Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cook the Books: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Μαγειρεύοντας τα Βιβλία: Κουζίνα Εμπιστευτικό - 'Αντονυ Μπουρντέν)

This post is part of the Cook the Books blog event running until April 25, 2009, hosted by Ioanna from Food Junkie not Junk Food. Read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and cook something inspired by the book. Post your inspiration on your blog and link to Cook the Books and Ioanna's post.) Many thanks to Ioanna for lending me the book.

: contains a spoiler - if you don't want to know about the story till you have read it, don't read the post!!

Living in Crete for the last two decades, Anthony Bourdain's name did not hold much meaning to me, despite my Western world upbringing, despite my native language being English, despite my interest in food and cooking, despite my connections with other food bloggers round the world, despite my reliance on the internet for all my non-Greek sources of information. I doubt many people in Hania would know who he (or the Travel Channel for that matter) is. We remain unaffected by many of the dramatic changes taking place in the food world; the average Cretan still eats like their grandparents, supplementing the Mediterranean diet with a hefty addition of souvlaki, Goody's and fizzy drinks. This of course has also added quite a few kilos to the weight level of the average Cretan, but very few of the locals will make any apologies for their thick and chunky appearance; 'ο αέρας' they will say proudly (o aeras - the air).

When a food blogging friend first mentioned Anthony Bourdain's name to me (she had just seen a TV program where he was showcasing Hania), I felt as impressed as I would have been had someone told me Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver or Some Other Big Name TV Chef had come to Hania; in other words, big deal, and what would they know about real food, when all they do is showcase exotic creations in spacious well-equipped kitchens, while never getting their clothes or aprons dirty? After reading Kitchen Confidential, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Anthony also sports a certain disdain for those kind of cooks (but not necessarily the same ones).

What shocked me most about his book (it is a shocking book, no matter which way you look at it) was that most of the food-connected people that Bourdain describes in the restaurant trade are actually degenerates; troubled people with little education, living for the next day with very little knowledge of what the next week has in store for them, completely unreliable, usually in this trade for the money and not for the love of food, and weirdly enough, but perhaps not illogically, given the nature of the job - cooking expensive looking food for the fat wallets of fussy customers - they are mainly male. The world Bourdain describes is a planet away from the one I live as a university-educated mother-of-two (and wife-of-one) office worker, who prepares and cooks all her family's meals (just like my colleagues and neighbours), with an emphasis on freshness, health and tradition. I'm still cooking like my mother, a Cretan immigrant to New Zealand. But you'll be surprised to hear that Mum would probably have more in common to discuss with Anthony than I would myself.

fish shop
My father is in his shop with one of his assistants.

My Cretan parents, uneducated and unskilled, came to New Zealand in the early 1960s, each carrying a half-filled suitcase with all their belongings. After being made redundant in their factory jobs in the late 70s
, they became the owner-operators of a classic Kiwi fish and chip shop. They knew all about bad suppliers, late deliveries, working in damp musty environments, sweating it out under the deep dryers, fussy customers, complaints, the rush hour and unreliable staff (until they hired their own daughters - I was only 12 - effectively putting an end to the latter). This is definitely a period in my life that I would simply like to shelve, even though it probably influenced my personality and way of thinking more than any other time in my life; a ten-year involvement in the fish and chip shop trade, working closely with one's parents, cannot but leave an indelible mark in someone's soul. It was also the place where I ate my first fresh raw oyster, survived the experience, and went on to eat many more of them (until I came to Greece; the last time I ate a fresh oyster was five years ago).

Kitchen Confidential's array of food covers a wide range of American restaurant dining styles which are heavily influenced by French and Italian cuisine, with an emphasis on meat and expensive seafood dishes. This view of 'fine dining' is, to my mind, very prejudiced; it confines the idea of good food as belonging to the cultural practices of one or two (namely white-skinned) societies whose idea of 'good food' goes hand in hand with well-padded pockets, linen tablecloths and crystal glasses, with complete disregard for the culinary practices of the rest of the world. I have never eaten in such a restaurant; does this mean that I have never eaten well? Towards the end of the book, Anthony finally discovers good food served outside this well-beaten paradigm, when he took part in a meal consisting of twenty courses, which he sampled at a restaurant in Tokyo.

I have no qualms admitting that I do not know how to make a pate and I'd never heard of a rillette before I read this book. I don't know what the difference is between a bearnaise and a hollandaise, while the only mayonnaise I know comes from a jar. If Crete had not in recent times become a worthy producer of avocados, I would still not know how to make a decent guacomole. Pastry making may be viewed as a highlight in the career of a chef, but that's probably because most chefs don't know how to make delicious kalitsounia (a Cretan specialty with Venetian origins). If ever I want to taste duck confit, saucisson de canard, confit gizzards, poitrine, foie gras, truffle oil and tarbais beans, I know where to go (Les Halles, New York), but I don't feel the need to anyway; I certainly wouldn't even dream of cooking with such ingredients in my own home, especially since I would have trouble finding them easily on my Mediterranean island above the Libyan Sea.

My regular cooking is mainly vegetarian, not for any other reason than the precious amounts of vegetables that we grow ourselves and try to make use of as much as possible. This is in complete contrast to those starred restaurants discussed in
Kitchen Confidential which have a close relationship with special cuts of meat, fish and seafood. Anthony would probably laugh when he hears me tell him that in Hania, butchers simply hack away at the meat as if it were a log of wood; very little attempt is made to cut it into aesthetic-looking pieces, apart from pork chops, which most Greeks have a certain fondness for, especially when the curved one is still intact. Fresh seafood is only available for certain pockets; it's simply too expensive. We ourselves always buy frozen.

If I were to play kitchen hostess for Anthony the next time he pops round to Hania,
I can imagine the dismayed look on his face when he first arrives at my Cretan home. One look at our vegetable garden and he'll think we might be that class of miscreants that he thinks vegetarians are, or worse still "their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, ... vegans." He needn't fear: no decent Cretan (and I mean none at all) would cook a meatless meal to a dinner guest, no matter how vegetarian they may be in their daily life; even during the Greek Orthodox fasting period, purely lenten fare is never served up to travellers and guests. This is a basic rule in Cretan hospitality, and this is probably why Anthony will love the Cretans for the way they truly share their best food with strangers.

Anthony loves the restaurant trade, but he also admits that eating at a restaurant may not actually be the ultimate dining experience in New York: this could take the form of a delivered Chinese meal eaten straight out of a white paper box while lying in bed and watching a movie. Isn't he so right? Don't we all love eating relaxing food in a laid-back environment? That's what gave me the idea about how to cook his book, but take note: my king-size four-poster bed is out of bounds!

buffalo wings
Chicken wings and blue cheese dressing - celery sticks are more traditional than carrot sticks; dark green Greek celery (we grow it) does not have the same taste as traditional light green celery, which is why I replaced it with the more palatable carrots.

haven't been to New York (yet), but I have had spicy chicken wings before, and I know how good they taste. While reading up internet recipes, I was delighted to discover that the New York chicken wing treat was 'invented' in Buffalo, a place I have heard so much about from a friend who lives there. I 'invited' Dimitra over to eat them with me, making her another of my virtual guests, along with Anthony. Just imagine two New Yorkers lying on the couch in my living room enjoying a good movie or sitting on my Mediterranean balcony overlooking the ferry port on a warm spring afternoon, eating Buffalo wings.

buffalo wings
Mr OC really enjoyed this meal (look at the state of his oily fingers), which we had in the living room while sitting in front of the television; it reminded us both of a combination of fast food tastes - hot Asian food, Kentucky Fried Chicken, exotically appetising aromas. We're definitely having them again some time soon. It was paired with the classic Cretan dakos.
Align Centre

These chicken wings would go really well with a bowl of twice-cooked fried potatoes (the way my parents made them in the fish and chip shop - no wonder they tasted so good) and some very cold beer. Στην υγειά σας*, Anthony and Dimitra!

(*to your health)
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