Canadian Contractor

Steve Payne   

Wish you’d chosen a 9-5 job? Lessons from Anthony Bourdain’s apprenticeship bestseller

Why should a contractor read the very first book of a famous TV chef? Because this legendarily hard-living man had a contractor's soul

As famously contemptuous as Mike Holmes is about shoddy contracting, Anthony Bourdain, the New York bred celebrity chef and culinary-travel TV show host who died last month, was as equally derisive about bad restaurants. Whereas Holmes would say, “Rip it out!”, Bourdain would warn, “Don’t eat that!” Both men became famous and wealthy for their arguments in favour of quality.

The public reaction to Bourdain’s death has been significant. Many people have said that they felt they knew the man personally. A reality TV show has seldom been so real. As he struggled up the truly greasy pole of his line-cook apprenticeships, Bourdain was fired often and deservedly. He became a drug addict and talked about that on his shows, too. Yet he recovered from it all and became successful beyond his wildest dreams.

Bourdain was a survivor of a trade that inflicted serious mental and physical pain on its practitioners. To those status-minded souls who sometimes wonder if they should be in the the trades at all, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s confessional book about his early years as an apprentice chef. It’s called Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

This bullshit-free book, now a bestseller again, about an industry that too often sets prices and establishes reputations by pomposity, explains the strange obsession that drives people through the mind-bending ordeal of learning to cook at a professional level in madhouse kitchens (all busy restaurant kitchens, pretty well). More than that, I think it’s the best book about the psychology of pursuing a trade (as opposed to a “career”) that I have ever read.

Bourdain writes about the pain, stresses and frustrations of his trade and the exhilaration that comes from conquering those adversaries. He pounds home the truth that quality output on a work shift comes from prior preparation of tools and supplies (what top-level line cooks call their mise en place). And Bourdain makes it very clear that his trade – and it’s true of ours – is worth the suffering because it’s a meritocracy. You can’t hide garbage work and prosper. You can’t bullshit your way to success. Being a chef or a contractor is all about the performance. True success as a chef or as a contractor is one of the highest achievements anyone can earn in the entire world of work. That’s why it’s worth being in our business. The glory is real.




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4 Comments » for Wish you’d chosen a 9-5 job? Lessons from Anthony Bourdain’s apprenticeship bestseller
  1. John E Richters, Ph.D. says:

    Anthony Bourdain’s long-burning suicidal wick- in his own words:

    • Avatar photo Steve Payne says:

      Thank you for this document. I was aware of a number of these comments in the past by Anthony Bourdain in which he, somewhat jocularly to my mind and with what most people would have taken as “black humour,” talked about killing himself. We all underestimated those comments and clearly so did he. The article you’ve linked to unearths all of them, it appears, and collected together it does make tragic reading now. Many of the news reports on Bourdain’s apparent suicide came with taglines or links underneath urging anyone reading the articles who felt self-destructive to seek immediate help. Suicide is a leading cause of death for people over the age of 50 (as it is also a leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults) and anyone who reads this who feels that way, know that help is as close are your nearest hospital emergency department, your family doctor, or any other medical professional. Anti-depressants save lives, psychological and psychiatric counselling saves lives, and please seek it. Thank you John E. Richters for bringing attention to the depressive illness that Anthony Bourdain undoubtedly suffered from.

  2. Simon says:

    Very interesting and timely Steve…I will check it out, thank you for the recommendation!

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