The only thing "gonzo gastronome" and internationally bestselling author Anthony Bourdain loves as much as cooking is traveling. Inspired by the question, "What would be the perfect meal?," Tony sets out on a quest for his culinary holy grail, and in the process turns the notion of "perfection" inside out. From California to Cambodia, A Cooks' Tour chronicles the unpredictable adventures of America's boldest and bravest chef.
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.