Observer Review: A Cook’s Tour By Anthony Bourdain Essay, Research Paper
Waiter, there’s an iguana in my soupA Cook’s TourAnthony BourdainBloomsbury ?16.99, pp274Here, the New York chef Anthony Bourdain travels the world in search of the perfect meal, meets lots of interesting people and gets grotesquely drunk with them.As with any account of drunkenness in which you were not involved it can be tedious. Around page 100, when he arrives in Morocco, there is hope of relief. In an Islamic country (however moderately Islamic), the opportunities for hitting the bottle must be limited. No problem. Bourdain sends out a lackey to score hashish for him and then gets monstrously stoned.It’s all a terrible disappointment. Bourdain’s previous book, Kitchen Confidential, was an assured and funky description of life backstage in restaurant kitchens. His vivid, testosterone-sodden style suited his subject matter. He was able to take on the role of spokesman for a subculture not known for its articulacy. That book only stuttered and stumbled when, running out of material about the gonzo furies of kitchen living, he began writing about his life outside it.This book is almost entirely about his life outside it. It might have worked were Bourdain himself not so terribly unconvinced about the project. In the introduction, he announces simply: ‘I needed something to do. I needed another idea for a book – preferably while I was still in good odour from the last one.’ Well yes, that is indeed how publishing works, but at least have the grace to finesse it a bit. Try to pretend that you want us to be interested, not that you are merely trying to fulfil a contractual obligation.He then compounds the insult by announcing, two pages later, that he agreed to have his entire travelogue filmed by the US television’s Food Network in a deal which both publishers and TV people agreed would be good for sales.Or, as he puts it: ‘I sold my ass. When I signed on the dotted line, any pretence of virginity or reluctance – of integrity (I don’t even remember what that is) – vanished.’ I know why I read beyond that line – I was being paid to do so. There is no good reason why any other reader should bother to do so.The rest of the book is punctuated by morose and thoroughly tedious diatribes about how awful it is being Anthony Bourdain and, especially, Anthony Bourdain being followed by a television crew. Maybe that’s why he felt the need to get so pissed.The tragedy is that, buried here beneath the accounts of inebriation and self-hate and depression, there is some good stuff. Bourdain understands, better than any chef need, that great meals are not about the food on the plate, or the service – although those things do matter – but about the moment. It is a curious alchemy of location, emotion and incident.His account of the slaughtering of a pig on a family farm where, pace John Berger, every scrap of the beast is used – intestine small and large, liver and heart, even the bladder, which is inflated to make a child’s toy – is pungent and rich with the smell of the land on which it lived. Here he is happy and it shows in the prose. Likewise, hopping between stalls in Vietnam grazing on street food, he is at peace.But for all the efforts he is willing to make in pursuit of the great meal – he goes into the Cambodian jungle and across the Moroccan deserts; he eats a geriatric iguana, the still beating heart of a cobra and a sheep’s enormous, roasted testicle – he is happiest where he began, in top-class restaurants. His most reverential, gilded praise is reserved for dinner at Arzak, the great Michelin-ranked joint in Basque country, and for the 20 courses he enjoyed at the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, which is now regarded is one of the world’s best restaurants. ‘It was far and away, the most impressive restaurant meal I’d ever had,’ he says. Bourdain is a man with a hunger for hyperbole.That said, the French Laundry is not his favourite restaurant. Nor is his favourite in Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh or San Francisco. It is – pause for a moment of National Pride – in London. Bourdain’s number one is St John, the nose-to-tail, offal-fixated, meat-eaters’ heaven no more than a five-minute stroll from this newspaper’s offices. Now I like St John. No, I would go further than that. I love St John. Fergus Henderson is a brilliant chef and his food is beautifully thought out. But I hoped that, having travelled the world, and eaten in some of the darkest corners, Bourdain might have offered something a little more exotic. A let-down all round.