When it comes to writing about food, Anthony Bourdain pretty much redefined the genre in 2000 with Kitchen Confidential. His rock’n’roll tales from the kitchen were gripping and yet wonderfully repulsive. I’m not sure how he fills his days now, whether it’s behind a grill or a keyboard, but a number of books and documentaries followed Confidential, including my most recent read, A Cook’s Tour.
Bourdain is amusingly self-deprecating and plays up to his role as rascal, saying that since Confidential, he’ll never shrug off being a ‘sound-bite’ chef –
“I’d just put down a very nice score with an obnoxious and overtestosteroned account of my life in the restaurant business. Inexplicably, it had flown off the shelves.”
The idea for A Cook’s Tour was simple – travel the world and find the perfect meal. It was cheeky, because Bourdain knew from the outset that there was no such thing – the ‘perfect’ meal isn’t only about what’s on the plate, it’s the time, the place, the company and the memory.
“…I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at the dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”
Let’s be glad that his publisher didn’t object to the fact that there would be no ‘perfect’ conclusion to this book, and funded the tour regardless. Bourdain’s account of his travels through various places including Vietnam, Scotland, Cambodia, Portugal and Russia, where he ate weird, delicious, revolting and memorable foods is immensely satisfying.
“The whole concept of the ‘perfect meal’ is ludicrous. ‘Perfect’, like ‘happy’, tends to sneak up on you. Once you find it… it’s gone. It’s a fleeting thing, ‘perfect’ and, if you’re anything like me, it’s often better in retrospect.”
I thought about my ‘perfect’ meals and the memories are as much about time and place as what was on my plate. In no particular order –
- I ate an amazing meal at Vue de Monde, widely considered Melbourne’s best restaurant, but the stand-out was the butter that came with the crusty bread – salty, creamy, perfect. Years later, I still think about that butter.
- A beef and bean burrito at Zona Rosa in San Francisco. It was the nineties and authentic Mexican food was unheard of in Australia, so the burrito, when I took my first bite, was a revelation – bursting with distinct flavours and my introduction to jalapeno.
- In the seventies, my Mum and Nana had a florist shop. If I was home sick from school, I went to the shop. This wasn’t a hardship – I loved lying on a banana lounge behind the counter, watching the little black and white tv, sipping Cokes (my Papa worked for Coca-Cola and the fridge was always fully stocked). At lunch time, my Mum would go to the fish and chip shop next door and buy potato cakes – golden, hot and delicious. The scent of carnations, crispy potato cakes and lying on a makeshift bed are linked happily in my mind.
- The one restaurant meal that made me sigh with pleasure from beginning to end, to exclaim over individual elements and that prompted me to write a thank you note to the chef a week later was at Ethos, in Hobart.
- Rhubarb sorbet and a vodka shot at St. John, in London. So simple, so perfect. Interestingly, St. John is one of the restaurants Bourdain visits on his tour, saying of chef Fergus Henderson, “There are surely better chefs in England, but Fergus is my favorite – he’s a hero to me, one righteous, solitary soul-surfing, daredevil motherfucker” and going on to cite St.John as his favourite restaurant in the world –
“A meal at St. John is not just one of the great eating experiences on the planet – it’s a call to the barricades.”
And that’s how I felt about that sorbet/vodka combination.
I’ve said little about this book… Bourdain is a great writer. He’s humorous, informative and is exceptionally good at capturing a sense of place.
“Oysters, by the way, are bisexual in ways undreamed of by career-minded actors. They actually change sex from year to year. If you told an oyster ‘Go fuck yourself’, it would probably not be offended.”
Bourdain eats lots of ‘perfect’ meals on his tour – pho in Vietnam; a pork feast in Portugal; langoustines in San Sebastián; black bread and sausage in Russia; tuna in Tokyo; roasted bone marrow in London; pork and corn tortillas in Oaxaca – his descriptions of each meal, and how he made it to the table (it’s the most action-packed, adventurous book you’ll ever read about eating), are exquisite.
4/5 Savour it.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and the Melburnian winter – the results for the day I finished this book (July 17): Belfast 12°-23°, Melbourne 3°-16°.