Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cook's Companions from Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and No Reservations, is my favorite food writer. What I like most about his work is that rather than trying to tantalize readers with illicit descriptions of food, like much of what passes for food "journalism" on the Food Network, or assassinating careers like so much food criticism tends to do, Bourdain writes to convey an overall experience that has its source in food. He seeks an expansion of awareness and consciousness and the vehicle for that expansion is food.

It's a very literary perspective, so when he lists his favorite food books in The Nasty Bits, I put them right on the pile. Here are his four "cook's companions" in his own words:

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell was a revelation to me when I first turned its pages. Within I encountered Orwell's descriptions of his life as a plongeur (dishwasher) and prep cook at the pseudonymous Hotel 'X' in 1920s Paris and of his later misadventures at an undercapitalized and slightly shady bisto.

Nicolas Freeling's The Kitchen takes place in the late 1940s Grand Hotels in France. Describing his rise from lowly commis to chef, the author creates lovingly detailed portraits of chefs, sauciers, grillardins, entremetiers, patissiers, and commis. For its enduring relevance and accuracy to the world of cooks, Freeling's entertaining, near-perfect re-creation might just as well have been written today.

The king-hell, jumbo foodie bible, however, the Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls combined, has to be Emile Zola's gargantuan masterwork, The Belly of Paris. This is a work of fiction set in the then spanking new central market of nineteenth-century Paris, Les Halles...Zola describes an entire universe of food, traveling through the bowels of the marketplace, describing, beautifully at times, the live poultry markets, the fishmongers, the produce vendors, butchers, charcutiers, and market gardeners of that time. Once again, the reader will be surprised by how little has changed.

Finally, there's David Blum's painfully hilarious Flash in the Pan, a savage and painstakingly documented account of the life and death of an American restaurant...It's an invaluable book for anyone who's ever opened a restaurant, or worked to open a restauraunt, and a cautionary tale, filled with the kind of hubris, stupidity, vanity, and desperation many of us may have seen, at one time or another, in our own checkered careers.

I would also add Bourdain's book A Cook's Tour to that list. He may have made his name with the tell-all Kitchen Confidential, but he writes as a true artist in the essays that make up A Cook's Tour.

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