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Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cook the Books: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Μαγειρεύοντας τα Βιβλία: Κουζίνα Εμπιστευτικό - 'Αντονυ Μπουρντέν)

This post is part of the Cook the Books blog event running until April 25, 2009, hosted by Ioanna from Food Junkie not Junk Food. Read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and cook something inspired by the book. Post your inspiration on your blog and link to Cook the Books and Ioanna's post.) Many thanks to Ioanna for lending me the book.

: contains a spoiler - if you don't want to know about the story till you have read it, don't read the post!!

Living in Crete for the last two decades, Anthony Bourdain's name did not hold much meaning to me, despite my Western world upbringing, despite my native language being English, despite my interest in food and cooking, despite my connections with other food bloggers round the world, despite my reliance on the internet for all my non-Greek sources of information. I doubt many people in Hania would know who he (or the Travel Channel for that matter) is. We remain unaffected by many of the dramatic changes taking place in the food world; the average Cretan still eats like their grandparents, supplementing the Mediterranean diet with a hefty addition of souvlaki, Goody's and fizzy drinks. This of course has also added quite a few kilos to the weight level of the average Cretan, but very few of the locals will make any apologies for their thick and chunky appearance; 'ο αέρας' they will say proudly (o aeras - the air).

When a food blogging friend first mentioned Anthony Bourdain's name to me (she had just seen a TV program where he was showcasing Hania), I felt as impressed as I would have been had someone told me Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver or Some Other Big Name TV Chef had come to Hania; in other words, big deal, and what would they know about real food, when all they do is showcase exotic creations in spacious well-equipped kitchens, while never getting their clothes or aprons dirty? After reading Kitchen Confidential, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Anthony also sports a certain disdain for those kind of cooks (but not necessarily the same ones).

What shocked me most about his book (it is a shocking book, no matter which way you look at it) was that most of the food-connected people that Bourdain describes in the restaurant trade are actually degenerates; troubled people with little education, living for the next day with very little knowledge of what the next week has in store for them, completely unreliable, usually in this trade for the money and not for the love of food, and weirdly enough, but perhaps not illogically, given the nature of the job - cooking expensive looking food for the fat wallets of fussy customers - they are mainly male. The world Bourdain describes is a planet away from the one I live as a university-educated mother-of-two (and wife-of-one) office worker, who prepares and cooks all her family's meals (just like my colleagues and neighbours), with an emphasis on freshness, health and tradition. I'm still cooking like my mother, a Cretan immigrant to New Zealand. But you'll be surprised to hear that Mum would probably have more in common to discuss with Anthony than I would myself.

fish shop
My father is in his shop with one of his assistants.

My Cretan parents, uneducated and unskilled, came to New Zealand in the early 1960s, each carrying a half-filled suitcase with all their belongings. After being made redundant in their factory jobs in the late 70s
, they became the owner-operators of a classic Kiwi fish and chip shop. They knew all about bad suppliers, late deliveries, working in damp musty environments, sweating it out under the deep dryers, fussy customers, complaints, the rush hour and unreliable staff (until they hired their own daughters - I was only 12 - effectively putting an end to the latter). This is definitely a period in my life that I would simply like to shelve, even though it probably influenced my personality and way of thinking more than any other time in my life; a ten-year involvement in the fish and chip shop trade, working closely with one's parents, cannot but leave an indelible mark in someone's soul. It was also the place where I ate my first fresh raw oyster, survived the experience, and went on to eat many more of them (until I came to Greece; the last time I ate a fresh oyster was five years ago).

Kitchen Confidential's array of food covers a wide range of American restaurant dining styles which are heavily influenced by French and Italian cuisine, with an emphasis on meat and expensive seafood dishes. This view of 'fine dining' is, to my mind, very prejudiced; it confines the idea of good food as belonging to the cultural practices of one or two (namely white-skinned) societies whose idea of 'good food' goes hand in hand with well-padded pockets, linen tablecloths and crystal glasses, with complete disregard for the culinary practices of the rest of the world. I have never eaten in such a restaurant; does this mean that I have never eaten well? Towards the end of the book, Anthony finally discovers good food served outside this well-beaten paradigm, when he took part in a meal consisting of twenty courses, which he sampled at a restaurant in Tokyo.

I have no qualms admitting that I do not know how to make a pate and I'd never heard of a rillette before I read this book. I don't know what the difference is between a bearnaise and a hollandaise, while the only mayonnaise I know comes from a jar. If Crete had not in recent times become a worthy producer of avocados, I would still not know how to make a decent guacomole. Pastry making may be viewed as a highlight in the career of a chef, but that's probably because most chefs don't know how to make delicious kalitsounia (a Cretan specialty with Venetian origins). If ever I want to taste duck confit, saucisson de canard, confit gizzards, poitrine, foie gras, truffle oil and tarbais beans, I know where to go (Les Halles, New York), but I don't feel the need to anyway; I certainly wouldn't even dream of cooking with such ingredients in my own home, especially since I would have trouble finding them easily on my Mediterranean island above the Libyan Sea.

My regular cooking is mainly vegetarian, not for any other reason than the precious amounts of vegetables that we grow ourselves and try to make use of as much as possible. This is in complete contrast to those starred restaurants discussed in
Kitchen Confidential which have a close relationship with special cuts of meat, fish and seafood. Anthony would probably laugh when he hears me tell him that in Hania, butchers simply hack away at the meat as if it were a log of wood; very little attempt is made to cut it into aesthetic-looking pieces, apart from pork chops, which most Greeks have a certain fondness for, especially when the curved one is still intact. Fresh seafood is only available for certain pockets; it's simply too expensive. We ourselves always buy frozen.

If I were to play kitchen hostess for Anthony the next time he pops round to Hania,
I can imagine the dismayed look on his face when he first arrives at my Cretan home. One look at our vegetable garden and he'll think we might be that class of miscreants that he thinks vegetarians are, or worse still "their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, ... vegans." He needn't fear: no decent Cretan (and I mean none at all) would cook a meatless meal to a dinner guest, no matter how vegetarian they may be in their daily life; even during the Greek Orthodox fasting period, purely lenten fare is never served up to travellers and guests. This is a basic rule in Cretan hospitality, and this is probably why Anthony will love the Cretans for the way they truly share their best food with strangers.

Anthony loves the restaurant trade, but he also admits that eating at a restaurant may not actually be the ultimate dining experience in New York: this could take the form of a delivered Chinese meal eaten straight out of a white paper box while lying in bed and watching a movie. Isn't he so right? Don't we all love eating relaxing food in a laid-back environment? That's what gave me the idea about how to cook his book, but take note: my king-size four-poster bed is out of bounds!

buffalo wings
Chicken wings and blue cheese dressing - celery sticks are more traditional than carrot sticks; dark green Greek celery (we grow it) does not have the same taste as traditional light green celery, which is why I replaced it with the more palatable carrots.

haven't been to New York (yet), but I have had spicy chicken wings before, and I know how good they taste. While reading up internet recipes, I was delighted to discover that the New York chicken wing treat was 'invented' in Buffalo, a place I have heard so much about from a friend who lives there. I 'invited' Dimitra over to eat them with me, making her another of my virtual guests, along with Anthony. Just imagine two New Yorkers lying on the couch in my living room enjoying a good movie or sitting on my Mediterranean balcony overlooking the ferry port on a warm spring afternoon, eating Buffalo wings.

buffalo wings
Mr OC really enjoyed this meal (look at the state of his oily fingers), which we had in the living room while sitting in front of the television; it reminded us both of a combination of fast food tastes - hot Asian food, Kentucky Fried Chicken, exotically appetising aromas. We're definitely having them again some time soon. It was paired with the classic Cretan dakos.
Align Centre

These chicken wings would go really well with a bowl of twice-cooked fried potatoes (the way my parents made them in the fish and chip shop - no wonder they tasted so good) and some very cold beer. Στην υγειά σας*, Anthony and Dimitra!

(*to your health)
©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.


  1. You know, I just love your Cretan recipes and style of cooking. There are so many things that you've prepared that I'd never heard of but would LOVE to try. And I love how you try new things, too! Ah, perhaps we are distant cousins somehow! Your wings totally awesome, as do the dakos. I'll have to thumb through that cookbook next time I'm at the bookstore. I have a *thing* for cookbooks. :-) Oh, one more thing ... I love making pate with chicken liver, but most folks won't even try it once they hear it has liver in it. Pumice in color, it's not visually appealing, but oh my gosh, is it good!

  2. "Kitchen Confidential" was a book I read a long time ago and I think Anthony Bourdain does a great job in explaining how the "nitty gritty" of he restaurant industry works. It's a hilarious book and I often found myself laughing. Your Buffalo style wings look delicious and I'm sure he would be impressed!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. Kitchen Confidential sounds like an interesting read. And those chicken wings look so delicious!

  4. Glad you enjoyed the book, Maria. It comes as no surprise that Kir' OC loved the wings. In my experiences, Greeks love ribs and wings and finger foods like "not fine dining"!

  5. I went to college in Buffalo, New York, and sampled many chicken wings during my studies, and would have to say that yours look wonderfully good! I enjoyed your comments about Kitchen Confidential very much. Should be an interesting Cook the Books roundup!

  6. Your are becoming very exprienced in what are you doing Maria!

  7. So Greeks still serve guests (even other guests) meat during Lent? That explains why there were keftedes and a beef-based entree at the Greek Independence Day party I went to last weekend. I just figured it was the secular Greek group's way of thumbing its nose at the group from the church...

    Also, I'm waiting for my dad to give me half the bag of paximadia my Thea Renna sent from Chania, so I can make dakos....mmmm mmm!

  8. I'm glad you enjoyed the wings--they look delicious! Well made spicy chicken wings are one of my favorites. I am definitely one into traditional, well-made meals but sometimes you gotta have your messy wings or spare-ribs with a cold beer with just a pile of napkins in front of you to wipe your sticky fingers every 30 seconds!
    I like Anthony Bourdain but wasn't exactly impressed with the episode he did in Greece--he kind of came to Greece with a pessimistic attitude and left with only a slightly more optimistic one. Hope he changes his mind eventually ...

  9. You can take a look at the episode here Maria:

  10. Kitchen Confidential was a really good book and one of those books if I am bored I find myself opening up and reading. Mostly because I love stories of degenerates and reminds me a lot of my friends. His other book Nasty Bits was not to bad and had some great moments.

    Wings are one of my favorite things too and nicely done!

  11. OK - I watched it. I must admit, I was SO PROUD of his first stop: CRETE!!!
    Here's my interpretation of what he says on the show:
    1. he knew next to nothing about greek cuisine (i am just as ignorant about french cuisine)
    2. he doesn't want to eat moussaka (ahh, me neither, i only make it cos my husband adores it)
    3. he's prejudiced against greek food (he's being sarcastic; i can imagine what he saw his bosses doing in the greek-run restaurant he worked at)
    4. ON horta, wine and walking up and down mountains - he'd rather have a lamb chop; longevity is not a priority for him
    5. the clothes are a problem (he has a point - we like high fashion, but in general, we don't wear it well down here in crete)
    6. a story of invasion, occupation, deprivation - a lot of pain, blood and ears in the food (i like the way he's blended our history into our food)
    7. the raki distilling party is pretty genuine - i went to one just like it (too much meat, too many men for my liking)
    8. how on earth did he manage to eat so much and stay slim???

    i think he was impressed by how good simple food can be, but he's on another tangent - he's into asiana, drom what i understood in the book, and greece is just too european for him

  12. I have heard of Anthony Bourdain but don't know much about him at all. I have heard that he is arrogant but that is from someone elses observations as I have no first hand knowledge. I love Greek food with its multutude of flavours:D

  13. I have not read this book, but it sounds interesting! I know that I prefer fresh, family style meals rather than restuarant fare.
    The chicken wings look so delicious! So many of the dishes you mention, I've not heard of, but I love reading about them and learning new things! I so enjoy your blog!

  14. What I find so ironic about the idea of 'haute cuisine' is that it appropriates what might be considered 'rustic' or historically 'peasant' fare and claims it for itself. What are sweetbreads but the offal to which many might turn up their noses if it were served in a simple setting as 'tongue' or 'tripe'? Coq au vin is a classic dish but isn't it just a tough old rooster in need of a long simmer to make edible?

    The meals that you've made for your family and have featured on this blog have elicited more intense cravings from me anything I've seen in gourmet magazines!

  15. Hello ,
    I used to watch all the episodes of Anthony Boudrain on food Network in Canada; I use to like his comments about the places he visited. After watching the episode about places that I visited and I am very familiar with the lovely people and their tradition ... I found him very arrogant and offensive. I find myself telling him show us the dishes and the cooking tradition and keep your criticisms to yourself. The chicken wings look delicious. I am watching the program “Good Eats” with Alton Brown please check it on You tube.

  16. I loved your review and I think that if Anthony really came to your house he would have loved it. After all, in his traveling shows he eats everything from street food to gourmet! I think the restaurant business is very close to what he describes, especially the big restaurants, but of course not the family tavernas! anyway, your dish looks yummy, good luck!

  17. Very interesting as I was just watching AB on his show last night. He was in the Azores and it reminded me of Crete!
    I love your blog as it is kind of a mirror to my deeper culinary self. I always tell people I am living like a Cretan at Lent because that is how I like to cook and it is healthy. But LOL I would NEVER have someone over without meat or fish, even at Lent, unless it were completely understood that meat is not wanted! (Last year we had Lili and Gianni over for soup between Christmas and New Years, and we had several conversations before she convinced me not to throw on a pork loin!)

  18. I really loved reading your post and the insight you gave into your life in Crete. I can only imagine the shift from the Land of the Long White Cloud (and too bad that you no longer get good cheap seafood). I had a job peeling prawns for a year or two and that put me off prawns for a long time... Maybe the Fish N Chip shop did the same to you? the wings look scrumptious.

  19. I loved this post! Both your stories from your childhood and from your life now are so evocative. It really surprises me that fresh fish is so expensive in Crete, because (as your parents have demonstrated) fish & chip shops run by immigrants from Crete are the best ever! Both in Sydney and near where I live now in London my favoured chippies are from Crete.

  20. I just got No Reservations seasons 1 to 3 on dvd for my birthday last month. I have reread Kitchen Confidential too many times until I lent it and still haven't got it back.

    Great post.

  21. Very nice post. Those oily fingers speak volumes.

  22. I really enjoyed this post. I've heard of Anthony Bourdain, but never seen any of his shows or books.
    I'm going to visit Italy soon, and am excited about trying the food. Your post makes me wish I had time to visit Crete, too!
    We always eat hot wings with both celery and carrot sticks. Would like to try the dark green celery! Those hot wings look so good. They almost tempted me off my diet by making some of my own!

  23. frisd chicken wings have become a firm family favorite in our house now that i know how to make them well!

  24. Unfortunately, the only idea most foreigners have of Greece is that related to the islands, obviously because that's where they've happened to go on holiday. It's no surprise, therefore, that their minds can only reach that far as far as Greek food is concerned. It's also highly likely that during their stay there they sampled bad examples of Greek food, mainly because in this business there are also bad "professionals" who are only in it for the money and not out of a need to offer quality dishes which, trust me, are abundant in the Greek cuisine. And by "Greek cuisine" I mean that of the mainland as well, which Anthony Bourdain has not touched upon at all.

    In my region, Epirus, for instance, the basis of cooking is the freshness, quality and taste of the raw materials: if they're not good enough, we might even throw them away. In addition, we -traditionally- do not add to our dishes too many ingredients, which would simply cover and even alter the original flavours: foods in general taste what they're supposed to taste like. On the islands, on the contrary, this "masking" of flavours does happen, at least to some extent.

    To end this argument, the prejudiced Bourdain hasn't even seen half of the Greek cuisine. And a tip for visitors to Greece: in tourist areas avoid restaurants where you only see tourists having their meal; instead, prefer to eat at restaurants, tavernas and grill houses where there are lots of Greeks dining. And, of course, no matter how many times you visit our country, you still won't have the time needed to sample Greek food in all its variety and diversity.

    Written by a Greek who's always lived in Greece