Subculture Club

Globe-trotting food writer/TV host Anthony Bourdain is hungry for more than just what's on his plate

Jan 30, 2002 at 4:00 am
So where is Anthony Bourdain -- whose new book and Food Network TV series, both titled A Cook's Tour, took him "in search of the perfect meal" -- likely to eat when he's in St. Louis?

"In one of the local joints," says Bourdain from his hotel room in San Francisco, another stop on his two-and-a-half-month book tour. "I usually keep my ear to the ground and talk to the restaurant professionals who come to my readings."

Restaurant professionals. In other words, Bourdain's people, his family. The idiosyncratic individuals who, rather than the superficial take-aways of "never order fish on Mondays" and "avoid brunches," were really the power and the glory of his breakthrough book, Kitchen Confidential, an intimate personal memoir of decline, redemption and friendship that also happened to expose the dining public to some of the less savory aspects of how their meals are prepared.

A Cook's Tour, the book, is something like the yang to the yin of A Cook's Tour, the TV series. Watch the series, and you'll hear Bourdain bleeped a lot, when he's not sighing rapturously over an edomae sushi plate or a Vietnamese jungle feast. Read the book, and you'll also get the intimate details of how Bourdain falls in love with Vietnam and its people even as he wrestles with the fact that his hosts lost loved ones in a war against America -- and killed Americans just about his age. His reconciliation? He has a drink with all who invite him (and they are legion), and he shows them respect. (Bourdain liked Vietnam so much that he said that his next project -- after completing a "military field manual" style of guide to running restaurants, co-authored with his current bosses at Brasserie les Halles in New York -- might just be living in Vietnam for six months or a year.)

Bourdain is certainly the one of few food writers (or "food enthusiasts," as he prefers to be called) who can manage to work in the terms "blowing chunks," "goat rectum" and "Ron Jeremy" while still keeping you salivating in expectation of the next great meal.

In addition to some of the authors (most frequently Graham Greene) he cites in his book, he notes a range of food-writing and literary influences, including a pair -- George Orwell and Emile Zola -- who comfortably straddle the two categories. A modern favorite is Michael Ruhlman -- who also shows up in the book and as part of Bourdain's trip to the French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley -- mainly because Ruhlman has written two books about "the cook's subculture."

The good folks at Left Bank Books would do well by Bourdain to ensure that he's able to make a pilgrimage just a few short blocks from their shop to 4664 Pershing Ave., birthplace of another of his favorite writers, William Burroughs.

But the guests on Feb. 5 who are most likely to get more than a signed book and small talk are those who show up in chef's whites, with grill marks and grease burns on their hands and wrists -- and more than a few food stains on their copies of his books. Anthony Bourdain knows you, he respects you and he has immortalized you. Tell him where he might find that perfect meal around here.