Kitchen Confidential vs. Cocktails and Dreams

Kitchen Confidential vs. Cocktails and Dreams

Better than you think yet worse than you remember

Better than you think yet worse than you remember

I own the film, “Cocktail,” on VHS.  I bought it a couple years back at a garage sale in a bundle with, “The Karate Kid,” and, “The Breakfast Club,” both of which (unlike “Cocktail”) are excellent movies with soundtracks that scar the American collective unconscious.  I cannot harm the film, “ Cocktail,” more than time has.

This isn’t bartending, it’s a music video, and real drinkers wouldn’t applaud, they’d shout: “Shut up and pour!” –Roger Ebert

But then Ebert shows his naivety:

“What do you think? Do you believe a millionaire Manhattan woman executive in her 30s would sleep with a wildly promiscuous bartender she picks up on the beach?” –Roger Ebert

Come on boys; back me up on this one.  I bring up the film Cocktail to prove 2 points.  Elizabeth Shue is hot, and her hotness has been going strong for 30 years. *  Secondarily and much less joyously, “Cocktail,” is equally relevant to, and contains the same lessons as, “Kitchen Confidential.”  Unfortunately, “Kitchen Confidential,” is a fiercely written and inspirational text for cooks and anybody but the medium by which one can learn the rules of bartending or understand it is through the slap dash schlock film, “Cocktail.”

“Days get shorter and shorter, nights longer and longer, before you know it, you life is just one long night with a few comatose daylight hours.” –Brian Flanagan, Cocktail

“Fully expect to be treated as cattle-only less useful.” –Bourdain, so you want to be a chef

I’m not trying to get Anthony Bourdain to fly to Seattle and fight me, but having been through the book “Kitchen Confidential,” several times and having watched “Cocktail, for what seems like an eternity, they are pretty similar.  Both begin with a young man with no prospects.  Young Flanagan is shocked that New York City doesn’t give him handouts.  More realistically, young Bourdain was kind of just dropping out of college and smoking weed with friends when he started in the industry.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we didn’t see young Flanagan’s drug problem on screen at all though it was there for certain.  The point is both men were groomed to be something else as at the time, very few people aspired to be cooks and bar keeps.

Full of naughty bits and French

Full of naughty bits and French


“I don’t care how liberated this world becomes – a man will always be judged by the amount of alcohol he can consume – and a woman will be impressed, whether she likes it or not.” –Doug Coughlin, Cocktail


“Though drunk most of the time, and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman—hugely influential to me and my budding culinary peers.” –Bourdain, First Course

It is very important for any young person, to have to eat a big plate of humble flavored shit at some point.  I occasionally run across some people that haven’t, and I hate them, out of jealousy or annoyance.  For Flanagan, and for the sake of filmmaking we quickly see a montage of him failing every possible way behind the bar.  This is indeed the most enjoyable part of the film.  The same for Bourdain, we spend the most time in the kitchen with him in the beginning of the book when he is the worst.  Flanagan and Bourdain’s principle training comes from watching others around them succeed while mired in their personal failure bog.  Bourdain ends up going to school and learns little more than the basics after already being seasoned with humiliation and character.   There are much wider options today for people going into the chefs’ life today. The Flanagan of 1988 has at best a one-week program that teaches him how to mix colored water and mop the floor.  These bar schools still exist and still provide the same experience, but at least today there are other options. ** Both men learn in the most applicable way to any learning in the service industry, find the guy who is making the most money, has the most respect and gets laid the most and do what he does.  This does how ever create its own string of problems.

Success and Failure

“Most things in life, good and bad, just kinda’ happen to ya’.”-Uncle Pat, Cocktail


“I don’t know what happened to Billy’s. —The next time I was in the neighborhood a picture framer occupied the space where the restaurant used to be.” Bourdain-The Wilderness Years

It is the musician’s motto: “show up on time and wear the right clothes,” that will get you through most jobs that don’t require a set of technically quantifiable skills.  I firmly believe that in the service industry, adhering to this mantra will get you to the 090th percentile.  This is however because chefs are crazy and bartenders are shiftless derelicts.  These are generalities, not really mandates.  But over and over again in KC you hear Bourdain being hired to clean up the mess of a predecessor in the kitchen, and this is a reasonable way to progress in this business.  At the same time watch as Flanagan progresses but just showing up to work and doing his job, well the second most important part to mixing drinks: meeting people.  Flanagan in cocktail never really hustles to find a job but just is noticed or talks to people.  Even Bourdain points out that the bartender is the center of the service industry nervous system and both KC and CT point out that the bartender is the king of the proletariat.

If showing up on time and wearing the right clothes will get you to the 90th percentile, then the other 10% is surely skill, insanely hard work and a good lawyer.  Briefly, Bourdain makes a career working for a slew of failures, that die for all reasons and (spoiler warning) Couglin, basically kills himself in the end of CT because he can’t manage building codes, taxes and waste management.  Bourdain puts it well when he says: “You must be fluent in not only Spanish but the Kabbala-Like intricacies of health codes, tax law, fire department regulations, environmental protection laws, building code, occupational safety and health regs, fair hiring practices, zoning, insurance, the vagaries and back- alley Back-scratching of liquor licenses, the netherworld of trash removal, linen, [and] grease disposal.” And these are just a handful of things that you can and should manage, not to mention the intangibles that fate hurls at restaurant or bar owner. Suicide does seem an acceptable offer.


“Coughlin’s law: never tell tales about a woman. No matter how far away she is, she’ll always hear you.” –Doug Couglin, Cocktail

“You see a lot of this ailment –perfectly reasonable, even shrewd businessmen, hitting their fifties and suddenly writing checks with their cock.”-Bourdain, Owner’s Syndrome

I had to bring it up, more so than drugs because, for me, its much more fun and less litigious.  Ebert doesn’t think a bartender can fuck a millionaire, wrong.  Bourdain knows a chef can fuck anyone, correct.  More so, a chef can fuck anyone in surroundings that are far from enticing and sexy.  Both CT and KC know this because performing confidently with great skill in front of others gets you laid. If curious if this is true or not, ask professional athletes and musicians that are not drummers also, fulfilling someone’s sensual desires with food and drink directly relates to turning them on.  I’m not saying every chef and bartender is great lay, just about 97% of them. Both Couglin and Bourdain also briefly address STD’s but only to the extent to poke a little fun about crabs and antibiotics.

The Big Differences
The 3 biggest differences between the current success of chefs (food network, cooking stores, endorsements, celebrity chef chain restaurants, Ratatouille) and the slightly growing respect but general disregard for bartenders are, necessity, skill and a good artistic expression of the job.  Put simply, we need food to live and it takes no skill to make money with a bar.  The trilogy of needs is food, clothing and shelter, and since middle class being birthed out of a servant class, (a recent development) food was the last of our needs to turn to luxury.  I’m not calling bar owners lucky fools, but what I will say is that it is hard to make money off of food, 50-65% failure rate in the first 2 years (both CT and KC point this out).  Becoming a chef requires years of training whereas opening a beer requires at least one arm. The culinary potential of cocktails is becoming recognized.  Kitchen Confidential is a truly frightening, insightful and inspiring book about how things were done.  It soothes me to know that I’m not alone.  Cocktail, is however a crappy love story that takes place hap-hazardly through the lens of the founding of T.G.I. Fridays.  I think that says it all.  T.G.I. Mc Shuck O’Han’s Ranch and Grill, found down at your local strip mall, is hardly mixology Mecca.  At present, there aren’t any films about Jerry Thomas, (though I think I’ll give Dave Wondrich a call to start writing a treatment with me) or about Dale Degroff or about any bartender, even fictional, that isn’t a coke addled extra in the background of a detective film.  However, fellow drinkers, when a book or film comes out starring a bartender that succeeds because of hard work and skill, well, that’s when you’ll be getting a better Manhattan.



*Just ask the computer Internet to show you a picture of Elizabeth Shue.  Seriously, anything from 1985 to yesterday, you’ll see photos of an angel, perhaps sitting around naked with a Labrador retriever.  Also, in 1995, I was 15 and I saw, “Leaving Las Vegas,” and I often say that it was the film that got me into film.  I’m no writer so I’ll let Ebert get another one in:
“The movie is not really about alcoholism. It is about great sad passion, of the sort celebrated in operas like “La Boheme.” It takes place in bars and dreary rented rooms and the kind of Vegas poverty that includes a parking space and the use of the pool.” -Ebert on “Leaving Las Vegas.”

**The modern bartending world provides classes in enology up to 2-year courses in colleges and several levels of sommelier training.  Cicerone training is new but catching on fast with several hundred trainees produced less than 5 years of a program existing. And then there is one, one weeklong cocktail course per year seating 40 people.  Assuring that the chance of getting a good Manhattan say very low.  Though fortunately, spirit companies that have integrity now have brand ambassadors that teach workshops, slowly raising the bar.

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4 Responses to Kitchen Confidential vs. Cocktails and Dreams

  1. Paul says:

    Still stuck on “Elizabeth Shue is hot”. I was always torn between her and Mary Stuart Masterson.

    Wait, that wasn’t the point of your article was it. ;-)

  2. Chris says:

    I think drummers for metal bands actually do get laid a lot… think Tommy Lee and Lars Ulrich. But otherwise, the BJ/gig ratio is way lower for drummers.

  3. wasabi prime says:

    Elizabeth Shue is adorable and I know of other guys’ appreciation of her hotness. I loved her in Adventures in Babysitting — guilty pleasure. I’m a big Bourdain fan; I think his writing has mellowed since his wildboy days of Kitchen Confidential. His collection of essays in Nasty Bits is my new favorite.

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