Bloomsbury $36.95

Review: Gilbert Wong*

These are the stories that Jamie Oliver and Jo Seagar will never be able to tell.

To the strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries as heard on Apocalypse Now, New York chef Bourdain and his crew of sous-chefs, strung-out on amphetamines, cocaine and 18-hour days, would prepare for the evening shift by igniting half a bottle of brandy sprayed on the kitchen benches. They loved the smell of "napalm" in the restaurant.

I don't know where Bourdain found the time to write, but I'm so glad he did. Food and restaurants have become genteel pornography, a lustfest of scrumptious images and, in the case of a few of the celebrity chefs, sexy bods and all style over substance.


We know in our hearts that the food photographs are a mirage.

Bourdain is the real thing, a working chef for 25 years and now executive chef of New York's Les Halles.

From the day he got a summer student job as a kitchen hand he was addicted to the life.

To the young Bourdain, the chefs and their crews were like bands of pirates: dirty, unkempt, profane, licentious - in short, highly desirable - and they offered the perfect way to escape the collar-and-tie suburban life that beckoned.

He's never looked back, surviving a heroin habit and a string of bust restaurants.

As a survivor, he offers the inside story on what really goes on behind the swinging doors.

To take one of many examples, the stool samples of the kitchen staff were taken by the owners of a zealous restaurant Bourdain once worked at.

These workers were mostly illegal immigrants from South America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.


Predictably, their waste product was teeming with amoebic critters thought rare in Manhattan.

And if you are faint of stomach, skirt the whole passage about blood. Kitchens are full of sharp knives and short-tempered people.

A high-performance kitchen is truly a place of tears, sweat and blood ... quite a bit of it.

Bourdain, who has a day job as a novelist, has a gift for swift, sure narrative. If this is not his "voice" then he's an even better writer than he appears to be.

This is about food and restaurants from the frontline and the joy of this prose is that behind every horror story is Bourdain's love of food.

After a chapter regaling the reader on the horrors kitchens can hide, he rhetorically asks: do we want to eat in Hard Rock cafes and McDonald's? "Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taquiera's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once."

Bourdain's book stares down the poseurs and celebrity chefs and brings food back to where it belongs: a real, working kitchen.

* Gilbert Wong is the Herald books editor.