50 business lessons from Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’
These delicious takeaways can serve one for life
Anthony Bourdain’s popular tell-all Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly became my last read of the last year. For the uninitiated, it’s a memoir of the late chef’s time in America’s restaurant industry.
I couldn’t have asked for a better, meatier book to end 2020 with. It packs in everything—from the enlightening (what the word ‘specials’ on the menu really means) to the shocking (still can’t digest what I read about Sunday brunches) to the downright hilarious (when Bourdain worked for a mob-run chicken joint). It’s interspersed with interesting, quirky characters, who make Bourdain’s journey sound even more intriguing.
But the cherry on the icing is Bourdain’s witty writing, infused with humility and humour, which makes the book worth second or more helpings. If you’re looking to cull out some of the most memorable Anthony Bourdain quotes to frame on your wall, this bible has all you need.
Though parts of it are problematic, perhaps even redundant with time, the book boasts so many inspiring tidbits that I kept highlighting them as I read along. I checked the number of highlighted portions in the end and realised I easily had around 50. Hence, I’ve compiled them all in a blog post. Hope I follow even half of them myself.
Don’t worry—this blog post isn’t the full book. In fact, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. So, go immerse yourself in this culinary adventure called Kitchen Confidential. For now, in no particular order, here’s a snapshot of what I’ve taken from the book:
Keeping a calm mind
Staying relaxed during a tirade Bourdain received as a student at the Culinary Institute of America deflated the rebuker like a fallen soufflé and even made him treat Bourdain nicely from then on. Can vouch for this philosophy based on a few personal experiences.
Always asking for more
Whether quoting prices for his catering venture in Provincetown or negotiating his salary with a top restaurant in NYC, Bourdain usually asked for more—sometimes even beyond what he thought he deserved. “We knew well how much these people [local business owners] were paying for cocaine—and that the more coke cost, the more people wanted it.” Okay, the coke logic might be a bit too much, but you get the point.
Understanding your target audience
Weekends spell packed houses for restaurants. They’re, hence, the time for dishing out crowd-pleasers—“quick, simple, easily plated” dishes whose names the general public can easily pronounce. Quality, leisurely meals are usually reserved for weekday diners. No fixed rules here, of course—every business has a different audience, which can only be found out through constant research.
Working clean and tidy
“Messy station equals messy mind,” said Bourdain. It can also hamper one’s performance.
Showing professionalism, not artistry
Bourdain considered cooking as a craft. He preferred hiring professionals who worked solely for the dough—regardless of their love for cooking—over anyone who called themselves an ‘artist’. He didn’t think artists were inclined to arrive at work on time or satisfy diners. In short, he thought it okay to not being in love with your work and to work only for money, as long as you’re doing a high-standard, professional-level job.
Checking the office toilets
Bourdain made it a point to steer clear of eating at restaurants with filthy bathrooms. Similarly, I avoid collaborating or working with companies whose bathrooms present an awful sight and stink so much I can’t breathe. “Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean,” said Bourdain. If establishments are stingy about something as basic as cleaning a toilet, think about pricing, invoicing, and the overall experience of working with them.
Reading and studying people
It’s obvious how important it is to learn how to read people, their expressions, and body language. Bourdain stressed the need for this skill to decode waiters’ faces. (“He could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sign.”) In the business world, knowing how to read people is indispensable and invaluable, especially during negotiations, something I personally need a lot of practice in. Bourdain also emphasised this skill in order to figure out employees and competitors.
Anticipating threats and risks
I want to be prepared for anything that can go wrong. The risk can stem from anywhere—unpredictable economy, political decisions, pandemics. Even switchboard sparks and phone snags count. “Prior preparation prevents poor performance,” Bourdain would say.
Using bedtime for planning
Bourdain always did that. It’s the only way to get a head start and reduce stress when there are plenty of things to be done in a minuscule timeframe.
Crunching data and numbers
Keeping a record of fish-fillet yields per chef/cook, as one of Bourdain’s former bosses (unsurprisingly nicknamed Bigfoot) would do, is too much micromanagement. Yet, there’s no denying we still need stats to tackle business problems and get the solution staring out at us, though not necessarily doing it Bigfoot-style.
‘Mise en placing’ operations
‘Mise en place’ (pronounced ‘meez awn plahz’) is the French term for ‘(putting) everything in its place’. In culinary parlance, it refers to a cook’s set-up—“their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on”. The idea of a mise en place is to help you “find everything with your eyes closed”, with everything available at your “arm’s reach”. In business, it means having systems, processes, documentation, equipment, inventories, accounts, software, etc. ready before getting started and then tweaking along the way. It’s the key to simplification and efficiency. This reminds me that here’s a FREE contract template you can use.
Measuring what you get
Bigfoot uncovered a number of fleecing vendors this way.
Everyone’s time is valuable
I may not go to the extent Bourdain and Bigfoot did by sending back late-arriving delivery drivers after making them unload—and reload—goods in their trucks to teach them the value of coming on time (which the drivers eventually learned and followed). But I should surely avoid taking calls during my sacred writing hours. And learn to leave from a meeting place in case the other party is taking their own sweet time to arrive and not even a bit serious about honouring the appointment.
Being curious and watchful
When he was a chef at the Rainbow Room, Bourdain made some interesting discoveries. He found a sportsbook, as well as a window with a spectacular view. And how did he stumble upon these? By roaming “through the halls, back stairways, offices, dining and storage areas”. In other words, by being observant and alert.
Having enemies is great
It only means you’re important, as Chef Pino Luongo told Bourdain.
Watching the news daily
Because a clear sky on a weekend with no sports matches means your restaurant is going to get “slammed”.
Tracking and documenting information
Bourdain described how night managers at restaurants communicate with their daytime counterparts through a logbook. It contains details such as customer grievances, repairs needed, employee problems, unaddressed phone calls, and more. Noting down everything, indeed, simplifies interpersonal communication, keeps everything transparent, and also makes handovers easier.
The power of serendipity
Bourdain and his catering partner, Dimitri, were faced with a challenge during their catering venture in Provincetown. There seemed to be no solution for it, and what they were attempting was scientifically impossible. Still, it miraculously worked. It was a case of, as Bourdain sassily put it, “God protecting fools and drunks”.
The ‘peak hour’ rule
Contacting people for no valid reason during peak work hours is the easiest way to get in their bad books.
Passion counts over costs
Sure, there’s no problem working only for money, but a love for your work is a bonus. Bourdain, of course, loved food. One of Les Halles’ two partners, José, was so passionate about food, he would have Bourdain “mount all … sauces with Normandy butter and foie gras, garnish everything with fresh truffles … (invest in) the first softshell crabs of the season”. Despite the cost involved, these act as surprises for diners, “help develop a loyal clientele”, and also turn in profits. Clearly, having your passion translate into knowledge, hard work, and customer satisfaction is a recipe for success.
Requesting the tools needed
Feel free to ask your client/employer for whatever tools or equipment you need to do your work for them. Bourdain, for example, would stock up on dry side towels—as many of them as possible. Sometimes, he would “rip through twenty of them in the course of an eight-hour service period”. Placing a limit on the number of towels per cook, he felt, was “criminally parsimonious”. “If it costs my masters a few bucks extra, tough. I’m not burning my hand or wiping grease on my nice plates because they’re too mean to shell out for a few more rented towels.”
Managing things by oneself
Though it isn’t necessary for them to do it, it’s great when a team works out things and solves problems by themselves without dragging their leader into the picture.
Embracing 24x7 unavailability
Bourdain hesitated to call his crew’s home numbers during their off-hours. He never expected their home members to answer his phone properly. Some of his workers even claimed to not having phones! Though this was 20+ years back, I wouldn’t bet on the situation changing much today, despite the improved availability of cellphones.
Timely stocktaking and inventorying
Because that’s how you know what to do and what to invest in next.
Being an “organisational mastermind”
Bourdain showed that running the “nuts and bolts” of the organisation yourself, even when other people are supposed to be in charge, is the quickest way to have people trust in you.
Helping and serving people
Bourdain described how two middle-aged women restaurant partners lost a lot of money because of his “jumped-up megalomaniac” predecessor. He then decided to “do some honest toil for these nice ladies, save them a few bucks”. Sometimes, the aim to help people is all the reason we need to say yes to a project.
Giving it your best
“I don’t care if the crackpots we work for deserve it or not … We are gonna give a hundred percent.” That was Bourdain’s mantra for life.
Being thoughtful and caring
Tell Bourdain’s (former) sous-chef Steven Tempel that “you like gummy bears and Steven will show up the next day with a bag.” “If he stops off at a burger stand for a mayo and mustard and ketchup-slathered grease-burger for breakfast, he’ll bring a couple extra so everyone can have some.” And while the cooks were said to survive on some of the most inedible food on Earth, Steven would make a sufficient amount of “little potato crisp and caviar snackies” etc. for everyone to try while he simultaneously worked on restaurant orders. Wish I have even 1% of such thoughtfulness towards everyone.
Experimenting by trying everything
Bourdain was known to eat everything. Tempel, too, would always “try out new flavour combinations”. It’s all part of the work.
Striking deals when necessary
You have something to offer someone whose offer you like? Like the “symbiotic relationship” between a bartender and their restaurant’s kitchen team? What are you waiting for then?!
Following trade/industry updates
Goes without saying. For aspiring chefs, Bourdain advised reading cookbooks and trade magazines. “They are useful for staying abreast of industry trends, and for pinching recipes and concepts.”
Rewarding loyal, appreciative customers
Thanks to money-saving offers such as the ‘buy-back’ for loyal customers, bartenders accumulate a huge ‘following’ of patrons, who follow their favourite bartender wherever they work.
Character scores over talent
Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown (yes, that’s an actual person mentioned in the book!) may be the best baker on Earth, but without disciplined conduct, he’s unlikely to earn some much-needed respect from his industry. In any case, he was a chapter by himself, though!
Thinking before firing someone
“When you look somebody in the eyes and can them, there’s no telling what terrible result might ensue.” Bourdain added that an employer should consider every possibility and consequence when taking a decision about an employee.
Choosing excellence over success
At the time of the book, Scott Bryan was a 3-star chef, while Bourdain wasn’t. According to Bourdain, that’s because Bryan worked for the learning, whereas Bourdain did it only for the money. Bryan even switched from à la carte to pastry—simply for the learning! Unthinkable, but the path to greatness constitutes excellence—sometimes at the cost of rewards.
Balancing work with education
Bryan’s business partner Gino Diaferia had no restaurant experience when he joined Luma. “When things began to lose their charm, he bought out the partners and began spending all his time at the restaurant, learning the business from the ground up.”
Prioritising what you love
Instead of the so-called crowd-pleasers, Bryan’s menu for Indigo featured items such as unpopular fishes, a “ballsy” chicken concoction in red curry, a daring and stinky cheese selection as Morbier, and only one beef dish. Bourdain called it “the perfect my-way-or-the-highway document”.
Eschewing old, conventional wisdom
Bryan broke countless rules of the restaurant business and yet tasted success.
How to avoid regrets
Bourdain would advise asking yourself the ice-cream-truck question: “What would happen if you were walking across the street and were suddenly hit by a careening Mister Softee truck? As you lie there, in your last few moments of consciousness, what kind of final regrets flash through your mind?” This applies to business, as well as life.
Contacting locals before travel
If Bourdain wouldn’t have contacted the Tokyo-based publisher of his Japanese-translated storybook, he would never have been able to give his book a second lease of life during his trip to the city.
Putting functionality over fashionability
Bourdain shared two examples of ergonomic, convenient, and pragmatic design. The first is of Bigfoot, who installed “conveniently located hot-water hose for bartenders to melt down their ice easily” and “cute little plastic handles on any electrical plug near any station where the workers’ hands might be wet”. The second is of Bryan, who never piled food layers such that one looked good on top of the other. There was always a logically sound reason behind the layering order that had mainly to do with taste.
Learning about local cultures
Considering America’s restaurant industry majorly constitutes a Spanish-speaking, Central- and Latin-American workforce, Bourdain would advise speaking their language, eating their food, and learning about their cultures, histories, geographies, and politics.
Helping people “break free”
The huge steaks at Les Halles Tokyo would make diners tear into them as if they were disobeying the small-portions lifestyle they were raised on.
Choosing convenience over conventions
Bourdain’s inventory sheets were arranged “clockwise”, in “geographical order” of his food stocks. This way, he could tick off items in a one-directional way, without going back and forth. Alphabetic order or arrangement of items ‘by type’, as convention dictates, can be a good idea, but only if it simplifies processes and saves time.
Calculated exposure to fear
It’s natural to feel afraid when trying out something new. That’s what Bourdain experienced, too, during his first time eating local food in Tokyo. The key is to take the plunge, in a way that feels the easiest, but take it anyhow.
Total involvement in business
As per Bourdain, “a successful restaurant demands that you live on the premises for the first few years, working seventeen-hour days …” He added, “You must be fluent in … the Kabbala-like intricacies of health codes, tax law, fire department regulations, environmental protection laws, building code, occupational safety and health regs, fair hiring practices, zoning, insurance, the vagaries and back-alley back-scratching of liquor licenses, the netherworld of trash removal, linen, grease disposal.” Phew!
Tracking the organisational “grapevine”
In business, information is key. Even if it’s a rumour, it’s still good to know. “I like to tell selected people things in supposed confidence a few times a week, for fun. Later, when it comes back to me it provides an interesting road map of data transfer, a barium meal, revealing who squeals and to whom.”
Following a disciplined routine
Because that’s the secret to being a “serious, capable and responsible” professional.
Expressing faith in people
When a down-in-the-dumps Bourdain met Bigfoot and asked for an advance salary of $25, Bigfoot lent him $200, despite not being in touch with Bourdain for more than a decade. In spite of his flaws, this was a big leap of faith on Bigfoot’s part. Needless to say, Bourdain didn’t let him down.
Being humble and reflective
Every word in the book is a lesson in humility, which proves how much of it the man, Anthony Bourdain, himself had. Hope his soul is resting in peace and cooking up a storm wherever he is.