In recent years, the celebrated, uncensored and adventurous Anthony Bourdain, who died at the age of 61 on Friday, became increasingly famous as the host of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, a travelogue that made viewers hungry for street food and far-flung locales.
But before he taught us the tricks to navigating authentic local markets and cuisines, he revealed some of the high-end restaurant industry’s most unsavory secrets in a 1999 New Yorker article that, to his great surprise, the magazine ran. Bourdain’s shocking, stomach-churning article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” launched him to stardom and ultimately fueled his 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential.
“I want to try everything once,” Bourdain said in the book. “But there are some general principles I adhere to, things I’ve seen over the years that remain in mind and have altered my eating habits.”
Read below for 12 of Bourdain’s dining-out principles that will likely alter yours as well.
1. Skip the fish special
Sure, it’s well priced, but is it fresh? Doubtful. Since chefs receive their seafood order for the weekend on Friday mornings, “chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions,” he wrote in his New Yorker article. He explains that during the weekend rush, “proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent,” as cooks are constantly opening the refrigerator and potentially contaminating the fish with other meats in the frantic process. (Bourdain clarified later in life that this principle only applies to restaurants in which seafood is not the “main thrust of their business.”)
2. Dine out during the week
Weekdays are for locals, weekends for tourists and the pre-theatre crowd. Unsurprisingly, chefs prefer cooking for the former. Bourdain suggests that Tuesdays are your best bet for fresh food (fish included), as that’s when “the good stuff comes in,” when the kitchen is most relaxed and when the chef is serving up peak creativity.
3. Don’t order meat well-done
If not for the sake of flavor alone, then for the fact that you’re effectively paying “for the privilege of eating our garbage,” Bourdain quips in the article. He explains that cuts of particularly tough or old meat that would otherwise be trashed or served to the floor staff are set aside by cost-conscious chefs in a “time-honored practice called ‘save for well-done.'”
4. Pork is safer (and cooler) than chicken
Unless you object to pork for religious reasons, Bourdain urges you to choose it over chicken, which “bores the hell out of chefs.” Bourdain also explains that chicken goes bad quickly and spreads salmonella when handled carelessly. With his signature snark for those who play it safe, he states, “It occupies its ubiquitous place on menus as an option for customers who can’t decide what they want to eat.” Pork, however, is cool — it’s less likely to make you sick if you get an undercooked cut, and it lends itself to a wider variety of tasty dishes.
5. Most meals include a full stick of butter
Do as the French do, and embrace it. This is why restaurant cooking tastes so much more decadent than a home-cooked meal — because few of us could stomach seeing just how much butter goes into a dish in order to make it even better than how your mama made it. “In almost every restaurant worth patronizing, sauces are enriched with mellowing, emulsifying butter,” Bourdain vows, even “the ones where the chef brags about how he’s ‘getting away from butter and cream.'” Whether it’s for a sauce, for searing or for caramelizing, it’s there, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
6. Bread gets recycled
No, not the eco-conscious kind of recycling. The bread served shortly after you sit down is often culled from the uneaten leftovers of the sticky-fingered children crawling over their parents a few tables away. Shocked? Bourdain wasn’t. “This, to me, wasn’t news: the reuse of bread has been an open secret—and a fairly standard practice—in the industry for years.” But before you get too worked up — it’s typically just the baskets of seemingly untouched bread that would be reused during peak hours. Bourdain insists in Kitchen Confidential that if the germs that may have been breathed in the basket’s general direction upset you, “you might just as well avoid air travel, or subways, equally dodgy environments for airborne transmission of disease. Eat the bread.”
7. Be wary of Hollandaise
“Most likely, the stuff on your eggs was made hours ago and held on station,” Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential.
8. Avoid “discount sushi”
If the disclaimer doesn’t put you off, Bourdain’s warning should. “I can’t imagine a better example of Things To Be Wary Of in the food department than bargain sushi.” If anything made this man with a famously open-minded and often reckless appetite wary, it should make us all wary.
9. Skip the mussels
While some restaurants may handle their mussels carefully, that was rarely Bourdain’s experience in the kitchen. “More often than not, mussels are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss in the bottom of a reach-in,” he revealed in Kitchen Confidential. They’re rarely picked through to ensure that each and every one is healthy before being quickly cooked in a pot and served. If you’re going to order them, be sure to give them a good once-over before eating.
10. Be polite to your waiter
Beyond the obvious reasons — because they’re people too, because it tends to encourage better service, because no one wants their soup spat in — being polite to your waiter is of key importance. Waiters know the secrets of what’s going on behind closed kitchen doors, and might just be the ones to tip you off on what not to order. “Look at your waiter’s face. He knows,” Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential. “If he likes you, maybe he’ll stop you from ordering a piece of fish he knows is going to hurt you.”
All this taken into account, what Bourdain aimed to do was hold open the swinging kitchen door long enough for us to get a glimpse at the reality inside; to disillusion us a bit about the high-end restaurant world which we have put on a pedestal; to share his hard-earned tips that might just make us smarter eaters and patrons — not to scare us away from enjoying a meal out.
“Do all these horrifying assertions frighten you? Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant?” He gently mocks in Kitchen Confidential. “No way. Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
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