Anthony Bourdain's delicious "Kitchen Confidential"; April Smith's "Be the One" 

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In the Kitchen with Anthony
Ever wonder what goes on beyond the swinging doors of your favorite restaurant? After reading Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" (Bloomsbury, $24.95), you may be sorry you ever asked. In this tell-all memoir from a Culinary Institute of America-trained veteran New York chef, readers learn their food is likely prepared by a group of "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths;" that if you order anything with hollandaise sauce you're just asking for food poisoning; and if a restaurant bathroom is dirty, you can rest assured that the kitchen is none too clean (after all, Bourdain points out, they let you see the bathroom). Still, rather than sending you straight to the phone to cancel your Diner's Club card, Bourdain's engaging and often hilarious prose propels you onward to discover even more secrets of the restaurant kitchen.

Bourdain's account begins with his first true food epiphany: slurping a raw oyster seconds after it is removed from the sea. "The genie was out of the bottle," he writes. "My life as a cook, and as a chef, had begun."

His life in the kitchen begins the summer after his freshman year at Vassar when he takes a job as the dishwasher at a cliché of a seafood joint in Provincetown, Mass., staffed by a motley crew of degenerate drunks, drug addicts and sex fiends. The young Bourdain, an admitted "spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructive and thoughtless young lout," is impressed. At the end of the summer he witnesses an event that seals his fate as a chef — suffice it to say it involves the head chef, a just-married bride and illicit doings in the garbage stockade.

Bourdain enters the Culinary Institute of America in the mid-'70s and graduates to work in a seemingly endless string of New York restaurants, including a stint at the famed Rainbow Room. The accounts of his culinary adventures — and of his seemingly insatiable drug and alcohol habits — are interesting to read, though grow somewhat repetitive after a while. It's in chapters such as "From Our Kitchen to Your Table," which first appeared as a New Yorker essay last year, that Bourdain really shines as he divulges the real secrets of the restaurant trade. After reading it, you'll never order mussels again.

Bourdain's prose is as breezy as it is erudite — no small feat for a guy who has spent nearly 30 years with a whisk in his hand, not a pen. "Kitchen Confidential" is a must-read for serious foodies, fellow chefs and everyone who has ever wondered about the person preparing their $25 pasta special. Be warned: According to Bourdain, it ain't no Julia Child.

— Jessica Ronky Haddad

Baseball and Blackmail
April Smith won critical acclaim for her first mystery novel, "North of Montana." But she may have painted herself into an esoteric corner with her second effort, "Be the One" (Knopf, $24).

Cassidy Sanderson, the novel's protagonist, is a scout for the Dodgers, the only female scout in the majors. When a friend of the family calls from the Dominican Republic to say he's found a young player with all the makings of a major-leaguer, Cassidy can't hop on a plane fast enough.

The family friend was right, Cassidy decides, when she sees young Alberto Cruz play. When she sets about the process of wooing and winning the young player, she also meets a high-stakes financier who seems set on wooing and winning her. Trouble is, while Cassidy, Alberto and the financier are celebrating as a hurricane lashes the island, they run into something with their Range Rover. Was it a pony? Or was it a woman?

Back in California, 18-year-old Alberto starts to get blackmail letters of the "I saw what you did" type. And Cassidy discovers her financier (not to mention his bizarre daughter) seems to be jerking her chain and shading the truth. Add in a gruesome videotape that arrives in the mail, Obeah figures that show up in Cassidy's car, a vicious attack in a mall parking lot, and a bad case of sexist attitude from one of Cassidy's fellow scouts, and the suspense begins to build. As the book's climax nears, Cassidy isn't sure whether her new discovery has a place in baseball or whether she, herself, has a future among the living.

Smith writes with both style and substance. But her style — writing in the present tense with chunks of backstory in italics — is a tricky one to manage and may turn off some readers. And those who are not sports fans may find the book to be full of too much baseball lore and lingo.

Mystery lovers with a tolerance for the unusual, however, may find "Be the One" to be just the one for a good read at the beach or by the pool.

— Don Dale

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