So I am going to try something a little classier than drunk and high adventures for once.... this is a book review I had written about Anthony Bourdain's book A Cook's Tour. Please read it, its awesome and travel-y and food-y. If I get any sort of feedback I'll do more book reviews.
When one thinks of a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, the word author is not usually paired with it. Anthony Bourdain, however, accomplishes this easily by showing not only an in-depth knowledge of the culinary world but he also sucker punches the reader with the emotional and psychological weight the book carries. It is even less often that the same chef-turned-author can produce a second book that makes the first book look as unappetizing as a burnt grilled cheese sandwich. Executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles in New York City Anthony Bourdain has done this, though, with his second nonfiction book A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisine (Ecco 2002, $14.95). Tour continues the adventures of his first book, Kitchen Confidential, but this time Bourdain is followed around the world by a Food Network television crew while looking for the perfect meal—the adventures that depicted in the show A Cook’s Tour.
The book follows Bourdain through a number of different countries: Japan, Cambodia, Mexico, France, and England, just to name a few. In each he meets up with various people he already knows or contacts that have been provided for him by Food Network in order to gorge himself on local (and sometimes incredibly bizarre by American standards) cuisine. Bourdain is presented everything from haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with various intestines, oatmeal, onions and spices all mixed together) to the still-beating heart of a cobra, killed right in front of him. Like the gourmand, or “foodie” as he calls them, that Bourdain is, he dutifully eats what he is given, no matter what it is (for visual evidence of this watch his Travel Channel show No Reservations, where Bourdain has eaten just about everything, including a pig rectum).
The book is not just about searching for the perfect meal, though. While out and about in the various countries Bourdain also takes time(whether he would choose to on his own, without the television crew behind him, is up in the air, but I think he would) to join in on local customs and practices. While in France, Bourdain and his brother, Chris, revisit the town they frequented as children with during the summer with their family. Much had changed since the last time they had been there and, after trying desperately to recapture the magic that had once entranced Bourdain and gotten him obsessed with food in the first place (doing everything from lighting fireworks on the beach to eating the same breads and oysters), he leaves with a bittersweet taste on his palate. The realization that nothing would be the same hits him hard, especially because the real reason why it wouldn’t be the same—his father isn’t there. These are the type of moments in the book that leave the reader unsure of whether to be amazed at the ease that he relays his emotions, or sad at the fact that, in this example, his father is the main reason he experienced so many things and he is gone, leaving Bourdain standing on a windy, freezing French shore.
Bon Appetit did not name Bourdain Food Writer of the Year for no reason. Compared to his first book, Bourdain seems to have gone from being a twelve-year-old to a forty-year-old. The language and flow of his prose, offset by the crudeness he exhibits at times, draws the reader in from the first page—a heart wrenching letter written to his wife Nancy from Pailin, Cambodia that expresses, without him actually saying it, that’s he’s scared. The language, for much of the book retains this subtle power, like an alligator hiding just under the surface ready to pounce and when it finally does, it tears everything apart. Whole passages strike with the force as Bourdain details hostility hanging in the air in Cambodia or his near death experience hurtling down Highway 1 in Vietnam, coming within inches of other speeding cars.
Whatever Kitchen Confidential didn’t do, Tour works to further separate Bourdain from the rest of the travel writing world. He is not necessarily that far ahead of other writers—okay, he is not blazing new trails far ahead at all. Now with three nonfiction books under his belt, some might still snub their nose at him for still being a rookie. But, as evidenced by his writing, I feel certain saying that does not bother Bourdain. While others are racing ahead, trying to overcome each other in terms of sales or popularity, Bourdain is standing on the sidelines, smoking a cigarette and sneaking sips of something potent from a flask. Behind Bourdain, looking down on the competition are statues of some of the most well-known travel writers. Men like Paul Theroux and Peter Mayle who made modern travel writing what it is.
In his first book he mentions his former drug use as well as heavy drinking. In this, the drinking continues, and Bourdain is unafraid to say it. He does not seem to care that he gets drunk while taping a show. While in Russia, they had to re-shoot the opening sequence as Bourdain and a friend walked into a restaurant. Everything would have been fine, had they both not been drinking vodka all night long. Looking back, Bourdain reflects on the fact he is more thankful that he got the lines right than sorry for having to do so. The unapologetic feel stops his writing from harboring any preconceived notions that he is better than anyone else because he is getting paid to travel the world and eat and write. He loves it, undoubtedly, but is not going about trying to shove it in anyone’s face.
The attitude of the piece is not the only reason this book excels, however. Bourdain is not just one of the television, family-friendly chefs he pokes fun at from time to time. He paid attention during his years at the CIA, as well as throughout over twenty years experience in a number of kitchens all over the country. Bourdain shows his knowledge often, breaking down various dishes into their parts or relating them to other dishes, often using the French terms that hearken back not only to his training but also to his childhood summers in France. His knowledge also extends to being able to explain the foods he has never tried before. He is able to compare them to other, more common foods or tastes. He uses this to prod his hosts and friends for more information, forever in search of newer foods and tastes and knowledge.
With a television crew always at hand, things were probably made easier for Bourdain, especially in politically hostile countries, like Cambodia. The network helped him out by setting up contacts; though the rest was up to him. While in the countries, Bourdain needed to be able to talk with these people, in order to find out about the food and culture. The things Bourdain does in Tour are the types that many people might never be able to experience. He gives the reader the things they might miss, helping to complete a mental picture of a given country or city. It is up to him to relay the sensations, to give the thick description that will serve as a mental image for his readers. Bourdain also does a good job of not involving the television crew where they do not need to be, unless the anecdotes specifically involve the crew. He lets the audience feel like they are the only ones traveling along with him, side-by-side adventuring.
Bourdain’s book is not just about food. It isn’t only about his globetrotting adventures around the world. It isn’t a personal memoir. Bourdain combines all of these things, revealing his true emotions and his pure love for food while at the same time analyzing the cultures he finds himself waist deep in. He finds ways to connect to everything and everyone, whether it be going back to France or visiting the town that many of the people in Brasserie Les Halles come from. He is the everyman of travel writing. He travels and writes and eats because he loves it, no other reason. His tastes are not highfalutin—he is as comfortable eating food from a street vendor as he is eating in a three star restaurant. His books show this, and because of that, I envy him.