To commemorate a new annotated edition of his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain revisits the bleak holiday routines of his pre-fame life. Plus: The chef looks back on recipes from his classic 2004 Les Halles cookbook.
In this Article
For nearly 28 years, Christmas meant the busy season to me. It meant working longer and harder and serving more meals, office parties, so many turkeys going in and out of the ovens, it eventually felt like bowling; ending, finally, after midnight on New Year’s Eve, me and whatever crew I was working with that year drinking Champagne from the bottle in our food-spattered kitchen whites, maybe a few spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, preferred dealer of the moment joining us in a toast. That was all the holidays meant, and little more.
I don’t remember ever serving anything particularly wonderful. The requirements of the “special” menu demanded certain sacrifices to the gods of speed and volume. On rare occasions, I might pull off something like a classic French soupe de poisson at Les Halles brasserie in New York City. It was garnished with rouille-laden croutons. But I don’t ever remember eating—or even bringing anything home—all those Christmases, all those New Years spent in kitchens.
On the rare occasions when I was lucky enough to be working for a restaurant that closed on Christmas, there’d be Catholic Christmas Eve dinner with my then in-laws. A few fish dishes, then a ham at midnight. This was usually accompanied by long-spoiled white wines that my poor ex-father-in-law never quite got around to accepting were undrinkable.
The next day was Christmas with my family. A separate function. Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin chiffon pie. Basically a repeat of Thanksgiving dinner—but much welcomed, mostly for the leftovers. I looked forward to nothing more than the next day, safely back in my apartment, stoned immaculate, dressed only in underpants and a T-shirt, eating cold turkey and stuffing with, perhaps, a gob of cranberry sauce. With any luck, my mom had made butter cookies—there would be a nice supply tucked away in a bag in the freezer.
As I described briefly in Kitchen Confidential, there was, however, always the “tree disposal problem.” I worked a lot. And when not working, I was not disposed to be active outside of a narrow focus of activities. So our Christmas tree tended to stick around. It would lie on its side, needles turning brown, a rebuke and reminder of how dysfunctional things were—how far from the white picket fence or anything you’d call “normal.” Eventually, in June or July, I’d try and hack the damn tree up and stuff it into plastic bags. Failing that, I’d drag it down to a lower floor, then hurry to clean up the incriminating trail of pine needles. But everybody knew. That things were not good in the Bourdain household was already abundantly clear from our intermittent ventures into street vending. We’d haul our books and records up to Broadway, roll out a blanket and sit there. Our neighbors tried not to look.Photo courtesy of Ecco/Amistad, imprints of HarperCollins Publishers.
I remember that, too: sitting on our blanket, snow falling.
I’m strangely sentimental about the memory.
Things are different now. Christmas Eve, I stay up late with my wife, retrieving toys for my daughter from the apartment’s various hidey holes. Christmas means opening presents in our pajamas. It’s not about me. It’s all about my girl. The tree is stripped first week of January. I cook the turkey.
Les Halles Recipes, Revisited
Unlike the marked-up Insider’s Edition of Kitchen Confidential we re-issued this fall, I never make notes in the margins of books. I was happy to mark up these pages, excerpted from my Les Halles cookbook. But that’s because it wasn’t my copy (it was Food & Wine’s), and I had my own, still-pristine copy elsewhere. I don’t write in books—any books. I don’t underline words or phrases. I don’t crimp pages. I’m too respectful, bordering on fetishistic, about the printed page. Even my printed pages. Deep down, I still think it’s a miracle anytime I see my words in print. The only thing that should be found in the pages of cookbooks, in my opinion, is food and grease. The recipes here are all personal favorites of mine. I’m grateful for the chance to draw, though, as that was my first choice for career path: comic artist. Never worked out.