So, I’ve gone on about my keen interest and love for Anthony Bourdain in posts before; what with my obsession for his show Parts Unknown, as well as his first book “Kitchen Confidential”. But this wasn’t enough, I needed to know more and find out more about his journeys and delve further into his personal and brash style of writing that I’d come to admire so much. So, of course, the first thing I did after finishing Kitchen Confidential was buy the rest of his books about his life and travels. I would later find out that he also wrote a few crime novels, and I’d run down that rabbit hole soon enough.
Once I figured out which book would be best to read next, I got stuck into what appeared to be his second book “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal”, which suggested to me that this was going to be about his travels around the world. It was, except that this was his first time doing something like this, unlike in his later years in television where he would find himself constantly globetrotting.
It starts out with him talking about his unforeseen success with Kitchen Confidential. He was still a chef at “Les Halles” in New York at the time, but he feels that since his first book was doing so well, in turn making him increasingly popular with his publishers, that it was time to strike while the iron was still hot and pitch a second idea for a book. His reasons for writing a second book weren’t quite what I expected with most writers – rather than just wanting to make more money and to just continue writing because it’s a talent he possessed, he didn’t want to get stuck in a rut and only really being known for his first book.
This wasn’t to say he didn’t like the book, but more the lingering after-effects of suddenly becoming somewhat of a celebrity, in both the writing and chef worlds. Being constantly hassled by people about his “Don’t order fish on Mondays” bit as well as others, and having to repeat himself repeatedly with the same small anecdotes that had really stuck out in his book and appealed to readers, was starting to take a mental toll. He wasn’t enjoying this unforeseen aspect of his sudden fame and wanted the chance to get out there and write more about what he was passionate about – food. But he knew he couldn’t just slam into doing something like a sequel to Kitchen Confidential – not just yet anyway.
He put forward an idea to his publishers. How about he travels various parts of the world, and not just the glitzy and glamourous parts of the world, and try to find the “Perfect Meal”. To his surprise, the publishers loved the idea and decided to bankroll it, paying for the entire trip that he would then write about.
But there was a catch. If you’d read Kitchen Confidential, you’d know what it is, but if you haven’t then I’ll be nice and tell you. He hated television chefs. He regarded the Food Network as his nemesis and seemed to pity the chefs that made their living doing so. He would, in his words, “Be crossing over to the Dark Side.” It was going to be a hard pill for him to swallow but, if he wanted this amazing opportunity, he was going to have to swallow that pill and make sure he was smiling when he did so.
The deal was done. He had agreed to the terms and conditions, and soon enough he would be planning his first globetrotting event, eating wonderful and horrific – bordering on barbaric – food. To be honest with you, I think that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan then reading it probably isn’t a good idea. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read it, but be warned that it does get “vivid” in places, and even I found it difficult to read certain parts.
But enough getting off track. I just felt l that I should warn anyone who may be interested that it does have its very unpleasant moments; even Bourdain writes about how graphic and upsetting some parts are.
To help give you an idea, he first sets off to rural Portugal. One of his chefs at “Les Halles” is a native from Portugal, and upon hearing of his new book idea and how he would travel the world, he instantly insists on Bourdain visiting his family in Portugal and immediately rings his mother to tell her to “Start fattening up the pig.” So, yeah, this book is not for the faint hearted by any means. It’s a mostly brutal chapter, and it’s pretty early on in the book.
I really don’t want to say too much about it, because it is rather upsetting, but it does raise a certain point to meat-eaters out there – “this is where your food comes from.” Simply put. That isn’t to say Bourdain took it like a champ himself, as he goes into some depth about the experience. Okay, I’m rambling about what is probably one of the most upsetting parts of the book, and I should shut up now. I suppose you could skip it if you were sensitive to such things, but I managed to just about stomach it…no pun intended.
Upsetting parts set aside, a great deal of the book isn’t even really about food at all. Most of it is about his personal experiences whilst travelling, and some of the various interesting people he met on his journey. Whether it’s women working on food stalls in Vietnam, dodgy Russians at what must have been an illegal boxing match, Geishas in Japan working in a feudal setting, as well as sumo wrestlers, terrifying figures you wouldn’t want to bump into at night in some of the roughest parts of Cambodia, hanging out with vegans who apparently couldn’t cook a vegetable to save their life, or even just a Scotsman making you try absolutely everything possible – deep fried. Every single one of his experiences was unlike the other, stepping into entirely different worlds and asking what’s good to eat, or just experimenting for himself and trying pretty much whatever is handed to him. Some of the food given to him is certainly not for everyone, and some of it is literally horrific, what you might imagine being forced to eat in some sort of horror movie.
There are constant themes throughout the book. The first is how he never really, with the odd exception, goes to the super ritzy and fancy places in many of these countries. He’s not always eating at the top restaurants the country has to offer, and in a lot of cases he eats in people’s homes. In a lot of those cases, he even pitches in and helps, and preaches that if you want to taste a culture’s food, someone’s home cooking is the absolute best way to find out.
The second is how he shows distaste for the media following him around. Now, this isn’t to say he hated those with the cameras following him around, in fact he grows to love them, as they often eat what he eats, and show professionalism even if they’re having a nasty spell of violent food poisoning, or having to bunk down in some very questionable locations, or go off the beaten track into some even more questionable areas. He often showers them with praise. However, what he was not a fan of was the “advice” of being told to go and eat certain “dishes” such as Birds Nest Soup, which is apparently more of a Chinese “Medicine” more than it is a food dish, or dining on Iguana; the stuff that’s “for the viewers”! This is what filled him mostly with distain, made worse by constantly having to re-shoot things and always pretending to look happy.
Thirdly, his book revealed to me that Bourdain was a dark character. Sure, I had some idea of this whilst reading Kitchen Confidential, as well as seeing hints in episodes of Parts Unknown, but in A Cook’s Tour I started to understand that he was a very complex character and would easily and often seem to fall into a downward spiral, becoming heavily depressed for days, with nothing seeming to bring him too much joy, even if the food he’s surrounded by is exquisite. Sometimes this would be due to something he experienced on his journey, or even just because of something he ate that just… brought strange feelings over him. On the other hand, the opposite is also true, with him sometimes being overcome with immense happiness and pleasure, sometimes due to his environment and those he meets, or just because he puts something immeasurably delicious in his mouth. The way he tells us about eating Edo-Style sushi is a prime example. This stands for Edomae sushi, meaning it’s a very old-fashioned traditional style of making and eating sushi. I would tell you what things he ate filled him with sadness, but it’s probably best that I don’t and leave it to you to find out for yourself.
I can’t really go too much further into the book without spoiling anything too much. Overall, it’s another fascinating read with all his flare from Kitchen Confidential but in a different style and flavour. Hearing about his travels is very inspiring; I don’t think I’d venture to all the locations he visits, and I certainly wouldn’t want to try everything he tried – I don’t have the stomach for some of the crazy things he puts in his mouth – but his way with words was so descriptive, original and often raw, that it was hard to put down. I think it must have been the fastest I’ve ever read a book, and although I’m not a particularly gifted quick reader, I was in this case.
If you’re looking for something like Kitchen Confidential then this isn’t quite the same. But it’s written with the same attitude and vigour that made it so great. It’s hilarious and brutal. We get an idea for his character by seeing how he changes when travelling across the world, rather than being in his kitchen. This is Bourdain out of his comfort zone, and it’s unforgettable.