Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Well, it happened again. I fell in love. It only took 5 minutes. I'm now head over heels.
Unfortunately, it's a book.

I was hacking away deep in the jungle that is yet another novel when I picked up my new obsession. After a few pages I immediately abandoned my failed expedition through the lands of fiction - Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential had me. I bought it a while ago and I did try to read it once but I started in middle (nasty habit) and quickly lost interest when I started another book before fully committing myself to it (nastier habit, which I just perpetuated). Now, I read it whenever I can; on the commute, on the way to a friend's house, at lunch, late at night when I should be sleeping. The other day I made the mistake of placing the book on my desk at work. It was torture; the temptation too great - I really wanted to read it. The book beckoned...
"Not now, they'll see us!" I thought. I had to put in a drawer.
Or what about when I brought it out to a pub on Friday night? I could squeeze in at least 15 minutes of reading time on the subway before I reached my destination, I figured. I had to stash it in a friend's purse when I got there and explain why I brought a book out with me on a Friday night.

I know, I know... "A book by and about a cook? That sounds sleep inducing." But you're wrong. It's actually one of the wildest and most entertaining books I've ever had the privilege to read.
Don't believe me? Here's an excerpt (from a chapter describing the first time Bourdain and his friends get to run a New York kitchen):
We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in at every opportunity to 'conceptualize'. Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Pot, quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, Seconal, Tuinal, speed, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we'd send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get. We worked long hours and took considerable pride in our efforts - the drugs, we thought, having little effect on the end-product. That was what the whole life we were in was about, we believed: to work through the drugs, the fatigue, the lack of sleep, the pain, to show no visible effects. We might be tripping out on blotter acid, sleepless for three days and halfway through a bottle of Stoli, but we were professionals, goddammit!
See, not exactly the Julia Child biography (but it does have good recipe ideas inside).

There are plenty of reviews of Kitchen Confidential available online, so I won't delve into the details; this is more of a personal slant. Suffice to say boy falls in love with food, boy gets kitchen job, boy drops out of college and goes to chef school, boy moves to New York, works in a collection of restaurants of varying quality (most go bankrupt), boy becomes drug addict, gets clean, redeems himself with chef job at Les Halles.
Also, there's a chapter about dick jokes and a couple more about his right hand men in the kitchen (men so badly behaved it's a miracle they are not in jail or dead). Some of events and people that populate the book are so outlandish that it's difficult not to think that the author went James Frey on us; embellishing for our entertainment.

I found the cook as rock star and the kitchen as insane asylum to be irresistible lures. It helps too, that Bourdain is a francophile with an appreciation for bandes-dessinés. Reading the book, for me, is like hanging out with a kindred spirit. Anyone who refers to vegans as a "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of vegetarians is clearly my kind of guy.

And like Bourdain, I've always been fascinated by cooking from an early age. Lebanese food was my first love; those childhood Sunday afternoon lunches at my grandmother's were the highlight of my week. I can still taste those dishes; warak einab (stuffed grape leaves), coossa ma dibis remayhn (meat stuffed zucchini with pomegranate syrup), shish-barak (meat wrapped in dough and cooked in yogurt). Crowding around that dining room table with my extended family on Sundays was my atheist church.
Some of my best food experiences also happened in Lebanon even after I started living in Canada. That calf's brain, warm and spread on bread with sliver of garlic. Or the first time I had cracked open a fresh sea urchin and scooped up the succulent, salty, bright orange roe. All the food too weird or too dangerous to be served in Canada is one the things I look forward to when I get off the plane in Beirut.

The cooking, while interesting, was not what I enjoyed the most. It was the Bourdain's descriptions of another favorite hobby of mine that really kept me turning the pages: general debauchery. As I get older my nocturnal activities have grown more tame and the majority of the miscreants have been culled from my stable of friends. Things are slowing down; like an aging power-pitcher, I'm losing my fastball (but don't be fooled, like Schilling I can still get the outs). That's why I had so much fun to living vicariously through the documented misdeeds of others in Kitchen Confidential, however unbelievable. Which leads to the coincidence that occurred on Friday night and why I now believe all the tall tales Bourdain recounts in the book.

Friday night, post-pub, after retrieving my book from it's purse prison:

I was on the subway, riding home, when I overheard a girl engaged in an animated discussion with two Japanese proto-punks and I, in my infinite wisdom, chimed in. Thirty seconds later I was getting off the subway at a station that wasn't mine and following three people I didn't know to God knows where. The trio turned out to be cooks at Flow, and I, surprised by the apparent serendipity of the moment and spurred on by Kitchen Confidential, was tagging along on whatever late night unwinding these kitchen workers had planned. I soon found myself in a stranger's dark and smoky living room, swallowed up in a mushy futon, drinking pilfered eau de vie, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to several lengthy treatises delivered by people of questionable sanity. The finer points of pharmaceutical drug abuse, why shoplifting isn't stealing is you really need it, how dumpster diving (aka freeganism) is great way to procure fresh produce, how much GHB it takes to reander someone unconscious - the topics discussed and behavior described varied between the odd, the worrying and the outright criminal. Later I, unwisely, tried to read a passage of the book to one cook (maybe she'd find it/me funny?) but she quickly cut me off - "The only thing I read is the funnies." (I'm going to assume she skips over Doonesbury ... and who under 60 still calls comics funnies?). She then went ahead to display ADHD behavior straight out of a textbook. And as she told endless stories with no point or conclusion, switching topics without warning and at full speed, I realized Bourdain wasn't embellishing - these people are nuts. When he calls his line cooks "a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths" he is not exaggerating.

The next night I went to a concert. After the show we ended up at a boisterous after-party in a 2 story studio on Queen west (see, like Schilling, I'm still effective). The party was populated by Latin Americans, mostly from Columbia and Argentina, the music was a disjointed mix of house and cumbia and the drinks ($5 a pop) were strong enough to strip paint. The party was fun but the atmosphere was vaguely threatening (as it usually is when people start arguing loudly in a language you barely understand), most the people there were high on more than one drug, and I almost got myself into trouble when I conversed with the wrong girl (her boyfriend was, to put it charitably, unimpressed). That being said, it was still more normal than hanging with those three cooks. Even though we were just sitting around, those three line cooks had more intrinsic menace than a whole room of drunk, posturing Latin men.

And since this entry seems to have no rhyme or reason... two simple recipes everyone should have in their repertoire and that are usually made incorrectly:

Bolognese sauce (a modified version of Mario Battali's):
Handful chopped pancetta.
Some hot pepper flakes.
A big onion, chopped.
Same volume as chopped onion of chopped carrots and chopped celery.
Few cloves of garlic.
1/2 pound of ground beef (medium)
1/2 pound of ground pork
1 cup of white wine
1 cup of milk (full fat)
2 - 3 cups of chicken broth (make it yourself if you can, it makes a big difference)
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste or preferably some Pomi (boxed pureed tomatoes)
2 bay leaves
Lots of thyme (fresh is better)
Olive oil

Fry pancetta and flakes with oil, add carrots, celery, onions and garlic. Fry until softened (don;t brown them). Add meat. When meat is cooked add wine. When dry add milk. When dry again, add stock, tomato paste and bay leaves. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2. When done, finish with fresh thyme and olive oil.

4 large tomatoes, stemmed and seeded.
two handfuls of white bread (crusts cut off)
Garlic (2 to 5 cloves, depends how much you like garlic)
Handful of parsley
1 shot glass sherry wine vinegar (can use other types, but balsamic should be a last resort)
1 normal cucumber or half an English one, peeled
1 red pepper (seeded, skin it if you want, but it's a pain in the ass)
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup olive oil
A good blender

Soak the bread in water for a couple of minutes, squeeze out the water. Blend everything (pulse the bread a little first) except the olive oil until smooth. Slowly pour in the olive oil as the blender is mixing (your goal is to emulsify the oil). The soup should be a peach colour when you're done. Serve alone or with croûtons, chopped boiled egg, chopped cucumbers, etc.

The colour you're after is on the left.
If you've ever seen gazpacho that wasn't that colour, it wasn't gazpacho.

And a quit tidbit about learning to cook.
Learning that creating good food was not magic and that I, even I, could do it was has been and till one of my great joys. All it took was many idle hours, no one to cook for me, copious amounts of green, and the Food Network. I never actually cooked anything that I saw, but watching some smooth-talking, bloated, self-satisfied publicity hound whip up a meal in 22 minutes coupled with the munchies provided me with enough motivation to walk into the kitchen and try to make something. Since then I've become a quite competent cook; definitely still an amateur, not close to the speed or precision of needed in a professional kitchen, but confident enough to feed family and friends well without too much stress.
It wasn't easy though. Along the road to competency, there were many hapless attempts and failed experiments due to inexperience and over-reaching. Other frustrations were brought on when an urge for adventure out-grew my tolerance for manual labor.
I still vividly remember an ill advised calamari fry with my roommate (another food lover) that ended well past midnight. We spent hours cleaning, washing, cutting, breading and then frying a box of squid the size of a small desktop commuter. Not exactly a clean job; I ended up covered in squid guts and hot oil. We then stayed up late drinking beer and eating so much squid that I though tentacles would sprout out of my urethra.
Or last fall, I committed myself to feeding 8 people with fresh, hand-made ravioli. If I had any idea how long it takes to make and roll out (by hand, with a rolling pin) enough dough for 100 ravioli, I would never have tendered the invitation. After that experience, whenever I see old Italian widows wandering through my neighborhood, with their black clothes, golden crucifixes and unsteady gaits, I'm tempted to kiss the rings of these high priestesses of pasta.


IWPR said...

The Institute for War and Peace would like to invite you to apply to a
Grant Competition for Investigative Reporting.

IWPR is offering grants for young journalists interested in investigative stories on local governance, transparency and municipal politics in Lebanon to encourage local and national media to dig deeper and to hold local politicians accountable.

IWPR wants to give a group of you the chance to work on an investigate story of your choice.

To qualify for the grant, please submit the story idea you want to pursue along with a research outline and a brief CV summarizing your background.

Please send your submission to: or

for more about the project, kindly visit


The IWPR Team

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