A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 274 pages, 2001

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: A Cook’s Tour has to be the worst show on television for a vegetarian to get addicted to, but I can’t resist Bourdain’s bad-ass, snarky, damn-the-man attitude.

Synopsis: Lacking inspiration as well as experience with international cooking styles, Bourdain takes off from his restaurant in New York in a whirlwind tour of the world in search of the perfect meal. But this isn’t Bourdain hopping from four-star restaurant to four-star restaurant, although he does hit a few. Bourdain is a firm believer that the best food experiences also involve the people at the table and the atmosphere of the place, which leads him to many home-cooked meals and crazy situations that the average restauranteur or tourist would never expect to be in.

Why you should read this book: Bourdain does an excellent job of respectfully infiltrating the cultures of all the countries that he visits. He has a wild sense of adventure that seems to stem from a genuine wish to learn all he can from different styles of cooking, regardless of whether he’s sitting down at the table of one of the world’s greatest chefs or hunkering down with a family of peasants. If you weren’t a foodie when you started reading this, you’ll have converted long before you turn the last page. Beyond the lure of culinary delights, Bourdain presents a fascinating look at travel far, far off the beaten path, so don’t feel too intimidated if you’re not quite up to par on your cooking skills. Even if you’ve seen episodes of A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain brings much more to the table, so to speak, in print form, and is even more outspoken without the Food Network around to censor him. The book’s conversational tone adds a lot of Bourdain’s personality to a topic that might not have interested people otherwise.

Why you should avoid this book: Unless you happen to be a master chef, expect to be left in Bourdain’s dust as he throws around technical cooking terms. He often tosses around elite cooking lingo without any translation whatsoever into layman’s terms – we’re talking miles beyond figuring out that ‘escargot’ means snail. And be forewarned: Bourdain has much more of an unpolished and often vulgar vocabulary than you might expect from a man writing about food.

Opening paragraph:

I’m sitting cross-legged in the bush with Charlie, deep in the Mekong Delta, drinking Vietnamese moonshine from a plastic cola bottle. It’s dark, the only light coming from a single generator-powered lightbulb, and on the tarpaulin of stitched-together fertilizer and rice sacks laid out on the hard jungle floor in front of me, dinner has just been served: a humble farmer’s meal of clay-roasted duck, duck and banana-blossom soup, salad, and stuffed bitter melon. My host, affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle Hai,’ sits to my left, his right hand clutching my knee. Every once in awhile, he gives it a squeeze, just to make sure I’m still there and that I’m having a good time.

Fabulous quotes:

Philippe and I settle for catching our own elephant fish in a murky, stagnant pond covered with green film, a small boy helpfully pointing out exactly where to drop our hooks. It takes about thirty seconds to catch our entrées.
For appetizers, we go for the relatively benign curried frog legs, a little ground snake with shrimp cracker, peanuts, garlic, and mint, and some braised bat (imagine braised inner tube, sauced with engine coolant). We eat no animals with cute bunny eyes. I just can’t take that today. Philippe and I pick at our food unenthusiastically, a strong cloud of fermenting fish from the nearby huac nam factory doing nothing to improve our appetites.
No one should come here.

Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbor deep suspicions of the precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact increments – and made the same way every single time – is diametrically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want. Ramsay’s food resonates with his training in pastry. It is precise, colorful, artfully sculpted or teased into shape (though not too teased). It is the product of that end point in a chef’s development – the perfect balance of masculine and feminine, the ying and the yang, if you will.

Also recommended: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson; Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen.

Also by this author: No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach;  The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones; Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking; Kitchen Confidential; Bone in the Throat; Gone Bamboo; Typhoid Mary; The Bobby Gold Stories.

Fun tidbit: Some of the countries that Bourdain visited he had known/read about; others, he just showed up and relied on kind-hearted hosts to lead him to a good meal.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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