Anthony Bourdain had the best chef’s job in the world. On 8 June, 2018, he quietly hung himself from the back of his luxury hotel door. He was 61 years old.
Bourdain shot to fame in 2000 with a best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a behind-the-scenes exposé on the world of haute cuisine. Shocked middle-class foodies still quote his apothegm ‘never eat fish on a Monday’, which is about their only take away. For a legion of male chefs and cooks, however, this book was more than the nod and wink of recognition, it was a romantic paean to their dysfunctional lifestyle, and approbation for the past. For a new generation, though, it became a cultural kitchen manifesto. The book was a rock ’n' roll celebration of everything that was wrong with the industry. A ’woke’ Bourdain later came to regret celebrating it.
"I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, 'To what extent in ["Kitchen Confidential"] did I provide validation to meatheads?'"
Ten years before, Marco Pierre White had become an instant cultural icon with the publication of White Heat. The black-and-white photographs by Bob Carlos Clarke had captured a gaunt, fatigued and highly-stressed chef at his artistic peak, and anyone who says they didn't want to fuck him is a liar. It galvanised an entire generation of young chefs, and MPW was exactly who they wanted to be. The B-roll perfectly captured what it was to be a celebrity chef in the ’90s: the rich and famous at heavily-starched double damask linen-draped tables, luxury ingredients and luxury cars, the fashionable elite. As The Guardian said at the time: “I can’t think of another [publication] that better captures the gruelling manic labour, the obsessive lunacy, the feverish ambition and the sheer theatricality that goes into making a high class restaurant.” White’s younger charges, also pictured, went on to lead some of the most lauded kitchens in Britain.
“A lot of people say I look like a rock star or a designer punk. But I swear it’s the job that has carved my face. It’s the hours, the stress and the pressure. It’s not me trying to look like this.”
What is just out of frame is the attendant bullying and bastardisation that characterised those kitchens. The fatigue is shown but not given the context of 16-18 hour days and 6-day weeks. Even the built environment of the kitchen was an afterthought. Small, cramped, airless, hot and fluorescent lit, kitchens were more like a psychological experiment than a place of work. Only the strong survived. To be fair, this was the norm, not the exception. This fine-dining model became the refinement of a management template that had more in common with the French Foreign Legion than haute cuisine. Some of the more psychotic examples of hazing were exposed by investigative TV, which caused outrage at the time, but made no real difference to the male-dominated, prison-yard adjacent environment. The culture was resistant to change and the code of silence (that allowed some quite famous chefs to escape without retribution) was very well understood.
In an industry founded on the beliefs of Bacchus - god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre - it is not surprising that drugs and alcohol are such an intrinsic part of hospitality culture. It is the way we socialise, relax and - as a salve to our mental health - self-medicate. Mental health is a concept that wasn't even considered until recently. The pastoral care of your team would have been scoffed at even 10 years ago. There was no room in a business for the soft comradeship of care and nurture. Weak links were sidelined and not tolerated.
Like pirate ships, kitchens, by their very nature, are magnets to disaffected youth, the alienated, the outsider, the socially dysfunctional, the loner, and the associated spectrum-type personality disorders. Hospitality attracts people who are outcasts, out-of-place characters. There is no judgment. There is structure and endless repetitive work. There is no leeway for your feelings. You keep them to yourself and ‘push on’. Within this framework you may even feel normal. The mental strength needed to do the job is beyond most people’s understanding. Not just the pressure, and the pace of it, but the ongoing moment-by-moment drive to do the same thing over and over again to the highest standard possible.
It is hard to understand if you haven’t ever done it. No two days are the same, and yet you are ostensibly doing the same thing. The camaraderie between chefs was always deeper and more significant than between colleagues in other environments. The experience of busy service is like nothing else. There is the frenzied pace before lunch or dinner, when you are prepping, then there is the secondary calm (darkest before the dawn) just before service, when you are prepped, then there is service, then the craziness teetering on the edge, then a slow descent to silence. Rinse and repeat. Perhaps it’s because being in a kitchen is like being in a constant fight or flight mode. Perhaps it's Stockholm syndrome. Chefs are attracted to this culture, we are complicit in its perpetuation, but we are also its victims.