By Matt Perez
The majority of professional cooks, myself among them, revere Anthony Bourdain because he was one of us who made it. By that I mean he was a lost, broken romantic whose self-worth blossomed on the kitchen line when the rest of the world didn’t give a damn about him. With each shift, ticket, plate, vice, joke and cheesy song crackling through the grease-slimed kitchen radio, a small victory is celebrated by us kitchen folk while we extend a middle finger to the outside world, with special ire directed to who or what we thought we’d become when we were young; you know, before “life” happened to us. Bourdain, above all other celebrity chefs, exemplified this. Generally speaking, he was cleared to speak for us cooks on all important matters inside and outside of the kitchen. I felt this way about Bourdain because he held fast to the core of a good cook’s ethos: be confident yet humble, talk a good game, show up on time, give a shit about the little things, tolerate no bullshit (especially from yourself), work hard, and party harder. Anyone who’s worked meaningful time in a kitchen knows a cook is there to get used up, ground into tiny bits as sure as pork shoulder for sausage – so fuck it. Life is short. Clock in, clock out. Have fun where you can. Be in the moment. Don’t look back.
Cooks live in tropical heat with fire licking their faces, get painted with burns and penciled with cuts. Back of the house, people sleep on the ketchup smeared break room tables or atop dusty flour bags, barf into rank garbage cans, stick their hands wrist deep into fetid drains and nasty garbage disposals, then wash their hats and bandanas in the dish machines. We’re MacGuyvers of filth. Meanwhile, servers grind away with muscle-memory smiles, grit away their molars, laugh to one another at customers’ absurd requests, and occasionally weep at the P.O.S. if not right on the floor. Bartenders seethe behind their forts of liquor, listening to your problems that are exactly like everyone else’s problems while filling your glasses and draining your wallets. Yet somehow, we like it. We’re there every day, all day, devoting ourselves to a profession and a particular restaurant that apologizes for happily shitting us out as quickly as it gives us a tender hug and whispers, “Good job today,” into our ears. It’s where, for some ungodly reason, we feel “safe.” Maybe that’s because no industry is as populated with degenerate asshats and underachieving saints who choose to make the best of things. We’re a loud-mouthed, dysfunctional tribe of weirdly brilliant and moronic savants who specialize in inequity. We thrive in poverty and drug abuse, proudly suffer jacked-up feet, carpal tunnel, gnarled fingers, bad backs and the myriad other self-care disorders that come with spending a life of stress under the thumbs of Napoleonic, god-complex ownership and customers.
Okay, enough with the context: What I’m saying is that service industry jobs are often shit jobs, and they’re hard jobs, and it takes a good amount of self-loathing to get good at them, so when Anthony Bourdain hanged himself in a hotel room overlooking the idyllic French countryside, I didn’t try to make sense of it or question why like a lot of people outside the industry did. Sure, the guy had it pretty fucking good. He lived a life most people dream of. And yeah, maybe he was an ingrate for not valuing the things he should have – especially his 11-year-old daughter, Ariane, who gets left out of a lot of our hero-worshipping conversations and remembrances. (That sort of sadness doesn’t come with a good wise-ass kitchen line, btw. It’s the sort of thing someone stays quiet about while thinking about pressing his or her palms to the flat-top.) But since I’m writing this from my cook-life perspective, I’ll claim Bourdain’s suicide makes as much sense as anything in our fucked-up corner of the universe. I’m not sure cooks understand why we do anything, including remaining cooks. As I walked back from the dumpster with a seasoned colleague, he called cooking “The Beautiful Disease,” and Tony Bourdain had as terminal a case as anybody. In his first book, Kitchen Confidential, he cites the moment of infection: when he witnessed the chef at his first job bending a bridal party’s bride-to-be over a smelly dumpster and indulge in non-conjugal relations. That was when Tony knew cooking was for him. That moment is horrid and wrong and funny, and therefore cook as fuck.
Take that sensibility with you as you mourn Bourdain. Clock back in. Get to work. Don’t miss this asshole too hard. He was cool and he was smart and he was flawed. Clock out.
When someone replies “Heard” to the chef, it means more than we heard you. It means I got this. It means it’s on me if I fuck this up, and feel free to drop all the vile curses in the sewer rat dictionary upon my sweaty, cutting-board-slumped shoulders if I do. Because later, after we lock the doors, crank the music and dim the lights, we’ll have drinks and reminisce about all the good times we were horrible to one another. In this way we shall reaffirm our appreciation for one another’s bad choices and mistakes. We’ll accept each other wholly in this mad and dysfunctional universe.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a little thing the world calls love.
That’s why Bourdain remained one of the true cooks among celebrity dimwits and why his body of work comes from the kitchen line for me: he not only acknowledged the good and the bad in everything – including himself and our beloved kitchen culture – but featured it with the irony it deserved. He may not have been the best cook on television, but he was the best human being. Tony was as honest as he could be and accepted people and situations in all their complexity, then poked fun at them a little. Because what else is there to do, really? Ultimately, life takes away everything it provides, and our joys are not about what’s been given to us, but about technique, about making it work when we shouldn’t, about flying in the face of reason and staying steady when we’re “in the shit.”
That’s what you learn in the kitchen – tickets are printing, people are yelling, food is burning, sweat is dripping, and your shitbird co-worker is out back smoking weed or fucking around on his or her phone in the bathroom. Meanwhile the chef is working the line with fire – fucking mythological, godly geysers of blue-orange flames belched up from the underworld – coming out of Chef’s eyes and asshole, and sure as shit s/he’s a rocket pointed at your own sphincter, and Chef is ready to blow your ass up with Fat Man and Little Boy if you fuck things up. And illogically, magically, somehow you don’t. You rise to that moment and make it yours. You hold on by taking a breath, moving fast, and dealing with what’s in front of you. You recover. Then the shift is over, the cleaning done. An eerie silence settles upon the stacks of clean plates, utensils, and pots and pans nestled snugly together in their proper order, and the whole place is ready to get destroyed again tomorrow. Not quite a pebble garden, but it is a little Zen.
Then Chef walks up to you, shakes your hand and says, “Real good job today.”
So, let’s be good cooks. Anthony Bourdain would respect it. Live within life’s cycle of destruction and rebirth as truly as you can. Be fearless. Be illogically proud. Work hard. Value experience over money. Call your truth like you see it. Don’t take shit from anybody … unless that person is a better cook than you, in which case you should shut the fuck up and pay attention. Be humble. Observe what that person is doing. Listen to what that better person is saying. Appreciate that you’re a dumb asshole who doesn’t know shit about anything, but god-damn it, know you’re trying to get better.
And then say “Heard.”
Matt Perez is a Fiction Editor at Barrelhouse who tries to publish something pretty good once in a while. He works as a line cook at the Ithaca Beer Company Taproom when he’s not preoccupied with his next new writing project that’s about to spiral out of control again, his love life, a pug named Gibson, or Dungeons and Dragons. He occasionally posts something stupid on Twitter @MattPerez18 or on Insta @homey_the_bird