Anthony Bourdain's idea of the potentially perfect meal is surely not your idea. Been craving Moroccan lamb testicles lately? Didn't think so. Had a hankering for goat's head soup? Chili-roasted maguey worms? How about the beating heart of a cobra, freshly extracted from its former owner? Clearly Bourdain isn't your garden-variety gastronome. Familiarity, and fat-free cooking, breeds his contempt; derring-do is his stock in trade.
The author of last year's bestselling Kitchen Confidential, the delicious tell-all book of life in the pit of the "culinary underbelly," Bourdain has become an overnight sensation as unlikely as an upside-down tequila shot in a muffled nouvelle-cuisine dining room. In the world of celebrity chefdom, where the life of cuddly Emeril Lagasse begets a sitcom, Bourdain's would be a snuff-film screening on skid row. While England's Two Fat Ladies puttered onto the foodie scene in a kooky sidecar motorcycle, Bourdain barges in pulling screaming wheelies on a dastardly chopper straight out of the cartoon art of Big Daddy Roth.
In Bourdain's hands, "food porn" takes on an all-new, and sometimes quite literal, meaning. In this book, he uses his newfound celebrity to circle the globe, visiting some of its darkest corners in search of a sensory overload involving his mouth, his stomach and quite often his bare hands. As much a reckless travelogue as a vicarious dining experience, the book might scare off a considerable number of Bourdain's more organic-oriented fans. But then, if they enjoyed Kitchen Confidential, they can't say they weren't sufficiently warned.
The author envisioned his new book as an adventure, with himself portraying "one ofthose debauched heroes and villains" out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino. "I wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble," he claims. By and large, he fulfills the vision, even if he's sometimes wearing a cowboy hat or a tiny Speedo bathing suit instead of the seersucker.
Once again, Bourdain is laugh-out-loud funny at times, in an unapologetic, sophomoric sort of way. Of that dubious Moroccan lamb delicacy, he writes, "It was certainly the best testicle I'd ever had in my mouth. Also the first, I should hasten to say." The writing is occasionally carelessone larded meal, for instance, leaves him "feeling like Elvis in Vegas"but mostly it matches the lurid glee that made Kitchen Confidential such a success. Describing durian (the spiny, famously pungent fruit he devoured with delight in Cambodia), he writes, "God it stank! It smelled like you'd buried somebody holding a big wheel of Stilton in his arms, then dug him up a few weeks later."
Bourdain's success as a writer is his knack for making food the centerpiece of a much broader discussion about living life on a grand scale. In fact, in A Cook's Tour, the food is sometimes relegated to a side table. In Russia, the author pounds vodka and attends an illegal, no-holds-barred cage-fighting event. In England, he offers one man's humble explanation of why the pornography there is so exceptionally bad. In Morocco, he finds himself too high on hashish to communicate with the camera crew that's documenting his travels for an upcoming Food Network series. ("God help me," he moans hilariously about getting himself entangled in that particular piece of business.)
The gist of his search is that Bourdain wants to re-create the earth-shattering oyster-eating experience he had as a boy in France, so vividly described in Kitchen Confidential. "Think about the last time food transported you," he writes, lingering over a lifetime of pivotal encounters with his taste budswild strawberries, an old girlfriend's leftover pork-fried rice. "Maybe it was just a bowl of Campbell's cream of tomato with Oysterettes, and a grilled cheese sandwich. You know what I mean." This kind of sweet faith in the universal pleasures of eating belies Bourdain's relentless bluster.
So does his regret, on his return to France, that he is emotionally incapable of re-creating that wondrous shellfish moment, try as he might. "I began to feel damaged," he writes in one of the book's most elegant, and vulnerable, passages. "Broken. As if some essential organmy heart perhapshad shriveled and died."
The closest the author comes to a conventional notion of the perfect meal is at the French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller's revered restaurant in the California wine country. And "conventional" is hardly the word. Famously, Keller's menus are astonishments of originality. The menu itself reads like pure poetry: coronets of salmon tartare, cauliflower panna cotta with Malpeque oyster glaze and Oscetra caviar, ricotta cheese gnocchi with a Darjeeling tea-walnut oil emulsion and shaved walnuts. For his "degenerate smoker" guest, Keller prepared a surprisea course he called "coffee and a cigarette," featuring tobacco-infused coffee custard with foie gras. Bourdain is suitably overwhelmed. "It was an absolutely awe-inspiring meal, accompanied, I should point out, by a procession of sensational wines.... I remember a big brawny red in a cistern-sized glass, which nearly made me weep with pleasure. Cooking had crossed the line into magic," he gushes.
Though he would prefer not to be the sort of man to gush, the punk-rock author finds himself hearing a chorus of angels when food moves him. In spite of himself, the foul-mouthed Bourdain proves in the end to be a big ol' softie. In Morocco, he hauls himself to the top of a ridge in the desert. "A hundred miles of sand in every direction, a hundred miles of absolutely gorgeous, unspoiled nothingness," he recalls. "I was wondering how a miserable, manic-depressive, overage, undeserving hustler like myselfa utility chef from New York City with no particular distinction to be found in his long and egregiously checkered careeron the strength of one inexplicably large score, could find himself here, seeing this, living the dream." The answer seems obvious, if not to the man who's looking for it. His is a rare sensitivity divided equally among heart, mind and palate.
Over-the-top and highly diverting international culinary adventures, always to be taken with a generous grain of salt-and make it Fleur de Sel-and best consumed a bite at a time.
Read an Excerpt
Fire Over England
Finally, there’s England’s greatest chef, or England’s biggest bully, depending on which paper you’re reading at the time – the fearsome and prodigiously talented Gordon Ramsay. I’d been hearing about this guy for years. Ex-footballer. Formerly with Robuchon, Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Marco Pierre White. A legendary wordsmith in the kitchen – famed for excoriating his crew, ejecting food critics, speaking his mind bluntly and undiplomatically. Awhile back, I was told about the cinema verité Boiling Point series, in which the beleaguered Ramsay was said to behave monstrously to his staff. Intrigued, I managed to track down a copy of the videotape series. To my mind, Ramsay was sympathetic from beginning to end. I rooted for him as he sweated out the beginning of a service period for a massive banquet at Versailles, ill-equipped, with only a rent-a-staff of indolent bucket heads to help him. I cheered when he summarily dismissed a waiter for guzzling water in full view of the dining room. Pour décourager les autres, I’m guessing. I suffered as he suffered the interminable wait for his much-hoped-for third Michelin star and was heartbroken when he didn’t get it. (He since has.) Those who can’t understand why a chef operating at Ramsay’s level gets a little cranky, or who appears to be operating at a higher and more self-important pitch than their boss, simply don’t understand what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen. They certainly don’t understand what it takes to be the best in that world. It is not how well you can cook alone that makes a great chef, but your ability to cook brilliantly, day in and day out – in an environment where a thousand things can go wrong, with a crew that oftentimes would just as happily be sticking up convenience stores, in a fickle, cost-conscious, capricious world where everybody is hoping that you fail.
Is he really such a complete bastard? Let’s put it this way: On a recent visit to his restaurant in Chelsea, I recognized large numbers of staff – both front and back of the house – from Boiling Point. Years later and they’re still there. When Ramsay walked out of Aubergine, the entire staff, service staff included – an incredible forty-five people – chose to go with him. That’s really the most telling statistic. Does he still enjoy the loyalty of his crew? He does. No cook shows up every day in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, works those kind of hours, offers themselves up daily to the rigors of a three-star service period, toiling in a small, hot space where at any moment they could get a painful and humiliating ass reaming because Gordon Ramsay is the biggest bastard or the biggest bully in England. They show up every day and work like Trojans because he’s the best. Because when they finally walk out that door to seek their own fortunes, they won’t even have to write up a résumé. Say you worked for three years with Gordon Ramsay, and that’s all any chef or owner should need to know.
There’s another factor overlooked in the rush to brand Ramsay as rude, crude, brutish, and cruel. In the professional kitchen, if you look someone in the eye and call them a ‘fat, worthless, syphilitic puddle of badger crap’ it doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It can be – and often is – a term of endearment.
Bottom line is, his food’s good. After all, it is about the food, isn’t it?
I had two meals at his restaurant in Chelsea, and both were absolutely world-class. A great chef at the top of his game. There’s yet another overlooked dimension to Ramsay that doesn’t fit with the depiction of an uppity, lower-class lout overlyjacked on testosterone. Ramsay was trained as a pâtissier. This is significant – like discovering that a right-wing politician was a Bolshevik in his youth. 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 yin and the yang, if you will.
What do I mean? Look at Roberto, my grill man. He’s got a metal rod rammed through his eyebrow, a tattoo of a burning skull on his chest, muscles on his muscles. Rob Zombie and Metallica are his idea of easy listening. He’s done jail time for assault. Not a guy you’d invite to an evening at the opera. But watch Roberto cook. He leans over that plate and delicately, carefully drizzles sauce from a favorite spoon, gently applies an outer ring of sauce, then sensuously drags a toothpick through it. He tastes everything. Looks at his plates with a decorator’s eye for color and texture. Treats a filet of fish as tenderly and as lovingly as a woman’s erect nipple. Piles cute, girly-little garnishes into high, cloudlike piles of gossamer-thin crunchiness. He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. (Ramsay’s own father told him cooking was basically for poofs and that chefs were all ponces.) We work in aprons, for fuck’s sake! You better have balls the size of jackfruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavor and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.
Both times I visited his restaurant, Ramsay was in the kitchen, supervising every dish that came out, riding his crew like rented mules. He wasn’t gliding through the dining room, sucking up to his public. He’s a cook in twenty-first-century England; that means he’s an obsessive, paranoid, conspiratorial control freak. A hustler, media-manipulator, artist, craftsman, bully, and glory hound – in short, a chef’s chef. That I found him polite, charming, witty, and gracious and am saying so here will probably be an embarrassment to him. For that, I apologize. His detractors should be so lucky as to taste the absolutely stunning braised beef and foie gras I ate at his restaurant – a dish so sumptuous that I am forced to use that word. A ham hock terrine of really extraordinary subtlety and flavor, a lobster ravioli with fresh green pea puree that revealed – as all food reveals its creator’s true nature – a level of perception and sensitivity that can be a liability in the mosh-pit subculture of professional kitchens. Here’s a guy who risked everything in his career, many times over. He walked away from a career in football when it was made clear he’d never play in the bigs. He endured a procession of stages in some very tough French kitchens. He bolted from his first restaurant, entangling himself in potentially enormous liabilities just when he was in sight of the mountaintop. He loudly announced he was going for three Michelin stars and then stayed on course until he got them. Rather than kiss the asses of all those people who might – under ordinary circumstances – be expected to be helpful to him, he has consistently kicked them in the teeth or even viciously sucker punched them. It’s very hard for me not to like a guy like that. And every day those stars are sitting on him like six-ton flagstones, defying any who might choose to try knocking them off.
England’s worst boss? I don’t think so. England’s worst boss is the boss who doesn’t give a fuck, someone who’s wasting his employees’ time, challenging them to do nothing more ambitious than show up. Understand that in no-name pit stops and casual dining establishments, it’s just a mistake when a cook forgets a single unpeeled fava bean or a tiny smudge of grease, but in a three-star restaurant, it’s treason. In the cruel mathematics of two- and three-star dining establishments, a customer who has a good meal will tell two or three people about it. A person who has an unsatisfactory meal will tell ten or twenty. It makes for a much more compelling anecdote. That one unpeeled fava bean is the end of the world. Or it could be.
As most really good cooks or commis working in similar circumstances will readily tell you: Mess with the chef at your peril. It’s his name on the door.