Anthony Bourdain was the rock ‘n’ roll star of the culinary world. He made his name in the white-hot hell of New York kitchens, and was known for his cavalier style and love of French cuisine.
He also loved to write. He found it therapeutic, a way to gather his thoughts and ideas away from the gleaming knives and fiery threats of the cookhouse.
But his passion for the kitchen also glowed through his writing. He treated words the same way as he handled ingredients—with a deep respect for their flavor, but a commitment to simplicity over fuss.
Writing the way he spoke, his style was no-nonsense and to the point, almost aggressive. After his death in 2018, he was hailed as the “Hemingway of gastronomy” and it’s easy to see why: Both men wrote honestly and directly, and had little time for nonsense.
Bourdain’s books are a tour de force in two worlds: the literary and culinary. His nonfiction titles, from his debut, Kitchen Confidential, in 2000 to Medium Raw 11 years later, all stay true to the same maxim: He treated the reader with respect, he didn’t patronize them, and he spoke exactly as he saw.
Like cooking, writing is a craft. Bourdain knew that using certain techniques were key to forming that secret recipe of captivating writing that leaves readers hungry for more.
For this reason, if you want to improve your writing and wish to convey a clear, concise message to your audience, then Bourdain’s work could be the inspiration you’re looking for. This applies to any type of writer, but particularly copywriters for whom treating words as ingredients to conjure up fruitful sales copy is an essential skill.
Start off With a Bang
Here are some chapter openings from Kitchen Confidential.
“Burning with a desire for vengeance and vindication”
“Who’s cooking your food anyway? What strange beasts lie behind the kitchen doors?”
“They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived”
As diverse as these opening salvos are, they all have one thing in common: They grab your attention.
Whether a reader or a diner, Anthony Bourdain knew how important it was to stir his audience’s curiosity. Just like the first bite of a dish has to make the diner crave for more, so an opening piece of text has to hook a reader. Let’s be honest, you want to know why he’s simmering with revenge, or which “beast” is cooking your food, and you’ll turn the next page to find out.
I consumed Bourdain’s book in a few hours because I wanted to know what happened next. Like the children in Hansel and Gretel, I wanted to see where the sweets led to, and Bourdain cunningly laid these anecdotal morsels out in just the right places to keep me turning pages.
As writers, we should aim to make our readers react with interest. Starting off with a story is an excellent way of doing so—we all love a good tale, after all, and if it’s something your target reader can relate to, then even better.
Directly engaging the reader is also a smart thing to do. “Who’s cooking your food?” Everyone wants to know that. Finding something relevant to them, something that provokes their curiosity, is a surefire way of hooking them.
And if you’re struggling to start off with a bang, then at least name your chapters or subheadings well. Here are Bourdain’s first three:
- Food is good
- Food is sex
- Food is pain
Who doesn’t want to read about that?
Speak in Your Own Voice
Writers often adopt an artificially formal writing voice when putting pen to paper. A stately tone may serve a purpose if you’re aiming for a particular style. For example, maybe you want to write a flowery ode to the love of your life. And that’s fine.
More often than not, though, the “therefores” and “whences” look a little disingenuous. It’s not something we typically say in 21st-century English, and it may leave readers scratching their heads.
Bourdain knew exactly what voice he spoke in. He called it Kitchenese; a simmering stew of spicy adjectives and bitter expletives that he slung onto a page just as easily as he’d bellow it out in a chaotic kitchen.
This cookhouse dialect may sound rude, and it was. And it was also great fun to read.
Consider the following excerpt from Kitchen Confidential:
“If you look someone in the eye and call them a ‘worthless puddle of badger crap’ it doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It can be—and often is—a term of endearment.”
As much as it might not be to everyone’s taste, such honest writing resonates with readers. It feels like the writer is speaking directly to them, rather than from behind a veil of pretentiousness.
Also, shooting from the hip and writing down exactly how you feel is not only therapeutic, it’s easier to do. Rather than thinking about the perfect adjective or the prettiest prose, just getting your thoughts down on paper or screen helps us overcome a huge obstacle.
It’s why “writer’s block” is overrated as a concept. Some even say it doesn’t exist. If you’re ever stuck for what to write, just put down what’s on your mind. It might be the best thing you’ve ever written.
Let’s not Overcomplicate Things
In a similar vein to the previous point, it’s easy to pepper our prose with elegant expressions and fancy flourishes when we write.
Problem is, as pretty as they are, they can stodge up our writing and make it a chore to read. We all like the odd show-off word, but you can have too much of a good thing. Like an overelaborate dish, sometimes the taste doesn’t live up to its frilly appearance.
Bourdain knew the dangers of overcomplicating things. In fact, he didn’t really like fancy terms. Take the time he went out with a family friend to try his first ever oyster, a true personal epiphany out on the salty flats of southern France.
“We put-putted out to a buoy marking his underwater oyster parc…”
Which verb would you use?
My first instinct was “cruised,” but that gives the image of a huge ship. A little more thought conjures up “drifted,” but then this adjective lacks a sense of purpose.
I’d never have chosen “put-putted” in a million years, but it’s perfect. It captures both the sound of the small engine and the nimble speed at which they sailed.
I don’t care if it isn’t a real verb, and neither did Bourdain. It just works.
On a similar note, Bourdain had a knack of summing up a complicated situation in just a few words.
Living on the U.S. East Coast in the mid-1970s, it was easy for a young chef to fall into ways of excess. You might think his reminisces of such a time would involve a long description of the highs and the lows of a hedonistic lifestyle. But then, you might be wrong:
“Essentially, I treated the world as my ashtray.”
In just eight words, Bourdain paints a detailed picture. We can gather that he smoked a lot—probably various substances—that he treated people badly, and that he had little respect for his surroundings.
The ability to write things succinctly is a key skill for any writer. Finding the right phrase is hard, and it’s easy to go off on tangents, but keeping your reader’s attention is crucial—and a clever, frugal use of words is central to this.
Say What You Feel. Nothing’s too Trivial if You Feel Passionately About It.
Ever used a garlic mincer?
Well, Bourdain hated minced garlic. In fact, hate doesn’t do it justice: He loathed it.
“I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic.”
Before laying a glove (clove?) on minced garlic purveyors with this knockout blow:
“Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”
I’d never thought about the sin of using this utensil before reading the book. There I was, using a garlic mincer, blissfully unaware of the anguish this would cause to a famous chef on the other side of the Atlantic.
Inspired by Bourdain’s passion, I only slice my garlic now. It does taste better, or maybe it’s my imagination. Either way, it’d make him feel better, so let’s call it my small tribute to him.
Sometimes the most interesting stuff that we write about are the little quirks that inspire us to laugh, to cry, to love, to hate.
Don’t be afraid to include the trivial stuff in your writing—if you’re passionate about it, your personality will shine through.
Readers Like to Learn Things. Give Them Something to Digest.
We read nonfiction books for many reasons. To switch off, to use our imagination, to remember past events. But perhaps the number-one reason is to gain knowledge.
A good writer knows that to get someone to pick up their book, they need to offer them something. It could be a life skill, interesting facts, or a tantalizing secret. In a similar way, chefs or restaurant owners will often instruct waiters to give diners a little background info to the delightful creation that they’re about to tuck in to.
Bourdain offers access to a world most people don’t know about with the very name of his memoir: Kitchen Confidential. Such a title tempts the reader to find out more, to turn the pages and pick up a secret or two.
It’s a theme that the chef-turned-writer continues throughout his book, strategically placing nuggets of information along the way to force the reader into an involuntary “ohhhh, I never knew that.”
Some of these revelations rocked the culinary world at the time. Bourdain shared the insider knowledge that you should never order fish on a Monday—most chefs make their seafood order on Thursday—and that brunch is a byword for bad restaurant staff as the best ones are needed for the busy evening shifts.
Empowering the reader with your specialist knowledge is one of the finest gifts you can give as a writer. And Bourdain was very generous in that regard. Perhaps it provides an insight that inspires a journalist to pen an article, or even just gives someone an anecdote to share with friends.
Follow his lead and bring your ideas to the table.
Glaze Your Writing With Some Bourdain Magic and Watch It Sizzle
OK, that’s enough culinary puns for … a few moments. But it’s true that the two crafts of writing and cooking have a lot in common, which may be the reason that Anthony Bourdain excelled at both. As such, he was in prime position to offer up some gems of wisdom for budding writers.
Let’s sum it up like this:
- Get their attention. Smatter your text with eye-catching chapter titles and spicy opening sentences. If something sounds delicious, then the reader is going to want to consume it.
- Be yourself. Flowery adjectives and haute-cuisine terminology might look tempting, but if they lack substance and authenticity then readers won’t like it.
- Keep it simple. The Italians are famous for making basic ingredients taste amazing. It’s similar with words. The way you use them is the key to their magic, not burying them in long, winding sentences that dilute their power.
- Speak from the heart. You can tell when someone’s speaking from a deep place. Pouring your heart and soul into anything, whether it be a pasta dish or an article on robots, is a key factor in making it great.
- Offer some food for thought. Most of us want to take something away from each experience, find out something we didn’t know before. Pepper your piece with fun facts and nuggets of knowledge.
Like with great cooking, writing needs a little expert insight to turn a good piece of writing into a memorable one. By drawing on Bourdain’s experience of both the culinary and literary worlds, you can turn your content from bread-and-butter prose that pays the bills to words that melt in the mouth and stay in the memory.
Featured photo courtesy of Reyhan Dhuny