopher Hitchens. Neither had patience for injustice or idiocy. Given the inexorable injustice and idiocy of 2020, I’ve reread and revised both Tony and Hitch.

I was lucky enough to see Hitchens, the British-born social and political critic, in person in Alabama in 2010 in a Christian debate on atheism. He struggled to the podium, bald and tired from chemo, and I feared a faint roar from the great lion. Oh, I of little faith! He was educated, sharp and funny. We infinitesimal creatures, he said, are made of dust from the stars of a billion billion galaxies, and since we will follow all the stars, the original sin is not to think critically in our short periods of time. Witnessing his brain at work as it faced its own extinction was nourishing. When Hitchens died the following year, Bourdain tweeted: “The world just got a lot dumber.”

Bourdain, whose death by suicide in 2018 was a shock from hell, offered us the same kind of relief as we watched him wander, confuse and cheer through life, food, culture and the world. He drove with a mighty heart. What struck me most was his habit of introspection and his interest in the problems and efforts of others.

Private kitchen
Photo by Sarah Boyum

We could use a lot more now, for sure. I recently re-read Bourdain’s revolutionary book, Confidential in the kitchen: adventures in the culinary belly, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary; another reading is worth. In 2000, Private kitchen he landed like a frozen turkey in a barrel of French fries, exploding with his dishonest tales of sex, drugs and crime in the workers’ canteens of the New York City greenhouse. It was fun to read, if a little too salty.

In 2017, Bourdain regretted the misogyny and sexism embodied in the macho swagger of his kitchens, but two deeper themes stand out in Private kitchen. The first was his honesty about two decades of low profligate performance (before arriving at Brasserie Les Halles, the Park Avenue South bistro where everything came together for him), described with the rare confessional quality that probably even saved him. from the worst seductions of fame.

The second was Bourdain’s call to give credit to others. In the case of Manhattan’s kitchens, this meant mostly unrecognized black people. Bourdain admired not only the diligence of the “Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadoran chefs” who kept those restaurants open, but also their craftsmanship. “A guy who has climbed the ranks, who knows every station, every recipe, every corner of the restaurant and who has learned, first of all, your system above all others is likely to be more valuable … than some white bather boy whose mother raised him thinking the world owed him a living, ”wrote Bourdain.

He then issued an early warning about a problem that the restaurant industry has only recently begun to face extensively: the success of chefs, who are too often white and male, has usually depended on the work of the same workers of southern and southern origins. Central American that Bourdain supported (as well as those of African and Asian heritage). He would come back to that point many times. In 2012 he tweeted: “Let’s play a game. Count Mexicans at the James Beard Awards. “In 2015, he denounced Trump’s attacks on immigrants, predicting calamity for the restaurant industry if mass deportations occurred.

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain speaking at Madison Square Garden in 2016. Photo courtesy of Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for Turner

Well, calamity hit restaurants in 2020 and I keep thinking about Bourdain’s celebration of his peers along the wage chain. As much as owners and operators have suffered this year, Latin workers have certainly suffered more. Nationally, they represent almost 19% of the population but 27% of restaurant employees. In Colorado, 21% of the population is Latin American – the number rises to 34% in the Denver metropolitan area – with Hispanic or Latino people doing 25.4% of restaurant jobs in Denver, Aurora, and Lakewood. When I spoke to Lorena Cantarovici, the Argentine owner of Maria Empanada, in April, she said: “We are firing people from the lowest income brackets in the state. Leaving a dishwasher is difficult. We have to do something not to make them feel abandoned “.

It is true that in recent years the recognition of the roles of women and people of color has increased, at least at the chef level, and there has been a pressing attention to fairness. After much criticism, the James Beard Foundation, whose awards deliberations I witnessed from within, became more consciously diverse, but this year’s awards have been canceled, according to the New York Times, partly due to the lack of diversity among the winners to be announced. Locally, black chefs are starting to get their due, with the rise of stars like Cantarovici; Dana Rodriguez of Work & Class and Super Mega Bien, nominated by James Beard, and Tommy Lee of Uncle and Hop Alley; Theodora and Sylvester Osei-Fordwuo of African Grill & Bar; and other.

What Bourdain stumbled upon Private kitchen it was the value of work and the richness of the subculture of American restaurant cuisine. However, the coronavirus crisis has revealed a harsh truth: in Congress, the hospitality industry seems to be considered a kind of servant sector of the domestic economy, appreciated but not taken seriously. The airlines were given a bailout, while, at press time, legislation for specific relief for the much broader catering industry was on hold.

COVID-19 will leave restaurants in a hole made deeper by this neglect. It will take years for companies to recover, with many invisible victims, disproportionately the people who work the hardest and earn the least recognition. In Denver, the biggest challenge will continue to be wage fairness, because I doubt that increases in the minimum wage without state subsidies will be feasible.

Bourdain said his life was “a happy, stupid, wonderful confluence of events” and his ability to appreciate his journey in the context of regret resonates right now. That quote comes from one of his most moving episodes of Without reserve, in the seventh season (available online). It involved a return trip to Cambodia which was a televised mea culpa for a Cambodian episode Tour of a cook which he had made for Food Network a decade earlier.

In 2000, Cambodia was incomprehensibly damaged by the war and genocide of the 1970s. Bourdain had gone there, in his words, with a “romantic-tragic-tragic, narcissistic notion of the kind of place I wanted to see and experience … completely inappropriate.” He returned in 2010 to listen, spending much of his time with women fighting for social justice and human rights. He managed to do something that I remember dreading impossible: weaving the theme of food and traveling in a program grappling with the extinguishing power of evil. “The food I found with my mother is gone,” a woman told Bourdain over an alfresco lunch of river crabs and fresh peppercorns. “The noodles that were made by the Chinese… like my grandparents, are not there. Killed. “Shunning his former arrogance, Bourdain constructed a message of hope amidst loss in the shadow of injustice.

I wonder if Bourdain would have remained as loved today as he was at the time of his death, or if Twitterati could have given him a shot too. At one point in his Cambodian redemptive program, he was blessed by a man who sold him food at an outdoor market –Happiness and long life, maybe 100 years! “I don’t want to live that long,” Bourdain mused. What we learned was true. But as his journey unfolded, he made his point, and that’s where we can all see and act.

This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of 5280.


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