In his book, Kitchen Confidential, chef/author/travelogue god Anthony Bourdain reveals in shocking detail the twenty-five years he spent as a chef and cook in the “culinary underbelly” of the restaurant industry. As one would expect, there are palatable tales: his incomparable dining experience at The French Laundry, for one. But Kitchen Confidential is not a book about food. It is a look into Bourdain’s hero’s journey, a catalogue of his descent into drugs and obscurity and his re-emergence as the head chef of the respected Les Halles restaurant. And as much as I enjoyed his painstakingly crafted descriptions of 15 course tasting menus (I worked for the inimitable Marc Vetri for a time, and by the grace of his conjuring hands was able to dine on food of similar quality), his book ranks among my favorites for the inclusion of a single chapter: “The Wilderness Years”. In these pages, Bourdain admits to seeking out the highest paying gig so he could feed whatever habit he was gripped by at the time. His decline is mirrored by the descending quality of the restaurants in which he works and by the slow extinguishment of his passion for food, ending in a shitty diner and a shittier walk-up apartment and the feeling that there must be more to life than feeding the beast of desire and addiction.
For Bourdain, there was more. Much more. And it was because of a simple shift in his decade-skewed paradigm: he began to believe. To believe that more was possible for him. To believe that he could “choose life”, as Rents of Trainspotting so aptly put it. To believe that life was a choice, and not a tide that tugs us in and out at its whim. The moment he acquired this belief, he changed his direction. He became The Magician incarnate.
When I first read “The Wilderness Years”, I recognized them as my own. I’d been toiling away as a server for the better part of five years, buckling beneath the pressure of short term deadlines and trays heaping with entrees of varying quality. The pressure was enough to break anyone’s spirit and sanity, but we found ways to cope: cigarettes, booze, and drugs, namely. At the end of a body-warping shift, we’d shed our uniforms in cold, dark hallways and emerge in the trendy street clothes our tips bought us and beeline it to the nearest watering hole. When I worked at Amis, that bar was Dirty Frank’s, a dive that’s somehow stayed a dive despite the press it’s gotten over the years. We drank pickle-backs: shots of whiskey followed by shots of pickle-juice. And we drank beers on top of that, but by the end of the night, no one was quite sure what or how much we had consumed. Sometimes the evening ended in someone’s apartment amidst a haze of pot smoke. Other times, it ended with a drunken stumble down 13th Street and a sloppily hailed cab. I’d picked up right where I’d left off in Edinburgh, but this time, I had no straight, studious days to balance me out. Somehow I always got home, but it wasn’t always pretty; one night I walked halfway across the city with sleet slicing at my face because I simply couldn’t function well enough to tell the cab driver where I needed to go. The map was in my blood by that point, so I trudged on, knowing that I’d find my way to my doorstep.
One night, I couldn’t find my way home. The path I walked had deviated so far from the map of my mind that I traveled the streets like a shadow. I wasn’t plagued by darkness; I was darkness. And in that moment of pure and utter nothingness, the world was a microscopic point and an infinitesimal expanse all at once. When the ego is stripped down to its bare essentials, identity is precarious, but possibility is endless. It is from this fiery pit that the phoenix emerges, that The Magician is born.
The Magician is the embodiment of possibility, of new life that has found its agency. When we distance ourselves from our persona, we are no longer governed by it; the expectations we have of ourselves drift away, allowing our true gifts and talents to work through us and manifest in the world. We begin to believe in ourselves, in the primordial concoction of air, fire, earth, and water that dictates the true nature of our souls. Because The Magician has all of the tools at his disposal, he can shape the world as he sees fit. And before he could make use of those tools, he first had to crack through the crust of reality.
A month after I became a free agent, I left the restaurant industry. I look back on the years I spent there with mixed emotions, but I feel that I was fated to make that deviation. Without debasing myself so, I may never have shed enough ego to realize how free we truly are, how our view of the universe shifts the universe and shifts us. Though my departure happened three years ago, I feel as if I’m finally discovering the usefulness of the Magician’s tools, and with any luck, I’ll wield them with as much power and confidence as that glorious archetype.
Intrigued? Click here to work with me.