I love my authors a tad on the fresh, petulant and carnal side. A splatter of blood-and-guts-style reportage only heightens the pleasure, as do tales of human squalor and degradation. I can hack romance, but only in staccato style, and God forbid if a novel has a touch of the Merchant Ivory about it: then it’s likely to end up burnt as an effigy to Botox-injected trash. James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard run the gauntlet of hard-boiled and sexy. They’re ferocious when they’re hot. But the question is: Can tales of gastronomy be equally as sexy? Can they be as hard-boiled and mean as their contemporary criminal counterparts?
Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour (in search of the perfect meal) has kept me awake at nights pondering this very dichotomy. While Jamie Oliver, golden boy, canonized saint of London barrow-boy charisma quite frankly bores me senseless with his charitable mirth and self-promotional- culinary semantics (although he creates some wicked dishes occasionally), Oliver’s trans-continental cousin, Bourdain is the Ellroy of Kitchens; all dark, swaggering and full of stomach-churning aerobatics.
New York is important in this story. It’s Bourdain’s home and it’s the urban, shady place pre-9/11, then, an enclave riddled with human vermin, rolling through oceans of sin while remaining the most illuminative cultural cesspit imaginable. It was a time also when the word ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ struck fear into the hearts of natives and visitors alike. Little was known, however, about the vast Culinary Revolution that was taking place in its kitchens and dark alleyways. “Terrified mobs of blood-and-sauce splattered culinarians” hacked it out with ingredient and dark temperament alike leaving restaurants either ghost towns or Mecca’s of indulgence.
Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000) was a kiss-and-tell style memoir that chartered his rise through the “mosh pit subculture of professional kitchens”. Flavour, design, brutality and vigilance were his mantras. In Bourdain’s world, New York’s gastronomical underbelly was ruled by mobsters and a culinary pecking order underscored by heroin habits and moments of brilliance and madness. A sort of “tribal culture,” as the man himself once stated.
“Cooking is my orthodoxy,” Kitchen Confidential shrieked bombastically. His prequel, A Cook’s Tour, took that theory one step further. The “Lou Reed of the culinary world” would travel a dangerous and more exotic path. And the theory was simple: If it moves, eat it!
So off he set with a camera crew in tow (the publishers’ idea, not his), his trusty Lonely Planet guide and what some may call a treacherous Kamikaze –type desire to chomp his way through the most grotesque, stomach-churning delicacies imaginable. Flying by the seat of his combats, Bourdain traveled deep into the heart of the killing fields and napalmed jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam. With a wry and darkly comical eye he satirised his hell-come-high-water chutzpah when narrating his experiences on the infamous death highway otherwise known as The Road To Pailin. He writes:
“Shortcut’. The word filled me with dread. When has a shortcut ever worked out as planned? The word – in a horror film at least – usually precedes disembowelment and death. A ‘shortcut’ almost never leads to good times and in Cambodia, when our skipper suddenly piloting the boat up a shallow, twisting, foliage –choked, water-filled ditch, deep into the fuck who knows where, with two who the fuck knows who’s giving the orders, I was not feeling too secure. I consulted the Lonely Planet Guide and was dismayed to find that this particular body of water did not appear on the map.”
The modern day rock-star chef dismisses thoughts of salmonella poisoning, mad cow’s disease and Ebola-like hemorrhages as par for the course. A word of warning must be issued here; the faint hearted and squeamish will not enjoy our roving chef’s adventurers. Animal cruelty and executions are high on the menu when mining for the freshest of morsels.
Some of the less attractive main courses range from the still-beating heart of a live cobra sampled in the provocative den of Saigon and leathery iguana (formerly a hotel pet) in Puerto Angel, Mexico, which, to his defense, he tried to avoid. “The owner of the hotel was dispatched to wrangle up a nice plump example of iguanadom at its very best. After three or four hours investigation , he came up empty and decided to sacrifice the poor hotel mascot, a ten-year-old wrinkly, liver-spotted thing – he looked paralytic… In the thankfully brief scene you see in the edited version, I look like I’m eating at gunpoint,” he remembers.
Bourdain’s slam-dunk into Tokyo culture is hilarious. Painting Tokyo as “one long movie trailer” with splashes of Manga art, he takes the famed Bullet Train to the Mount Fuji retreat, Ryokan Skiyou. In idyllic seclusion he is watched over by preening geishas and the resort’s manager, Mr Komatsu, as he samples many dishes, including the vilest of all abominations – the Mountain Potato.
“The small, dark chewy nugget can only be described as tasting like salt-cured, sun-dried goat rectum – unbelievably, woefully flavourful – garnished by maggot like, wriggly things, so awful to my western palate that I was forced through the grim rictus of a smile to ask politely that the host leave me alone for a while so I could fully appreciate this fine breakfast in solitude.”
In Morocco he rocks the casbah, chowing down hash and freshly slaughtered lamb, struck by the beauty of the Islamic faith and the romance of it all. Russia is straight out of Dr Zhivago. “How To Drink Vodka” sees him courting a severe case of hypothermia and is pure slapstick. Bourdain unapologetically reveals himself as a die-hard romantic. He dribbles with anticipation at the thought of embarking on Suicide-Bomber style travel missions. Fried worms, sautéed ant eggs and braised bat (“imagine braised? Inner tube, sauced with engine coolant”) slide into our chef’s gullet with alarming ease.
His book oozes ease. Twenty-eight years worth of ‘Residencies’ in the heartland of Manhattan restaurants, unpredictable shenanigans, and an obsession with publishing genre-hopping tomes seems to have imbued him with a Midas touch of sorts. In 1995 he released his debut, satirical novel, Bone In The Throat that was followed in 2000 by his nod to the Mafioso, Gone Bamboo .
It appeared that Bourdain would continue his descent into the crime novel genre – but with alarming clarity he turned the tide with an autobiographical walk on the wild side that was Kitchen Confidential. Rumour has it the film rights have been optioned by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room) who is set to direct it for the silver screen. Typhoid Mary: A Historical Novel was released in 2001 and while it had a culinary bent it recreated the events surrounding the actions of the infamous Mary Mallon – immigrant and cook – who infected a chunk of Long Island, New York’s upper society with typhoid in 1904. But it was A Cook’s Tour that would truly cement Bourdain’s reputation.
This is a book that has ample supporters and detractors. It has also courted some controversy. Powells.com Interviews chose to pass on an email they recently received from an irate reader: “I read the review of his book, A Cook’s Tour, and was sickened and disgusted…vile…distasteful…most of all inhumane… Just reading the review made me sick…This is extreme animal cruelty…sadistic, inhumane…take care to keep a close eye on your beloved cat.”
A Cook’s Tour is all of the above and more. It’s adventurous, original and fun. It’s hugely irreverent and quite addictive. The language juggles gastronomical danger with wit and precision. Flaw-ridden, outrageously romantic and riddled with a devil-may-care-attitude, Anthony Bourdain proves that he is most at home moving to the rhythm of his own narrative drum. Now that’s something that Ellroy could relate to.