#5onFri: Five Writing Lessons from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

by Amanda Polick
published in Writing

Whenever I’m asked who my dream dinner guest is, I still say: Anthony Bourdain. For years, I imagined sharing a meal with him in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant having giant belly laughs and leaving with a full heart. I don’t believe I’m alone in that.

Some people are born storytellers. They know how to grab an audience from the first word and keep them until the last minute. Bourdain though, did that by being 100% himself. His nuance and understanding of humans on a universal level is what connected many of us to his stories.

It was hard to narrow down his best writing lessons from Kitchen Confidential. However, these five contain most of his essence and no-nonsense attitude that made us fall in love  with him in the first place.

Know Your True Audience and the Others Will Come

Fiction or nonfiction, there’s an audience on the other side who you’re writing for. Especially when writing about a specific topic, you have to know who your work is and is not for. Most writers go wrong with failing to have an audience in mind.

As the adage goes: When you’re trying to please everyone, you please no one.

In true Bourdain fashion, he aimed to please no one but the folks who you don’t see. He said, “I wanted to write in Kitchenese, the secret language of cooks, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever dunked french fries for a summer job or suffered under the despotic rule of a tyrannical chef or boobish owner.”

He wasn’t writing for the food blogger in the Midwest or the famous French chefs with Michelin starred restaurants. In fact, he mentioned as much in the introduction with the acknowledgement that most chefs might be angry at him. But he wrote his truth for his people, anyway.

The wild part? Those chefs he believed were not his people, ended up as raving fans and even friends of his.

Write How You Speak

Maybe it’s from years of essay writing and attempting to sound smart, but most writers elevate their work with words they wouldn’t use in real life. What’s meant to be beautiful wordsmithing ends up making your work sound unbelievable and unapproachable.

Enter Bourdain. It could be from so many years of hearing his voice on a screen, but there is something distinct about his point of view that’s unmistakable even in writing.

How would you do this? Write like you’re talking to a friend. Remove the fancy words and give it to the reader straight. His lack of pretense makes his work no less intentional but more relatable.

Through all of Bourdain’s work, you’re left feeling like you just had a long chat with a good pal which for some writers, might be the best compliment of all.

Let Your Narrator Have Flaws

Between scandalous back of the house escapades and cutthroat survival skills,  no one in Kitchen Confidential comes out as a saint, and they don’t need to. Somewhere along the way, writers have come to this collective agreement that main characters should be the total package — beautiful, smart, and charming with a heart of gold. Boring.

Flaws don’t make a character unlikeable. In fact, when Bourdain flat out told readers he wasn’t perfect: I’m simply not going to deceive anybody about life as I’ve seen it. It’s all here: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Readers want to find someone they can either relate to or live vicariously through. So, you may not work in a bustling Manhattan restaurant, cuss like a sailor and participate in some risky behavior, but you absolutely want to pull up your chair and watch that show.

Don’t Be Precious About What You Love

It’s easy to fall into a trap of being precious with a topic or theme you love. You want to show readers you’re a smart and gifted writer who knows a subject well, right? Yes, and no.

For instance, Bourdain was obsessed with food, and emphasized that for him, the weirder, the better. However, he danced a fine line between its utility and beauty in his descriptions. He also showed his love for the craft of cooking, but didn’t romanticize it. If anything, he wasn’t afraid of being brutally honest because he knew the culinary world could take.

Think of it like kneading dough: You start with fluff, yet the more flour you add, you have a solid creation that can withstand heat. The topics you love should be able to hold up against a microscope. There’s no need to embellish a moment when a straightforward description will do.

As Bourdain said, “Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.” Just like the belief of most chefs that salt and pepper are sturdy staples you can rely on time and time again, there’s a beauty in keeping your writing simple.

Readers want to experience rich moments, but you don’t have to lead them as much as nudge them in the right direction. Trust that less is more, and you’ll be able to deeply connect with your audience using only the essentials.

It’s Okay to Have Strong Opinions

Everyone has an opinion until they sit down to write a book. That’s when second-guessing and playing nice rear their ugly heads.

What if people don’t like my point of view?

I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

 Should I say how I really feel?

For memoir in particular, it’s overwhelming to put on a stamp on your beliefs because people will know it’s how you feel. Spoiler: Even if you’re writing fiction, people will assume those are your beliefs too.

But strong opinions make a story interesting. It’s what has a reader flipping the pages and laughing out loud because they wish they had the courage to say the same thing. If you love chicken, you probably felt slightly offended by Bourdain’s opinion or felt called out and didn’t care.

“And chicken is boring. Chefs see it as a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat.”

He’s like the friend who tells you to change your outfit because it’s not flattering. You get defensive at first, but then realize he’s just looking out for you — wants you to know what people might say about you.

However, the running thread through each of these lessons is to be no one but yourself as a writer. Embrace what makes you odd and how you see the world. Be comfortable being the person people want to talk about, even if it’s not always glowing. Take risks and know it’s better to “fail” at who you are, rather than succeed at being who you are not.

These are the things we’ll never stop appreciating about Bourdain. They’re also what makes us miss him so much now.

Amanda Polick Nostalgia

Amanda Polick is a book coach for food and entertainment professionals based in Nashville, Tennessee. When she’s not eating her way through her newest stack of cookbooks, this former actor and improviser can be found looking for her next favorite performer. Her work has been featured in Cooking Light, Food & Wine, and Time and is now a regular columnist for DIYMFA. To reach out or learn more, visit her website for free inspiration and book writing guides.

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