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A Cook's Tour
by Anthony Bourdain
cookbook reviewsa cook's tour by anthony bourdain
A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
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I wanted the perfect meal. I also wanted Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, Kim Philby, the Consul, Fowler, Tony Po, Christopher Walken ... I wanted to find — no, I wanted to be — one of those debauched heroes and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola and Michael Cimino. I wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble.

I wanted to go up the Nung River to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a mafia nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy, neon-lit pulquería in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks — the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I'd yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I'd found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world — and I wanted the world to be just like the movies.

Unreasonable? Over-romantic? Uninformed? Foolhardy?

Yes! But I didn't care. I'd just put down a very nice score with an obnoxious and over-testosteroned account of my life in the restaurant business. Inexplicably, it had flown off the shelves. I was paying rent on time for the first time in my life. I actually had money in the bank. My cooks had long since begun calling me "Pinchay Famoso" and making fun of me when I'd show up slathered in TV make-up after yet another segment showing me warning the public about "fish on Monday" and the "perils of hollandaise". I needed something to do. I needed another idea for a book — preferably while I was still in good odour from the last one. Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one.

I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. I talk about these mysterious forces all the time with my chef cronies.

Nothing illustrates them more than the Last Meal Game — "You're getting the electric chair tomorrow morning. They're gonna strap you down, turn up the juice, and fry your ass until your eyes sizzle and pop like McNuggets. You've got one meal left. What are you having for dinner?"

When playing this game with chefs — and we're talking good chefs here — the answers are invariably simple ones.

"Braised short ribs," said one friend.

"A single slab of seared foie gras," said another.

"Linguine pomodoro, like my mother used to make me," said another.

"Cold meatloaf sandwich," said another, shuddering with pleasure. "Don't tell anyone."

No one I've ever played this game with came back with "The tasting menu at Ducasse". No one remembers their best meal ever as being consumed jacketed and tied, in a starched dress shirt, sitting bolt upright in a four-star restaurant.

When is food magic? What are the common denominators? At their best, chefs like to consider themselves alchemists, and some of them, particularly the French, have a long and glorious tradition of turning lead into gold. For what is a humble shoulder or shank or strip of gut if not leaden and unlovely, and what is daube of beef Provençale or osso buco — when every bit of flavour and texture has been coaxed gently by skilled hands — but pure gold?

It's an understanding of this process that raised the French (and Italians) to the forefront of classical cuisine. It's why we love them — even when we hate them. Few sane persons enjoy French pop music — or even the French much — but they know what to do with every scrap of hoof, snout, entrail and skin, every bit of vegetable trimming, fish head and bone. Because they grew up with that all-important dictum. Use everything! (And use it well.)

Why is that? Why them and not us?

The answer is, in many ways, to be found elsewhere in the world - in Vietnam, Portugal, Mexico, Morocco. Because they had to. It was not — in 18th- and 19th-century France — as it is not today in much of the rest of the world, an option whether to use the nasty bits. You had to.

I'd look for magic in all these countries and anywhere else that occurred to me. There would be nothing I would not try. Okay: one thing. My wife, Nancy, already unhappy about me leaving her behind while I flew around the world, told me flat out, "I hear of you scooping the brains out of some cute little monkey's head while he's still alive? It's divorce court. Got it?"

Portugal... read on

© Anthony Bourdain 2001. This is an edited extract from A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, by Anthony Bourdain, published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 in the UK and $18.61 in the US.
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