Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Friday's sad news that Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life at the age of 61 prompted me to write the first of my articles for the Books & Films section of this blog, because more than most – if not all – people I can think of, he epitomizes the reasons why we should travel. He had this to say about travel:
“If I am an advocate of anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Even if it's just across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody.”
Bourdain,who moved into writing late in life – in his mid 40's – had a natural gift for words, and as a straight-talking, brash New Yorker who had made his way through the sweaty kitchens of that city from the age of 17 to becoming a highly-respected chef, TV presenter and food writer, was at the bleeding edge of the foodie revolution that has swept the world in the last twenty five years. Yes, he could be smug, cynical and tactless. But his TV work was always interesting – curious about other people, (usually) respectful of their culture, honest and at times brilliant. One show in Laos stands out in my mind. He had been invited by a family to share a home-cooked meal, and was making small talk, eating a curried pigeon's foot or some such when he suddenly learned that his country was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Laotians during the Vietnam conflict as US planes unloaded their unused bombs over the Laos countryside. His humble response to it was at odds with most western TV hosts and presenters who would never have broached the subject (or insist it was edited out). A Cook's Tour, No Reservations and Parts Unknown are all great TV shows, in which he travels the world on a culinary mission to educate himself as much as the viewer. Like all great journalists (though he insisted he wasn't one), he recognized that he was not always an authority on his subject – in the sense that he always had something to learn – and that someone else would always know more about certain areas of cooking. The following are some of his books I've enjoyed, in no particular order, with some general comments and thoughts.
A Cooks' Tour (2001)
This was the first of Bourdain's books that I read, after being recommended it by a friend. It was here (and in the accompanying TV series) that Bourdain fashioned himself as a kind of travelling gonzo chef/journalist, constantly in search of the perfect meal, and it served him well for the rest of his career. Having slaved in kitchen for nearly thirty years working 18 hour shifts, he no doubt saw it as an easy life and something of an escape. The style of writing – witty, punchy, spicy and fun – captures the flavours of the places he's travelling in brilliantly, and it's one of those books you won't want to put down. The book has him traveling the globe looking for the "perfect" meal. Visiting locales like France, Portugal, Morocco, Japan, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as a little bit of his home country, Bourdain's goal is to try true, authentic, fresh food and not be afraid to join in and eat like the locals. No matter what their speciality is. The way he writes about food is sometimes incredible – you can almost taste the food he's describing – and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject wraps you up in the subject and not only want to eat what he's talking about, but book a ticket on the next plane to wherever it is he's eating it. This writing is not for the squeamish, not for the faint of heart. If you can't stand profanity, read something else. Bourdain pulls no punches, but that means he gives everything a fair shot. Bourdain's attitude is part of the fun. I'd imagine that even a vegetarian would be salivating when he's describing some of the meat dishes he discusses. A Cook's Tour is actually about food - where it comes from, our relationship to it, and what it reflects - all unfolding through a narrative of vivid, hilarious, and usually grotesque anecdotes. Bourdain's arrogance and self-righteous tirades are quelled by more substantial moments of sensitivity, humility, and romantic introspection. I laughed out loud a minimum of twice per chapter and, at times, was choking with overwhelming sadness. In the end, he might be unfairly frolicking around milking his celebrity, but Bourdain experienced the entire world in ways most of us cannot. One of the best books about food I've read, and also one of the best I've read about travel.
Kitchen Confidential (2007)
..In which Tony gives away the secrets of his profession in a no-holds barred confessional style book which grabs the reader by the hand and drags him through the competitive, noisy, hot, stressful and testosterone-filled and cocaine-fuelled kitchens of 70s New York and both come up smiling. How you react to the full-on trip may depend on your sensitivity – to swearing (there's a lot of it) – to drug use (it's constant) - and to some of the cynical, macho and at times offensive things that Tony has to say, about the restaurant industry, about his colleagues, friends and even his own family. It's one of the most honest accounts of someone's own life I've read, and as an exposé on the restaurant industry in general and the New York one in particular, it's illuminating. If you're an aspiring chef, it'll leave you with no illusions as to what you're letting yourself in for; as a layman who is interested in the food industry, it'll make you glad you never thought of cooking as a career. Some parts of this book talk about fantastic food and will leave you drooling. As a result, you will want to hop on the next flight and travel the world visiting as many restaurants and trying as many types of food as you can. Other parts will disgust you and leave you nauseous. You will never look at restaurant food the same way - and may not want to eat it at all unless you get a good look at the kitchen and the people preparing the food. In this book, Tony isn’t just funny; he is fearless; to go by his words,“Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit,” and that is gentle in comparison with how, in the same paragraph, he described vegans. He calls them vegetarians’ “Hezbollah-like splinter faction.” Vegetarians and vegans, therefore, may not see Bourdain in quite the same light as carnivores do, but that is the nature of this writer. Like Marmite, you'll either love him or hate him. This is a book that anyone who has ever eaten out should read - it's an acquired taste for sure, but one you will appreciate acquiring.
Medium Raw (2010)
"Order the fucking fish on Monday." That's the sort of typical advice Bourdain summarily dispenses to the reader in this kind-of-guide to how to cook, how to eat out and what you should and shouldn't do as a cook or layman in various areas concerned with the restaurant industry. Subtitled 'A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook', this book doesn't let up on the sharp-as-a-carving-knife humour, honesty and grit which made his previous two books such hits. Bourdain attempts to grapple with the question of what it means to cook – and the more troubling question of how to cook well – in this book, and his love for, and loathing of, the whole restaurant industry comes through with the signature sense of humour. It's an older Bourdain though, and a certain world-weariness has crept in. Kitchen Confidential was a brash, cranky, profanity-filled collection of essays detailing the ugly ins and outs of the restaurant industry and the people who make a living from it, and even the positive essays were still brimming with piss and vinegar. One of the most quoted essays from the book explains why you should never order fish on a Monday, so it's a good indication of how much Bourdain's worldview has changed since Kitchen Confidential that he should come out with the above. But that's what makes this snarky, paradoxical writer so interesting. Who said he couldn't change the rules? And who said they wouldn't follow him? The crankiness is now tempered with weariness, and a resigned irritation (mostly directed at himself) that so many people have held him up as some kind of all-knowing expert on the restaurant industry. That said, it's still a highly entertaining read, and an illuminating one. Bourdain continues to write corruscating prose, but this book is more about his life since he quit his job as a chef at Les Halles and focuses more on the foods and restaurants and cuisines that he loves with a good measure of attacks on his enemies as well as reflection upon where his own career has brought him. But it's also personal; he talks about his family - he has a young, impressionable daughter now, (he's a father for the first time at 50), and his anecdote about how he uses cunning tactics to brain-wash her into being suspicious of and scornful of fast food as a response to Mcdonald's underhand tactics to woo the nation's young is both touching and hilarious. It also makes the serious point that the food corporations that dominate America target their customers and their loyalty at a very young age – and, by and large, are obscenely successful at it. Overall, this book is not quite on the same level as the previous two, either for wit, wisdom or revelation, but is still a worthy and absorbing read - if I hadn't read the other two previously, I'd probably have rated it a lot higher. That's the bar he set himself. And he's probably sat at.
Of Tony's remaining books (which I, as yet, have not read), his No Reservations (2013), in which he goes back to A Cook's Tour territory by travelling the world in search of the perfect meal, is probably his best, if the TV series was anything to go by. Referred to by Esquire as “an indispensable book that beautifully melds food and travel writing,” it ticks the travel and food boxes that readers would have if they're already fans. Typhoid Mary (2006) is a departure from his usual style of writing, and in this book, Tony plays historian and writes about a female chef who was infamously accused of spreading typhoid around the turn of the 20th Century. Tony also tried his hand at novel writing – probably the best-received of them was The Bobby Gold Stories (2004), a crime thriller in which the protagonist is (you guessed it) a chef in New York. The suspicion is that he wrote this and the other novels to capitalise on his new found success as a writer of non-fiction, but they seem to have some genuine worth.
And there you have it. A travelling gourmand, rock 'n roll chef, gonzo writer, travel TV pioneer and foodie king. RIP Anthony Bourdain. Gone by his own hand, too soon, and mystifyingly when he was still at peak popularity - you feel he still had a lot left to offer, both as writer and presenter. A literary as well as culinary genius - and there aren't too many of those around. He made his mark in the food and literary worlds and will be missed.
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