Anthony Bourdain gave it to us straight in Kitchen Confidential, his impossible-to-put-down tell-all about the behind the scenes of New York City restaurant life: brunch sucks.
But we didn’t listen. We were all too hungover to care.
Bourdain pulls no punches. Brunch, he explains, is the chef’s opportunity to use up all the ingredients that weren’t used during the week. Is the brunch special a seafood omelette? That means the shrimp special promoted on Monday didn’t sell. If you order the omelette, you’re eating six-day-old shrimp.
Now, I’m all for eliminating food waste. It’s why I make bone broth with chicken carcasses and something I call “kitchen sink couscous” which involves roasting every last vegetable in my fridge and tossing with couscous and a spicy olive oil sauce.
But I don’t want to be the food waste solution for restaurants. I am not a dumpster. Perhaps they should buy less; perhaps they should donate the extra food to food banks well before the expiration date. But what they should not do is feed me a garbage omelette.
Chefs also hate brunch. Not only are they hungover and exhausted, they hate cooking brunch food, which Bourdain explained in his 1999 New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,”:
We hate the smell and spatter of omelettes. We despise hollandaise, home fries, those pathetic fruit garnishes, and all the other cliché accompaniments designed to induce a credulous public into paying $12.95 for two eggs. Nothing demoralizes an aspiring Escoffier faster than requiring him to cook egg-white omelettes or eggs over easy with bacon. You can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.
Hollandaise sauce illustrates the hatred chefs have for the brunch diner perfectly: because it’s made with raw eggs and butter, it should be made to order, one small batch at a time. But that’s not what happens; instead, a line cook — possibly reeking of last night’s tequila and coke — makes a huge vat of it before service starts. And then it’s ladled onto one plate of eggs benedict after another.
The vat of hollandaise sauce is kept at room temperature, which according to every microbiologist ever is like rolling out a red carpet for bacteria. And paying for the bacteria’s Uber. And giving the bacteria a gift basket. And telling the bacteria you would love to see it again. But the chefs don’t care, because they hate brunch and by extension, they hate the brunch diner.
Brunch is an abusive relationship. It’s a prison. It’s depression on a plate. It must stop.
It was a shock for me too.
I’m sorry to break it to you like this, I know it’s a shock. I was horrified when I first read Kitchen Confidential. When it came out, I was back in New York City after three years in D.C, thirty years old, single, and brunch figured prominently in my social life. I loved meeting my friends to discuss our latest dates, one-night stands, heartbreaks or whatever we wanted to chatter about. I loved sitting for hours reading the New York Times.
I loved the endless coffee and downing one spicy bloody mary after another. I loved going to the movies afterward or taking a nap. I loved how it filled up the day with friends and laughter.
But did I love the food? I honestly can’t remember. I’d like to think I did, because why else would I drop forty dollars every Sunday? But now, almost twenty years later I feel like it must have been impossible for me to like it. You don’t need to read Kitchen Confidential to know that brunch food is disgusting.
Eggs benedict is only good because of the Canadian bacon. Otherwise, it’s a flavorless slimy mess, even without the bacteria-palooza. Pancakes are good, but only if they’re super fluffy and light, and brunch pancakes never are. (Pro tip: the best pancakes are what IHOP likes to call Swedish crepes. Thank me later.).
Omelettes are fine. Nothing to write home about. Show me someone excited about an omelette and I’ll show you someone who is probably a cross-fit, keto-obsessed fanatic, who likes to explain to you what they put in their green smoothie every morning. Someone who lies to your face when they say kale and quinoa are delicious. Someone who cannot be trusted.
There is hope.
So why do we keep going to brunch? We deserve better, but we’re tired and hungover. And we can’t think of anything else to do, because we’ve been so conditioned that eggs belong in the morning and better food belongs at night. We have a crisis of imagination.
But we can’t give up the Sunday ritual altogether, it’s indispensable, especially for single people. Thankfully, there is a solution.
Break yourself and your friends out of the slimy-egg/bacteria prison by doing this: seek out spice. In Los Angeles, where I live, this means moving brunch to lunch (one tiny hour later) and getting Mexican food, or pupusas, or Vietnamese food, or several other cuisines that are too numerous to mention. In New York, seek out soup dumplings or Indian food in Queens. In Florida, nothing beats a Cuban sandwich. (Nothing beats a Cuban sandwich anywhere, ever). In D.C, head to Adams Morgan for Ethiopian food.
You get the drift. It’s time to revolt. It’s time to take a stand for flavor, for texture, for truly good food. And if you lose heart, ask yourself: what would Anthony Bourdain do?