A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal


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.

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There is also a TV series for “A Cook’s Tour” too! Although I’ve yet to get my hands on it. 

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.


 

Kitchen Confidential: Anthony Bourdain


I discovered who Anthony Bourdain was too late. I first found out who he was while scrolling through Twitter and seeing that former President Barack Obama had tweeted about someone who he deemed a friend, had unfortunately died. It was when I noticed that the tweet had over 1 million likes that it peaked my interest.

Woah, this guy was clearly something of a big deal. And before I know it, Twitter is flooded with people talking about how they’re going to miss Anthony Bourdain, how there will never be anyone like him again, and how iconic he was with his various books and TV shows. Now, I’ve heard the name once or twice in the past, but I hadn’t really paid much attention. But this was clearly someone who was something of an idol. But I knew absolutely nothing about him, what he had done whatsoever. But I knew I had to find out.


It started like most things, with a quick google search. Anthony Bourdain was a chef, and a very well known one at that. Maybe not a super-fancy one, but a chef with strong opinions and lots of character and flare. One of the first thing that came up when I searched for him, aside from lots of tributes pouring out from every corner of the internet, was one of his famous TV shows called “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. From just looking at the title, this wasn’t a dead giveaway. Although, finding out he was a chef did give me the hint that it was most likely a cooking show of some description. Which I guess was half right, in a way. Turns out most of the seasons of this show were on Netflix, and I instantly flicked the TV on, got comfy, and decided to see what the show was all about.

7 hours later, I decided to take a small break. I was instantaneously hooked. The first episode was set in Myanmar, which already seemed quite different for a location for a cooking show. I tuned in expecting it to all be about the food of the country, and okay, that was sort of right, but it had so much more to tell. Food was the glue that held the show together, but it showcased the culture of the country, as well as famous and sometimes infamous parts of its history, and had many interviews with people that were either experts in their field, or just someone who knew the area well, or even just random people who happened to be in the right place at the right time (Although, they usually had food to offer!) It was a mixed bag, but it had so many interesting facts and views that helped to give you a new perspective, it was hard to not keep watching. I didn’t really know anything about Myanmar, but I knew slightly more than I did beforehand after having watched it. Then there was Korea Town in California, then Quebec, London, Libya, Ethiopia, Manila. He really had started to cover the globe with this show, and in some cases going to very dangerous or isolated parts of the world, and always diving right into the cuisine and exploring the culture and how it more often than not, links together.

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Don’t expect 5-Star restaurants.

He had this gift of the gab unlike a lot of hosts for these kinds of shows, and what with visiting so many places that peaked your curiosity, and often going into such depth, it was hard to resist. He made practically everything he ate seem irresistible. (Most things anyway, some seemed interesting… but only for the brave to try, which he certainly was. I don’t fancy trying “Blood Soup”.) And before I knew it, I was starting to get close to finishing the episodes that were available on Netflix, but I had to have more. And if not for more episodes of Parts Unknown, then it had to be something else. Without thinking I ordered his first book, Kitchen Confidential and eagerly awaited Amazon to ring my doorbell.


As soon as it arrived, I was stuck in. From what I’d gathered from my Dad who had already read it, it was about his early career as a chef from his humble beginnings, through all his various misadventures, pretty much to the point where he was given the chance to work on television.

From working in small-time restaurants in his home town, to moving to New York and jumping from place to place, all the time, his life never seemed to slow down, other than the occasional slump. He wrote in such a colourful language, it was hard to put down. (Admittedly, it did take me a while to finish it since I’m a bit of a slow reader, but I didn’t want to finish it too quickly either! It was great.) From his brief memories as a child in France, especially his first time having oysters, which for him was described wonderfully as this defining moment in his life, and changed him forever – to starting his first job, talking about all the various characters he worked with, whom a lot seemed fairly dodgy bunch, but full of character and must had been undoubtedly unforgettable for him.

From these early chapters to his journey into Culinary School, and about his many different teachers for the different aspects of cooking. Some of whom sounded ruthless, as he described the dread of particular classes. He talks a lot in these chapters about his comrades, and how it was a very sink-or-swim atmosphere. It made the call of becoming a cook seem like a brutal path to following, which it is, even now. (Although he assured us that this is not the typical standard these days. Sometimes.)

Then we get to his misadventures in New York. This part of the book did feature some dark moments and showcased the problems he faced at this time in his chef as a career. From some very serious drug addictions to bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, and not really seeming to fit in anywhere for too long. What brief moments of success he had during this period didn’t seem to last, and he seemed almost cursed for a while, but of course, that would all change in time.

He talks about some of the characters he had worked for over the years, with one getting his own chapter, although he never gave away his real name, although he does reveal the location of where the restaurant was, which he says that anyone who’s been a chef in New York, or knew of the area or worked nearby, would know who he was. But he simply refereed to him as ‘Bigfoot’. He talks about him at great length, and about how merciless yet generous he could be. He took him in and lent him money to find a new place when he was down on his luck and was known for doing the same for many young chefs and helping to train them up and be more immersed with all the other factors that came with running a restaurant in general. From what Bourdain tells us of Bigfoot in this chapter – this guy knew how to run a restaurant well, like a well-oiled machine. How meticulous he would be with food orders, making sure he always got the best deal, and how he would treat those who didn’t give him anything but the best for his hard-earned money.

Later, Bourdain is now doing very well for himself. Married, working in decent restaurants and earning more than enough money, and had kicked his nasty heroin addiction. After taking us through an entire chapter of his daily routine as head chef, talking us through the many tasks he would have to do, as well as keeping his staff in check, taking deliveries and actually cooking, it seemed exhausting. Overall, he said that he would work 6-7 days a week, often working 14-hour shifts at a time. At this point, it’s very clear that to work in this field, you had to have the passion. You had to love almost every aspect of the work you had to do, which is was extraordinarily clear that Bourdain did, and he excelled at it.

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Those Knives though.

He also tells us about certain individuals that he worked with in the later parts in his career. Although he doesn’t give away most of their real names, he tells us how some of them never truly kicked their bad habits, as well as how some excelled further and shot up to fancy-hot-shots. He really worked with all kinds of people, from all over the world. Now, I really shouldn’t give too much away, since I do believe that it’s much more enjoyable to find out more yourself if you’re truly interested. Although, I will say that one of the last chapters in which he goes to Japan very briefly was amazingly written, and really captivated me, as it clearly did with him. I’m pretty sure I was at least craving sushi afterwards.


After finishing Kitchen Confidential, I felt a sadness overcome me. It had been one of my favourite reads in such a long time, and it was over, and knowing that he had unfortunately taken his own life added to that sadness. How could someone with such an amazing life, who had so much to offer, and brought so many people so much joy and intrigue possible even consider of taking their life? Sadly, that is the grim reality of mental illness. It affects anyone, and no one is exempt.

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Sadly, Bourdain died in 2018.

 

Regardless, he has obviously had a huge impact on so many people. Whether they were aspiring chefs, documentary aficionados, food lovers, or just enjoyed his flavourful writing, he had a lasting impact on everyone who had read or watched or maybe even tasted his work. I don’t have many heroes, but it’s unquestionable that Anthony Bourdain became one of mine quickly and swiftly, even after having passed on. If you haven’t heard of him, or seen or read his work, I highly recommend it. I can’t promise it’ll be your cup of tea, but you never know. It’s worth a shot.