Kelly McCown remembers cooking in kitchens some 30 years ago, when working the line was where “the miscreants ended up.”
Today, he’s executive chef at one of the most prestigious restaurants in Sacramento, The Kitchen. And he says there’s been a transformation in his profession — a lot of it attributable to Anthony Bourdain.
“I watched a paradigm shift in the industry,” McCown said.
Bourdain humanized his job, he says. “He kind of pulled back the cover a little bit and showed kind of the breath of humanity that was in the industry itself.”
An Internationally famous TV host of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, Bourdain was a celebrity chef and author who local cooks cite as an inspiration. Bourdain slurped noodles with President Obama in Vietnam and globe-trotted the planet. But he also explored the darker shades of life, both in and outside the kitchen, and reconciled “the fact that we’re all basically the same, yet for some reason we can’t resolve our differences,” McCown said.
McCown says his passing, and the death of former Kitchen chef de cuisine Noah Zonca at age 41 last month, has him realizing “more and more that there’s a real human side, a humanity, to this business.”
Brad Cecchi shared this view. The executive chef and co-owner of Canon restaurant in East Sacramento says Bourdain was a big reason he kept working in the industry for nearly two decades.
“To read [Bourdain’s book] Kitchen Confidential as a young cook, and then see somebody who can brand himself and do all this stuff” was inspiring, Cecchi said. “I feel like somebody I knew passed away.”
Cecchi, who earned a Michelin star while running Solbar in Calistoga, says he also witnessed Bourdain’s impact on chefs’ careers.
He recalled how, when he got into kitchens in the late ’90s, cooking was a “dead end job,” but that Bourdain offered hope for “a life to be made” from a passion for food.
“He made being one of those pirate line cooks feel OK,” Cecchi said.
Chef Jason Azevedo, who is currently opening Alaro Brewing in Midtown, offered hope.
“His influence was that it was OK not to be the guy on TV hawking products. That you’re a craftsman, be proud of that, take pride in every plate. To me that was the bigger message,” Azevedo said.
Azevedo says he’d been cooking for a few years when he snagged a copy of Kitchen Confidential. The stories resonated.
“I was like ‘I’m not sure if this is a how-to manual, or who’s following me in my day,’ but it was almost like, as cooks, this was your life. It was laid out there that every restaurant, every city, was going through same things,” he said.
“Anybody that says that they somehow weren’t impacted by that book is a liar.”