Serving Up Excesses
Anyone who read “Kitchen Confidential” knows that chef-scribe Anthony Bourdain, poster boy for testosterone overload, is a man of extravagant appetites. He lacks what a concerned elementary school principal might call critical faculties, which is a polite way of saying he does not know when to stop. Whether it is garbage in (drugs, of which nicotine is the most innocent) or garbage out (a predilection for sequential, multilingual obscenities), Bourdain is your guy. He retires the notion of the restrained, cerebral, artful chef.
Which may be why that book was a big bestseller; Bourdain swaggers where the rest of us fear to tread. Having scorched his way through the New York restaurant scene, he turns his attention in “A Cook’s Tour” to the rest of the world. This time around, Bourdain is off in search of the perfect meal. Not your idea of a perfect meal, which might revolve around such civilized thrills as a beautiful wine or a bottomless bowl of caviar. His idea--which reads more like a catered screening of “Apocalypse Now.”
Let me say that oysters are not the only food he ingests that was very--very--recently alive. And I use the term “food” lightly. He will stretch your definition of edible the way a French farmer stretches the neck of a force-fed duck.
Trailed by a Food Network camera crew for a series that begins next month, Bourdain is looking for the definitive dining experience, which can be hard to find when you have led a life like his. It might be the cool perfection of his meal at Thomas Keller’s Northern California temple to cuisine, the French Laundry. It might just as well mean barreling through parts of the Far East where they still think Americans are the enemy.
Midway through “A Cook’s Tour,” I had a weird thought, and if the author were anyone but Bourdain I would censor myself. But he never does, so I won’t: He says he traveled the world, but perhaps the whole thing is one perfervid waking dream, his body’s hallucinogenic revolt after all these years of abuse. It reads that way, which is both its blessing and its curse.
The humor--and there is plenty of it--is the kind that drives spouses apart. For days my husband was afraid to settle in next to me with the newspaper, lest I start shrieking, grab his arm and demand that he read a particular passage. Bourdain is gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson turned food writer: Pigs split open! Human hands exploring animal orifices in ways that cannot be described in a family newspaper! Food that might kill you! Co-workers who would like to! And he’s very democratic about it all, happy to include himself among the targets of ridicule.
The problem is that he does not know when to stop. I was once lucky enough to be in a splendid restaurant where I knew the chef, who decided to send out a tasting menu of his best efforts. By the time he got around to the seventh course, a single, succulent scallop, I was in agony. I had passed satiation two courses back. My taste buds were numb.
By the time Bourdain gets to the spot in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge supposedly run a gambling empire, I need the literary equivalent of a Tums. “Kitchen Confidential” had the great advantages of being a novelty and of having at its core a coming-of-age story, however crazed. “A Cook’s Tour” hits its (high) pitch and stays there and, on the road to the casino that turns out not to exist, I finally ask the traitorous question: Why am I reading about a man who looks for good food on a road where the signs read “WARNING! LAND MINES!” and sport the skull and crossbones?
Because he’s funny; I already said that. And more frustrating--unless Bourdain intends to try again--because there are, sprinkled throughout this book, profound and beautiful passages about people and the rituals of food. When Bourdain stops for a breath, when he isn’t trying so hard, he is a lovely writer.
He might be insulted; lovely is not something he aspires to be. But the passage about the lamb in the Sahara Desert is grand, and his experience afterward, as he climbs to a high spot to gaze at the sandy expanses around him, is right out of a Terry Gilliam movie: wacky and breathtaking.
Bourdain bemoans his potholed career as a chef: For years, excess overtook talent, again and again, until he found some weary peace at the helm of Les Halles in New York. His latest book suffers from some of that same excess. Writing, while less likely to draw blood, requires pacing and discipline in the end, just as the kitchen does.
Karen Stabiner is co-author with Piero Selvaggio of “The Valentino Cookbook.”