Anthony Bourdain Helped Me Find Inspiration in My Waitressing Job
He proved that writing and restaurant work—which I’d previously considered two separate spheres—didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
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I came across Anthony Bourdain’s 1999 New Yorker essay, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” when I moved to New York City in 2014—15 years after its publication. It stuck with me for a long time; I had spent nearly a decade waiting tables off and on, starting at a gastropub in suburban New Hampshire at 16 years old and ending with a Jean-Georges restaurant in Manhattan where the average tab for a five-top frequently surpassed my rent.
“Don’t Eat Before Reading This” marked a paradigm shift in my life as an aspiring writer and a moonlighting server. “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay,” Bourdain writes in The New Yorker. He continues: “It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish.” It gave me goosebumps. At the time, I worked at Craftbar, a now-shuttered Tom Colicchio outpost in the Flatiron District. As a server, it’s your job to move the product, and as one in a farm-to-table restaurant you’re required to have an intimate enough knowledge of the ingredients and their purveyors to sell the dish and make it sexy enough that the customer will order it.
This? This was a renowned chef doing the exact opposite of what I’d been hired to do. The food in “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” isn’t appetising at all. It’s fucking gross. But the prose is sumptuous, juicy, dark. It captures the murky underbelly of the industry, the grit of the kitchen, the ghoulish magic of what goes on behind the scenes after the woman at table 12, position one, orders her coq au vin. Even if practices and work conditions have improved since the essay was published in 1999, aspects of it still rang true in my 2014 reality.
The biggest takeaway, from a creative standpoint: The job I viewed as a necessary means to an end for a paycheck was, in fact, not a bad place to be for a newly graduated English student. Restaurants are troves of everyday inspiration. There are the scents, sights, flavours, and textures, of course. No matter where I worked, the plot-lines were there and they were endless. I’ve watched relationships end solely because I had to pour out the unfinished bottle of wine on the table before dropping the check; I’ve served Champagne to someone who had just been deemed “cancer-free” after their original diagnosis was terminal. A line cook almost passed out over the fryer during Ramadan one year. I once cried over a snafu involving lobster tacos.
In the piece, Bourdain describes his yearning for “the camaraderie that flourished within rigid order and nerve-shattering chaos.” But in addition to that order and chaos, there is a shared, innate love of storytelling that unites restaurant workers: whether it’s the physical translation of a recipe on a laminated page in a binder to the finished product on the plate, to how a server describes the dish, builds it with words in a fashion that the customer can fathom to the point where they order it. How many different ways are there to paint sunflower pesto across the surface of a plate? How many different ways can I describe a fluke ceviche to a guest without using the same adjectives in one night, and what’s the exact pigment of that red wine?
Writing and restaurant work—which I’d previously considered two separate spheres in my brain—didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. The success of both is rooted in the worker’s capacity for storytelling.
I’m not sure I would’ve ever come to that conclusion if I hadn’t read “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” Were it not for Bourdain’s portrait of kitchen life and the “sheer weirdness” of it—“the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam”—I’m not sure I would’ve opened my eyes to all the stimuli, inspiration, and humanity that freely offered itself to me as soon as I punched the clock and donned an apron. I’ll admit that I never really proactively followed Anthony Bourdain’s career as a chef or as a TV personality otherwise. But for one essay to profoundly reshape how I viewed my day-to-day environment and the relationship it had to my long term career goals; for one piece of writing to leave such a mark—it could’ve only come from the pen and mind of a master storyteller. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for that. He will be missed.