Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on.
As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system…
The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.
I was never cool. Arguably, I’m still not. But I wanted to be, once upon a time. The words above, I first read at eighteen years old, having started university, and in need of a way to fund my studies that didn’t rely entirely on my father’s occasional goodwill. I had worked in kitchens for a few years already, meeting an array of cokeheads, speed freaks and some on substances you’d probably struggle to find in even the dingiest of South American slums. But fuck, there was something endearing about them. Like the weirdest Tarantino line-up, these were people you’d cross the street to avoid in the real world, but, in the kitchen, they became your family, fiercely loyal and full of the most well-meaning bullying any brother could ever ask for. The long hours. The physical labour (something which would eventually lead me out of the hospitality industry and into the somewhat less taxing career of writer-come-educator). The diet… christ, you’d think amidst the glories of fine dining you would have your fill of haute cuisine, but after a twelve-hour shift in a fluorescent-lit metal cavern surrounded by oils and fats, the last thing you want to be doing is eating. The sweet satisfaction of coffee and cigarettes, along with a couple of hours sleep between pints; that’s living.
And that’s the life American writer and former chef Tony Bourdain encapsulated so very well in his debut book, Kitchen Confidential, a tome that became like a bible to me over the course of the next decade and a half. Bourdain’s tales of misadventure in the “culinary underbelly” were like reassuring bedtime stories read during brief power-naps amidst sacks of potatoes. His philosophies of how to survive in the kitchen rang true to the real world too, the world of sunlight, whether it be as simply not to fuck with the guy that preps your food, or to keep things straight and ordered throughout the oncoming storm, or slightly more obscure lessons such as never ordering the fish special on a Monday (read the book.).
Over the years, I devoured his globetrotting adventures, both on paper and on screen, his passion for nose-to-tail eating, to make “the unloved beautiful” rapidly becoming my own mantra as I found myself fumbling around Asia. At seventeen, I wouldn’t even eat mushrooms. By twenty-two I’d eaten almost every bird, beast and creepy-crawly you could imagine. And that was all under the heady influence of Bourdain’s magic. Whale? Yup; had it sashimied with spring onions. Turtle? Had one of those little buggers served in its own shell. Scorpion? Ate a still-wriggling one off a cocktail stick in the streets of Beijing. Hell, I even ate raw chicken at a bar in Yamaguchi after seeing Bourdain greedily slurping it down the night before. And, you know what? It was fucking delicious.
But it wasn’t just the food. It was Bourdain’s love of adventure, his love of people and his love of life itself that brought that spotty, insecure little nerd out of his shell. Bourdain made me want to be cool. He made me feel like I could be a rock’n’roll chef too. And, for a brief while, I guess I kinda was. I developed my knife skills. I learned to put together a fucking mean salsa verde. I found my voice behind my six string. I found myself in Tsukiji Fish Market at 4am in the pissing rain, not speaking a word of Japanese, and yet enthralled by the insane love of all things edible. And that was Tony’s influence. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself and to seek out adventure where I could. And that as much of a fucker the world is, there’s always something beautiful in even the ugliest of things.
And that’s what made today’s news all the harder. This is perhaps one of the most emotional eulogies I’ve written over the course of my journalistic career, but without Tony, I probably wouldn’t even have a journalistic career at all. His writing style influenced my own to a ridiculous degree. His adventures inspired me to capture my own. My early blogs, food and travel based, drew heavily from his books A Cook’s Tour and Medium Raw. Without them, I never would’ve found my way to where I am now. Feeling so much grief at the passing of a man I never even met, who still managed to teach me so much; it’s bizarre. I don’t know what drove someone with such joie de vivre to take his own life. I don’t want to know. To me, Tony will always be that rock star, leaning against a wall with a cigarette hanging from his lips, his hair kinda like mine, and with a “fuck you” attitude that I wish I could even have an ounce of.
Thanks for everything Tony. You were the coolest. And, without knowing it, you made me feel kinda fucking cool too.