On tour with a guerrilla gourmet
Since the publication of his surprise bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain has become a kind of spokesperson and inspiration for the rowdy, subversive, slightly deranged subculture that inhabits the kitchens of many of the world's great restaurants. Bourdain's opinionated confessional exposed the goings-on behind the swinging doors of professional kitchens, with tales of sex, drugs, rock and roll and, of course, great food.
"People feel obliged to behave badly around me now," Bourdain says during a call to his home in New York, where he still works as the executive chef at the brasserie Les Halles. "People want to get me drunk and show me that their crews are at least as bad as mine."
By "people," Bourdain of course means his people—the chefs and line—cooks he imagined as his readers when he conceived of Kitchen Confidential and again when he decided to write his new book, A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. "I was thinking of people like me, who hadn't been too many places in the world and who might be interested to know what Vietnam smells like, what music is playing in the background, what's cooking."
That Kitchen Confidential had an appeal that stretched far beyond the line cooks of the New York tri-state area still stuns Bourdain. It shouldn't, for as he points out, he comes from "a long oral tradition in kitchens of storytelling and bullsh--ting. You know, amusing one's fellow cooks with language."
The idea for A Cook's Tour was for Bourdain to travel to exotic parts of the world on a kind of quixotic quest for the perfect meal. "I had unreasonable expectations. I've always had this attraction to Graham Greene characters, failed romantics shambling around the world in a dirty seersucker suit. I guess I'm not afraid to make myself look silly."
Silly or not, his publisher liked the idea. So did the Food Network. Which is strange, because Bourdain basically savaged the Food Network's pretty and precious cooking programs in his earlier book. And he tweaks their noses again in A Cook's Tour, the difference being that he is the host of 22 episodes on the Food Network, which begin airing in early January, and is therefore at the center of the ridiculousness. "They've certainly never had anything like it on the Food Network, he says. "There must have been a lot of hair pulling and misery at some of the stuff they saw. I'm reasonably proud of the show, but I didn't want a TV career before and I don't want one now."
For both the book and television, Bourdain traveled to Portugal, France, Spain, Morocco, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia, Great Britain and Mexico. He sampled the deadly puffer fish in Japan, ate lamb gonads with Bedouins in the desert, devoured haggis in Scotland, spooned up borscht in St. Petersburg, tried an inedible vegan meal in Berkeley and swooned over the meal of a lifetime at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. He got too stoned in Fez to perform for television, took a harrowing trip among the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and found Vietnam and Vietnamese food uniformly remarkable, while reminding us that Ho Chi Minh worked for years in the professional kitchens of Paris and was a particular favorite of the great Escoffier.
Bourdain writes with vitality and a sort of antic humor about the people, places and food he is experiencing. And he is clearly not afraid to be opinionated. "When I was 12, Hunter Thompson was my hero, he says. "That kind of impassioned, deranged, first-person rant said to me, hey, I can actually write the way I think, and piss people off while I do it."
But A Cook's Tour is more than storm and lightning. Bourdain arrives at a number of important insights about food. "The thing that stunned me the most was how good and how fresh so much food is in countries with almost no refrigeration. I was shocked by that. And humbled. Because people don't have the luxury of refrigeration, preparing meals becomes a much more time-consuming project, which is societally not so bad. In Vietnam and Mexico I was struck by how food brought people together."
"Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself."
Alden Mudge, a writer in Oakland, California, has just returned from a trek to Mt. Everest base camp (or thereabouts) in Nepal.