I first read A Cook’s Tour over a decade ago and since then it’s been languishing in my bookcase. Headed overseas on a 6-week trip through Vietnam, I dusted it off and threw it into my backpack certain that Bourdain would make the perfect travel companion.
I confess that I do have an affinity for Bourdain’s work. I read his first book, Kitchen Confidential, when I was working in the hospitality industry, and his brash personality, his wry sense of humour and his open honesty are all evident as much in his writing as they are in his television shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and the later Parts Unknown.
A Cook’s Tour focuses on Bourdain’s search around the globe for the perfect meal, which is not defined by the most expensive restaurant, Michelan stars, sophistication or organic ingredients but rather composed of more elusive elements of romantic notions, context and memory all merging to create the atmosphere that accompany a good meal, leading to a sense of perfection.
Bourdain travels the world from places like Cambodia and Vietnam, on to Morocco, Russia, the UK and Mexico eating his way through a smorgasbord of good, bad and hair-raising food experiences. This was back in the early 2000s, and some of the places he visits are remote and still very much emerging countries – Cambodia is a haven for thrill seekers into drugs and bad behaviour along with encounters with the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam carries the ubiquitous romanticised imagery of beautiful women wearing the Ao Dai and connical hats – alongside exotic places like the inner labyrinths of the old city of Fez, in Morocco, and the freezing cold in deep-winter Russia – bleak but totally satisfying Bourdain’s boyhood notions of the KGB, melancholy and absurdity.
Alongside writing about the food and the countries he visits, Bourdain includes running asides about the film crew that is travelling with him. The mishaps, pranks and problems encountered by a chef-turned-writer who is confronted daily with a television camera tracking his every move and a producer will do anything for ‘good television’ including an aging iguana that ends up in his soup all make for entertaining reading. Bourdain confesses to having had problems in the past with drugs, and he spends lot of his travels drinking it up with the locals, but he doesn’t hide his faults, instead he lets the reader into his life – insecurities and paranoias are shared – which I found refreshing. In the age now where celebrity chefs are the norm and their images are primped and preened to a squeaky clean level, confidence and arrogance abounds, and publicists have created the chef’s image, it was refreshing to read Bourdain’s humble confessions that he felt out of his depth, that at times he was miserable and wanted to go home. It was honest, it was human, and it reflects what it feels like to travel for extended periods. He’s enthusiastic about the food and genuine in his interactions with the people he meets – he’s not playing a role, that’s what his producers have issues with. He hasn’t mastered the art of manipulating the audience.
There are some fabulously entertaining moments, and one of my favourites is his trip to Russia. His youthful romantic ideas are well written, and he manages to give a good insight into life in Russia at the time, proceeds to get rip-snorting drunk with his buddy only to have the producer tell him at the end of dinner, when neither of them can walk straight, that the film crew forgot to shoot an opening scene, and so the two drunken men attempt to redo the scene with limited success. The trip to Fez and out into the Moroccan desert is filled with romantic charms and the mystery of the ‘other’ and his experiences in Japan uncover an aspect to food that is not widely known, especially the when he heads to a special retreat and the food arrives in a multitude of courses.
Having travelled through Vietnam, only a decade or so later, it was interesting to note how much the country has changed, developed, and that the uniqueness, the undiscovered charm that Bourdain writes about and is no longer there. In that respect A Cook’s Tour also serves as small reminder of how places change, how nothing stays the same, and the importance of getting out there and enjoying things before they disappear. The book also pays homage to the ties of friendship and the firm bonds that he has forged with his ‘crew’ the men and women from the kitchens in New York that he has worked with and how, in many ways, they are family.
Ultimately, Bourdain’s books is about more than food, it’s about the relationships we have with food, the people we dine with, the environment and nostalgia all combining to give us those great food memories that we all have. That’s what makes the perfect meal.
A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury Publishing 2001)