Anthony Bourdain: Badass, Big Trouble

This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.

The pantry station was in shambles. Mise en place in plastic delis were left without lids, an uncovered corner of the beef tartare had begun to oxidize, a smear of tonnato had crusted over the bottom shelf of the low-boy. My station in the restaurant looked like an image that our sous chef, Cody, might have texted me with a stern one-line message: This should not happen. But it was Cody who had worked the night before and I had walked into his mess. I texted him with questions about his scrawled prep list. He never answered. He had been hard to reach and off his game recently, but Cody was our sous chef. Who was I to question it?  

Two days later, he was dead.

He put on pancake make up, a long brunette wig and women’s clothes before robbing a bank with a BB gun. He got away with a wad of cash, but then he flipped his car, and took off on foot. In the end, the police shot 26-year old Cody Willis Spafford seven times.

Cody had probably been on a bender when he left the pantry station that night. He taught me how to set that station, a demanding and sophisticated station at one of the busiest oyster bars in Seattle, also the station where green cooks build their cred.

Cody was a tyrant about an orderly station, had a methodical work ethic as intense as his knowledge of oysters and, although he was the youngest cook in the kitchen, he was the one with the most cred. He was also the most loved. His goofy laugh, self deprecating humor and his habit of doing a spastic victory dance at the end of our shift lightened our time spent in that kitchen.

We should have seen it coming. The signs were all there. His methodical cooking habits had become frenzied. He was breathless and sweaty, yet he wore long sleeved shirts under his uniform and apron. He stopped dancing.

But when you work in restaurants, you stop seeing certain things, even in the people you love.

Kitchen Confidential , Ecco/Harper Collins (2000).

Kitchen Confidential, Ecco/Harper Collins (2000).

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2000) filled a generation of young cooks with hope for guts and glory. His autobiographical homage to sex, drugs and rock and roll pushed restaurant kitchens to centerstage and normalized addiction. Bourdain got away with it—in fact, he’s built an empire on his bad boy image. Cody did not. Many do not.

In the seven years I’ve worked in restaurant kitchens, I’ve watched peers die, families dissolve, bones break and passions fade. The industry that once drew so many hopeful and creative people is turning around to snuff them out. Confidential was a siren song promising a dream career without conventional restrictions where you would feel alive, but instead our chefs are dying. Food media has risen in light of Bourdain’s success, but the amount of cooks in the kitchen have declined. Chefs are leaving the industry to save their families, and save themselves. The glamour of the Kitchen Confidential era is biting the dust.

I reluctantly enjoy the books and shows Bourdain has written and made since then, but I wonder whether the book that started it all has done us any good. Resist abuse and you’re a pussy, the book would say. Turn down a shift drink and you’re a dud. Report harassment and you’re a snitch. Pass on the drugs and you’re without stamina. But Confidential is a video game version of our jobs today, a drugged up, booze soaked adventure where Bourdain wins, scoring the K.O. without the O.D.

Tiffany Ran is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She got her hands dirty in a restaurant kitchen eight years ago and life as she knew it was never the same. She currently works as a writer and line cook, and dreams about retiring in Taiwan where she can recreate the opening scene in Eat Drink Man Woman in her own backyard.