Anthony Bourdain is immortalized as the Parts Unknown host and (rightfully) for food. But myself and many others will remember him as a writer. I’m nearing the end of Kitchen Confidential, the book that launched Bourdain into the public spotlight, and I can’t deny how criminally underrated his prose is.
Just take this line about a broiler…
“I can’t describe to you the sheer pleasure, the power of commanding that monstrous, fire-breathing iron and steel furnace, bumping the grill under the flames with my hip the way I’d seen Bobby and Jimmy do it.”
Anyone who can turn a “hot broiler” into a “monstrous, fire-breathing iron and steel furnace,” is worth reading.
Kitchen Confidential is brimming with experience and advice on life, creativity, writing, and cooking. But the most surprising gems I found directly apply to marketing.
How? Let’s talk about it.
Bourdain’s ability to make the reader feel like they’re standing beside him as he slurps down brine and flesh on Monsieur Saint-Jour’s small wooden ship or sipping steaming hot espresso in the middle of rush hour is brilliant.
As a marketer, I always try to make it fun. Or interesting or informative. We’re constantly facing resistance by attempting an incredibly difficult task: convincing someone to press pause on their busy life and read our social post/email/campaign/banner ad.
Kitchen Confidential is a masterclass in making the ordinary sound extraordinary. I found myself Googling his recommended nonstick sauté pans and the Global G-2 Chef’s knife. He characterizes this indispensable kitchen tool as “a very good Japanese product which has — in addition to its many other fine qualities — the added attraction of looking really cool.”
Make your writing visual. Then reduce your message to its simplest, easiest-to-understand form. If you can do both, you’re working with gold.
“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.”
Everyone knows the stale concept of marketing to one person, not millions. But Kitchen Confidential is tangible proof that this really works. Bourdain knew exactly who Kitchen Confidential would entertain and exactly who it might piss off.
His writing wasn’t for Michelin restauranters, celebrity chefs, or the guy handing out free yogurt samples at Costco — it’s for the cooks in the kitchen you don’t see. Despite eventually becoming a “celebrity” in his own right, Bourdain routinely ripped on people who cooked for the camera. Yet, because every passage is written so clearly and specifically, anyone can fall head over heels for his words
This is a particularly impactful lesson for brands. Take Justin’s Peanut Butter, which we covered in a previous blog. The founder of Justin’s Peanut Butter was once asked at a talk why he started with creamy peanut butter instead of crunchy. His answer was simple; In tests Justin’s had run, they found consumers who favored crunchy peanut butter would still eat creamy, but the creamy folks wanted nothing to do with crunchy peanut butter.
By launching the brand with creamy peanut butter, Justin’s could reach both audiences and then expand later on.
Market to your people first. Others will follow.
Or, as Bourdain proves, write your truth for your people.
The best lines in Kitchen Confidential disobey everything you’ve been taught about writing. They’re either a few lonely words or a tangent that would make your college professor pull their hair out.
Bourdain is honest and gutsy with his takes. Admittedly willing to divide an audience.
“…there’s every possibility this book could finish me in the business.”
But read one page and I can guarantee you’ll want to see where his winding words are going.
Half the battle of a copywriter is convincing someone to use precious moments of their life on your words/opinions/ideas.
How do you accomplish this feat?
By saying something better or different than everyone else. Sometimes you need to break a rule or two. Think Dollar Shave Club and their Our Blades Are F***ing Great advertisements or RXBARS “No B.S.” packaging.
Anyone with a pen and thought can craft beautiful sentences. Do you possess the confidence to make those sentences interesting?
To say something different or better, you need interesting experiences.
As Bourdain says of travel: “The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
I have another 150 pages left in Kitchen Confidential. And, I’m genuinely trying to read it slowly. Every passage has a gem I’m scribbling into my notebook, and I’ve already noticed a shift in the way I approach new projects.
All this is to say, I can’t recommend it highly enough.