Chef's nasty comments steam restaurant world

June 21, 2000|By Rob Kasper

IN HIS NEW BOOK, "Kitchen Confidential," Anthony Bourdain, a 43-year-old bad-boy chef from New York, says some nasty things about the way restaurant kitchens work.

He says the fish sold on Monday probably was delivered on Saturday. He says that if you order a steak "well-done," you're likely to get a tough, stringy piece of sirloin.

And he says no matter what the menu claims about the chef's love of low-fat cooking, butter - at least a quarter stick per customer - is the backbone of the restaurant business.

Bourdain also says some nasty things about Baltimore, where he made a brief stop in his career in the 1980s.

He calls it a "fairly quaint excuse for a city." He complains that the bars close too early. He says that people who live here wish they lived either in Washington or in New York, "a real city."

"Worst of all," Bourdain writes of his time in Baltimore, "I had no idea where to score drugs."

He was sent here for a few months in the 1980s by a New York business acquaintance he calls "the Silver Shadow." This name, Bourdain explains, was the name of the man's Rolls-Royce. The Silver Shadow owned restaurants in New York and one in Baltimore's Harborplace, which in Bourdain's book, is given the fictional name "Gino's."

When I spoke to Bourdain on the telephone recently, I told him that his description of "Gino's" - a northern Italian restaurant once located on the second floor of Harborplace - sounded like Gianni's. This expensively furnished Harborplace restaurant, owned by New Yorkers, opened in 1983 and filed for bankruptcy two years later.

"The Silver Shadow had spent millions on this colossal monument to hubris and cocaine," Bourdain writes of the Baltimore restaurant. "And you could see, in the cooks' faces, that they knew - as sure as they knew they lived in a second-class city - that they would be out of work soon."

After lonely nights in Baltimore, some of which were spent drinking at the Club Charles, which Bourdain describes as a "dive with a vaguely punk-rock clientele," Bourdain hustled back to New York. He worked in a series of Manhattan restaurants, including another Silver Shadow operation, before eventually shaking his drug habit and landing his current post as executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles.

Bourdain's book and an earlier New Yorker magazine article describing questionable kitchen practices - such as recycling bread and butter - have caused a stir in the restaurant world. But when I talked to him, I spent most of my time asking him about his disparaging remarks about Baltimore.

His put-downs of this town, Bourdain said, were the result of a "paranoid world view" he held when he was young and drug-addled. "I was terribly lonely," he said, recalling his time here.

His writing style, he admitted, leaned toward "sweeping overstatement." He compared the tone of his book to "what a chef says after he has had a couple of beers, after the dinner rush has subsided."

Some readers of "Kitchen Confidential," he said, have found him "personally obnoxious." He acknowledges, "I am not one of those adorable TV chefs."

After talking with Bourdain, I called a couple of folks who worked in Harborplace restaurants in the 1980s.

I talked to Tony Hawkins, who ran Gianni's for the Rouse Co., the Haborplace landlord that took over the restaurant after the bankruptcy. Hawkins did not recall ever meeting Bourdain. But he remembered what happened when the out-of-towners left and the locals ran the restaurant. It thrived.

"The secret is not to have New Yorkers run a restaurant in Baltimore," he said.

I also spoke with Diana Jacquot who, along with Jean Claude and Phillippe Jacquot, operated Jean-Claude restaurant in Harborplace from 1980 to 1990. Jacquot remembered Gianni's as one of a number of Harborplace restaurants that struggled to survive in a "very, very tough environment."

Jacquot, now an assistant vice president and financial planner for Merrill Lynch in Towson, scoffed at Bourdain's notion that a clever chef can get away with selling old fish.

"Anyone selling old fish is not going be in business the next year," she said. "Restaurant customers let you know when they don't like something. They either tell you directly, or they walk."

Sascha Wolhandler, who now operates a catering and restaurant business on Charles Street in Baltimore, worked briefly at Gianni's in the early 1980s.

She watched Bourdain on television last week when he appeared on the "Today" show promoting his book, which she describes as a "snotty little book."

As for Bourdain's characterizations of Baltimore, Wolhandler said, he doesn't know what he is talking about.

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