Saturday, June 04, 2011


I came to know Anthony Bourdain through a stream of amusing anecdotes provided by my brother Pat, who is a superb foodie and plugged into the world of chefs, regional cuisine rivalries and current food trends. I've never seen Bourdain's show, but was mesmerized by a recording of a Google Talk he gave that provided a voice to the great stories I'd already heard. He's brutally honest, funny, sets high standards for others and higher standards for himself. He's a proud New Yorker who begrudgingly concedes the superiority of the Bay Area's ingredient supply while still making a strong case for the supremacy of New York chefs.

I picked up "A Cook's Tour," which is a sort of travel journal that recounts Bourdain's yearlong trip around the world, "in search of the perfect meal." Bourdain being Bourdain, he states up front that this was a fairly artificial endeavor: he'd hoodwinked the Food Network into paying for it, in exchange for having their cameramen follow him around and film everything. (Bourdain is a notorious basher of the Food Network in general, and its celebrity "chefs" in particular, which makes this all the more funny.) Still, the trip is authentic in that he is visiting real chefs and home cooks making real food in their traditional ways.

While food is a very important concern of this book, I was surprised to see that it often shared equal billing with other elements of the meals. Any given experience Bourdain describes usually includes four components: food, alcohol, location, and company. All of these combine to make an experience wonderful or terrible. He's up-front about how, after he's drunk a lot of beer, the food starts tasting much better and his companions seem more charming and funny. This feels real and believable to me - the emotional high of a meal is supported by everything else going on, and I would much rather be eating a slightly dry turkey with my extended family for a holiday meal at the homestead than a perfectly moist turkey by myself at home - but it was impressive that a professional chef would make the case that really amazing food isn't everything.

Many of the stories Bourdain tells are mouth-watering, making me want to follow in his footsteps and try the same thing. He returns again and again to his tale of Vietnam, which seems to be constantly serving up wonderfully prepared meals in friendly environments. His tale of a kaiseki meal at a Japanese ryookan made me mourn the fact that that was one meal I didn't get to experience during my trip there. The emotional highlight for me came in the penultimate chapter of the book, when Bourdain and three fellow famous chefs attend a meal at Thomas Keller's French Laundry. Bourdain wrote this book before Per Se opened up, and I can imagine the mixture of awe, anticipation, and outrage he feels at Keller coming east.

Other trips are more viscerally exciting because of what's happening off the table. Bourdain seems to be comfortable consorting with criminal elements, corrupt government officials, and slightly unhinged expats. We hear about his experiences under the wing of the mafiya in Russia; a harrowing trip up the river and over landmined roads in Cambodia; listening to partisans singing in Basque territory.

Sometimes there's a bit of a Fear Factor element, when Bourdain tries something that seems gross or horrifying. Often this is because he's heard that it's good; other times, his handlers are convinced that it'll make compelling television. The book opens with a pig feast in Portugal, which starts when the family of one of his kitchen chefs slaughters a huge pig.  He describes the slaughter in some detail, forcing us to make the connection between the wheezing animal we see nibbling slop and the browned flesh that rests on our plates. During his visit to Morocco, he goes to great lengths to obtain a goat so he can have someone cook and serve him its testicles: according to Bourdain, they are delicious. Others go poorly; the crew forces him to eat a pet iguana, which unsurprisingly tastes horrible.

And then there are the meals that are truly awful, or, worse, boring and bland. Bourdain doesn't pull any punches here out of respect or deference; if he thinks something tastes bad, he'll say say so, and say why. I think one of his best lines in the book comes when he describes natto as the Vegemite of Japan: all the natives love it, and foreigners will never be able to understand why. He returns to France to try and recreate beloved childhood memories, but the weather is awful, and all the food he tries seems tired and uninspired, until he eats some old seafood that actually tries to kill him.

He reserves some of his greatest ire for trends in Western cuisine, particularly in his late chapters on Britain and the US. He hates the fact that he can't smoke in restaurants any more. He thinks that our trend towards improving food safety is actually making things worse: the increasing regulations are driving small producers out of business, which is leading to a few large and powerful companies creating monocultures, which is why there's so much salmonella in our chicken. He hates how "Mexican" food has not only become bastardized, but also spread to London and beyond, so the same boring glop follows you everywhere. In the same chapter where he lyrically sings the praises of the French Laundry, he unleashes a sustained and funny tirade against vegans, attacking their overall philosophy (particularly the "meat is murder" viewpoint), but then unleashing the worst insult of all: they (the Berkeley vegans Bourdain visited) can't cook well.

After reading this, I can see well why Bourdain is such a celebrity in the food world. I'm not exactly sure what he's up to these days, but I hope to go back and check out some of his earlier works and adventures... he's an interesting dude, and I'm glad he's going first to pave the way for the rest of us.

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