I took it in my hand, tilted the shell back into my mouth as instructed by the by now beaming Monsieur Saint-Jour, and with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater…of brine and flesh …and somehow …of the future.
Everything was different now. Everything.
I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed. This, I knew, was the magic I had until now been only dimly and spitefully aware of. I was hooked. My parents’ shudders, my little brother’s expression of unrestrained revulsion and amazement only reinforced the sense that I had, somehow, become a man. I had had an adventure, tasted forbidden fruit, and everything that followed in my life — the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other new sensation — would all stem from this moment.
I’d learned something. Viscerally, instinctively, spiritually — even in some small, precursive way, sexually — and there was no turning back. The genie was out of the bottle. My life as a cook, and as a chef, had begun.
Food had power.
It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress. It had the power to please me and others. This was valuable information.
For the rest of that summer, and in later summers, I’d often slip off by myself to the little stands by the port, where one could buy brown paper bags of unwashed, black-covered oysters by the dozen. After a few lessons from my new soul-mate, blood brother and bestest buddy, Monsieur Saint-Jour — who was now sharing his after-work bowls of sugared vin ordinaire with me too — I could easily open the oysters by myself, coming in from behind with the knife and popping the hinge like it was Aladdin’s cave.
I’d sit in the garden among the tomatoes and the lizards and eat my oysters and drink Kronenbourgs (France was a wonderland for under-age drinkers), happily reading Modesty Blaise and the Katzenjammer Kids and the lovely hard-bound bandes dessinees in French, until the pictures swam in front of my eyes, smoking the occasional pilfered Gitane. And I still associate the taste of oysters with those heady, wonderful days of illicit late-afternoon buzzes. The smell of French cigarettes, the taste of beer, that unforgettable feeling of doing something I shouldn’t be doing.
I had, as yet, no plans to cook professionally. But I frequently look back at my life, searching for that fork in the road, trying to figure out where, exactly, I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist, always looking to shock, amuse, terrify and manipulate, seeking to fill that empty spot in my soul with something new. I like to think it was Monsieur Saint-Jour’s fault. But of course, it was me all along.
The introduction and first chapter of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright (c) 2000 by Anthony Bourdain. All rights reserved.