Anthony Bourdain’s Editor on the Making of Kitchen Confidential
The spring of 1999 I was still in college, which meant that I was working in a restaurant. Nothing high-brow; a barbecue joint. I put myself through school with a few restaurant jobs, working the tables, running food, coming in on Wednesday afternoons to help unload inventory. The greasy camaraderie of restaurants was a nightly reality, and I ate up that spring’s buzziest New Yorker piece, with its real talk about restaurant life, devouring it as hungrily as everyone else captivated by Anthony Bourdain’s saucy insider look at the kitchen’s secret world.
It didn’t matter that he was as New York as they come and I lived in Ohio; the restaurant tribe is its own affinity. When his first book appeared a scant year later, I ate that up too. It had a hungry, pacing energy, and the feel of a secret pleasure — sex, drugs, and rock and roll larding the page. From there, of course, Bourdain became a star, much-loved and mourned this week after his death on June 8, 2018.
Bourdain was perhaps best known through his brilliant television career. His audience followed him through the self-deprecating, open-hearted travels and tastings of No Reservations, A Cook’s Tour, and Parts Unknown. But for me, Kitchen Confidential will always be the magic spark that lit me up — the one that saw restaurant work and named its messy, loud, secretive camaraderie in deceptively casual language, tossing off stories like you were sitting together on a smoke break. (I still don’t order fish on Monday, and yes, chefs really do despise well-done steak.) It also introduced the subtle magic of his entire body of work: brash on the outside, naming names and telling the dirty stories; but all that bawdiness acts as a sleight-of-hand cover for the sweetness and vulnerability of his own personal, reflective journey.
In the tributes and outpouring of conversation about Bourdain this week, I wanted to both reread Kitchen Confidential and understand more about where it came from — this book that made an entire industry feel seen and known and introduced his voice to the world.
I spoke to Karen Rinaldi, his first publisher and editor, and a close friend of Tony Bourdain’s, to get the inside story on how Kitchen Confidential came to be.
Tell me how this book happened.
Kitchen Confidential emerged out of incredible relationships — the best way that the best things happen. My husband Joel Rose and Tony were friends from the ’80s. Tony was represented by our agent Kimberly Witherspoon — my best friend in the world. Tony was in Tokyo, opening up Les Halles Tokyo.
At this point Tony had published two novels but was somewhat frustrated in his fiction career. He was writing these emails to my husband, regaling him with stories about opening the restaurant in Tokyo. I was sitting on the floor, nursing my son, and my husband was reading these emails to me out loud — they were brilliant, these anecdotal riffs. I laughed and said, “These are so fucking brilliant. Do you think he could do this in nonfiction?” And Joel was like, “I’ve been trying to get him to try!”
At the time I was editorial director at Bloomsbury, and I said, “What if I just put him under contract?” Joel felt he would love that. I was thinking, he’s so smart and so funny and banging his head against the wall to write fiction. But if he can write an email like this, he can write nonfiction.
So I played a little game with my friend, his agent and mine. I said to Kim, “I would offer you X amount of dollars. He’s got to accept or reject it before he lands back in New York from Tokyo.” She thought it was so great — a game, you understand. His first wife sent a fax to him with the offer — he thought it was a joke but of course it wasn’t.
So the piece in The New Yorker hadn’t come out yet?
No! In fact, the part that is never told right is this: Concomitantly he had sent this piece [Don’t Eat Before Reading This] to the New York Press and they weren’t getting it out — they kept pushing it back. So Kim [our agent] lobbed it to The New Yorker. Here I was — I had made this deal and didn’t realize this piece would come out in the New Yorker. What fun!
So all of a sudden, Tony was excited — he was frustrated with his fiction writing but there was this New Yorker piece, and a contract. He flew back from Japan and we met at a bar and I said, “Now you’re under contract — what do you want to write? Joel tells me you have a lot of amazing stories.”
He said, “I already have a title,” and I said “What is it?”
“Kitchen Confidential,” he said.
“Fucking brilliant,” I said.
Can you describe what it was like to work with him in those early days? What did he want to write, and how did you help shape it?
Clearly these stories were burning a hole in his brain because he wrote it really quickly. It came in pretty much what it became — it was more a matter of the line editing. Mostly I remember being blown away by it and that it came in even better than we had hoped.
As a publisher you place your bets on something that doesn’t exist yet. You can only know it when you see it. I remember talking about the title and probably noodled with the outline. He and I definitely discussed the narrative structure. And then these stories coming in — they were sheer pleasure to read. It happens so rarely as a publisher and an editor that a book comes in even better than you hoped. I remember reading the manuscript the first time and thinking, oh my god this is fucking awesome. So we knew we had something really special.
His direct editor, Panio Gianopoulos, worked very closely with Tony on the honing of it, but the book was just there. I know he worked very hard on it, but it emerged from his experience and his voice.
Were you surprised by the overwhelming reception for the book?
Tony is really profane and I remember pitching it at a sales conference and someone timidly raised their hand and was like, can you pull back on the language a bit? And I was like, are you fucking kidding me — it’s bombastic and ballsy in your face and aggressive, but also honest and raw and funny — not gratuitous. I don’t think that people are going to be offended by this.
Our first printing was 11,000 copies, and the book came out and it hit number 7 or number 4 on the New York Times bestseller list and we had hardly any copies out. In book publishing you try to prep every book — you want to make as much noise as you can. We’re like venture capitalists, making bets on books and telling people this is special; pay attention! It was like people were waiting for the book — but we couldn’t be sure.
We ran out of stock in the first week and history in a weird way was made.
One of the things I admired most about him was his ability to be self-reflective in the #MeToo moment and self-aware about any way his take on the swagger of restaurant culture may have contributed to the toxicity being addressed now. Is there anything in the book you would change now, looking back?
No, absolutely not. We have to distinguish between huge personality and misogyny. I don’t feel that he made women second-class citizens. He did sex, drugs, and rock and roll, yes — which isn’t necessarily misogynist. Is it sometimes? Sure — but knowing Tony for as long as I have and watching him with Nancy and Ottavia — it’s just not in him. He’s not an asshole, not one of those guys. And that’s what’s just so heartbreaking — not him. He was one of the good guys.
His self-awareness was real. He was able to go back and say, huh did I contribute to this? I’m a straight guy — he had to ask himself these questions. Because he wasn’t that guy, that misogynist. We all participated in this to a certain degree — it’s cultural. The heightened awareness is getting us to a better place. He was able to be a macho guy and still get to a better place.
What was he like, after the book came out and he began getting all this attention?
Honestly he wasn’t that great in the media at first. Tony was shy and a little awkward at first — and lovely. He was still Tony in all his Tony-ness. In the beginning it was kinda funny to see him on television — but he was incredibly smart, and he started nailing it very quickly. He was so entertaining and such a love.
As an editor, what struck you as special about this book? What was the secret that made it such a breakout star?
An authentic voice, a story well told. Its cadence and punchlines. Where he lands the story — it’s a really hard thing to do.
Nobody had done this, right? He thought that chefs were going to be pissed off at him. He was terrified because that was his first world, where he belonged. He really did give away a lot of secrets — but it was the opposite and they loved him.
Since then there have been a lot of copycats. But Tony did that first — the inside look that was not didactic.
There was just a lot of love in the way he told these stories. You see it in Parts Unknown and in even in his fiction — this fierce and profane and violent-to-language love — there’s so much love behind it. That’s a very hard balance and you can’t teach it to anyone. He felt things very deeply and he also had a very swashbuckling attitude.
You’re sitting there as an editor and publisher and you hope for things and sign things and when that happens you honor it and you’re grateful.
That’s why he became Anthony Bourdain and that’s why his death reverberated around the world. We need more people like him. There aren’t enough of these guys around. It was a privilege to be there along the way and just to be a friend.
Thank you so much, Karen.
If you haven’t read Anthony Bourdain’s first book, I can’t recommend it enough. Find it at Amazon, the library, or wherever great books are sold.
Get the Kitchn Daily in your inbox.