In this week's issue, you'll find the latest edition of Eats, the Nashville Scene's biannual guide to dining out in Nashville. So what better time to offer some tips from Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the controversial book by swaggering New York chef Anthony Bourdain, who tells all about the inner workings of restaurant kitchens? I'll be happy to save you the $24.95 hardcover price and the laborious task of trudging through Bourdain's chest-beating and macho bragging to find the useful information buried within. Even confirmed foodies and chef groupies would be well-advised to wait for the softcover edition, and spend the $10 saved on a nice lunch at Cibo, or two hot chicken orders at Prince's, or four barbecue sandwiches from Mary's, or a burger and shake at Rotier's, or a glass of fancy wine on the patio at Sunset Grill, or...well, you get the picture.
In my experience, many of the chefs I have known, particularly the male chefs, have very healthy egos. Brimming with self-confidence, they tend to be cocky, insouciant hedonists hungry for the good life. They are also some of the hardest-working people I know, passionate in their devotion to their craft and generous with their gifts.
Anthony Bourdain, a mid-'70s graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA)before it was the fancy-pants, respected institution it is todayexemplifies all of these traits, particularly the healthy ego. His obsession with food began on a childhood trip with his parents to France, where he sampled vichyssoise, his first stinky cheese, his first sweetbreads, his first bloody boudin noir, and, most notably, his first oysterwhich he compares favorably to several other firsts that came somewhat, but not much, later in his life.
After graduating high school, he went to Provincetown, R.I., a small Portuguese fishing village with pretensions toward yuppiness, and worked in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant. He began as a dishwasher, where he had a front-row view of the cooks, who he came to see as undisputed stars. "In the kitchen, they were like gods," he writes. "They dressed like pirates.... They had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing. They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn't nailed down, and screwed their way through the floor staff, bar customers, and casual visitors like nothing I'd ever seen or imagined."
But the incident that most impressed young Monsieur Bourdain that summer was when a wedding party came into the restaurant for a post-reception dinner. The bride, still in her gown and definitely in her cups, stopped by the kitchen for a few words with the chef. Not long afterward, the chef and the bride disappeared, but were soon spotted by the kitchen crew out back of the restaurant, where the bride was getting an enthusiastic send-off from the chef. "And I knew then, dear reader, for the first time: I wanted to be a chef."
Soon thereafter, Bourdain was off to the CIA, where he would become a trained professionalsort of. In gory detail, he chronicles his years of service in the New York restaurant industry, from fine dining to chow houses; his many years of drug and alcohol abuse; and his general debauchery. Ultimately, he divested himself of his heroin and cocaine habits, though not his three-pack-a-day smoking addiction, and ended up at the respected Les Halles, a Gramercy Park French bistro, still absolutely enthralled by his professionand himself.
But let me spare you all of that and instead share, from the chapter entitled "From Our Kitchen to Your Table," his tips on avoiding the worst and gaining the most from your restaurant experience. Some of these may be more peculiar to New York restaurants, but are generally helpful to diners everywhere:
♦ Unless Bourdain is eating at Le Bernadin in Manhattan, he never orders fish on Monday, when a restaurant's seafood has been sitting in the walk-in cooler for about four or five days.
♦ Unless he knows the chef personally, he never eats mussels in restaurants. I hate this tip, because I love mussels, yet he relates a terrible tale of how mussels are stored in most restaurants, and his very unpleasant experiences after eating a single bad mussel in a very good Paris restaurant. Eeeew.
♦ No brunch. Brunch, says Bourdain, is the meal when most restaurantsparticularly ones with big buffetsunload and disguise the leftovers from the week before. "Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights or scraps generated in the normal course of business." He also warns diners about the potential dangers of bacteria-loving Hollandaise sauce and wonders how long the Canadian bacon has been "festering" in the walk-in, awaiting its once-weekly appearance on the menu.
♦ He will eat bread in restaurants, even knowing it's probably been recycled off someone else's table, a common practice in the industry, according to Bourdain.
♦ He will not eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms, a warning sign I agree with wholeheartedly. "If the restaurant can't be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like. Bathrooms are relatively easy to keep clean. Kitchens are not." Enough said.
♦ Like your meat well done? Beware of what you ask for. Chefs reserve the worst, toughest end-cuts of meat for the hapless customer who orders a well-done piece of meat; if it's cooked to death, they figure, the diner will never know the difference.
♦ Know your restaurant and order accordingly. The key, says Bourdain, is rotation. In other words, do not order bouillabaisse at a steakhouse. God knows how long the clams, mussels, lobster, and fish have been sitting in the refrigerator, waiting to be called upon. Less popular items on a big menubroiled mackerel, calf's liverare also an iffy proposition.
♦ If you are looking for a fine dining experience from a fine-dining restaurant, reserve a table for Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday nights. "The food that comes in Tuesday is fresh, the station prep is new, and the chef is well-rested after a Sunday or Monday off.... Fridays and Saturdays, the food is fresh, but it's busy, and cooks can't pay as much attention to your food as theyand youmight like."
Words to the wise.
Southern French fried
A new restaurant and two new chefs are coming to town from Dyersburg, Tenn. Owner/chef Richard Graham and chef partner Kevin Alexandroni have taken over the closed Green Hills outpost of Sylvan Park for a relocation of Graham's successful and well-reviewed Dyersburg restaurant Le Cou Rouge. For those who have forgotten their high-school French, the name translates to "The Red Neck." If that doesn't raise a curious eyebrow, perhaps a description of the food will: a unique blend of Southern and French cuisines. "We combine Southern ingredients with classic French techniques and a variety of other culinary influences," Graham explains. C'est vrai? Black-eyed pea cassoulet?
A look at a sample menu and the glowing reviews Le Cou Rouge has received from Memphis-area food critics are reassuring. Among the starters: roasted Wilcox Farm Arkansas bobwhite quail with hoppin' John; oyster and sausage gratin with potatoes and leeks; panéed sweetbreads (Hooray! Sweetbreads at last in Nashville!) with a warm portobello salad and sherry-vinegar-Creole-mustard sauce. Entrees include an Australian lamb shank braised with carrots, celery, leeks, and lemon, served with wild mushroom risotto; a chicken study of roast breast, confit leg, and fried wing with andouille-potato hash; and a few different versions of duck breast.
Graham, a graduate of CIA, decided to move from West Tennessee to Nashville to take advantage of our surging economy and the increased demand for upscale dining options. Currently, the building is being renovated and when completed will have two interior dining rooms that will seat 85 and a décor reminiscent of a country home in the south of France. (So claims the press release.) There will also be a bar and a front and rear patio. The restaurant will serve lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, brunch and dinner on Sunday. A September opening is hoped for; the phone number is 292-7773.
The Corner Market is expanding its hours on both endsopening earlier and closing later. Busy professionals can pick up a cappuccino or fruit smoothie on the way to work beginning at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday, after 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and before or after church on Sundays at 10 a.m. Drop in for dinner, or take it to go, until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sundays, the Market stays open until 6 p.m. With the addition of 3,700 sq. ft. of space and a much larger kitchen after last spring's expansion and renovation, Corner Market is also increasing its off-site catering services and can now accommodate large catering jobs.