After Kitchen Confidential sold 2.5 million copies, if there was anyone who was surprised with Anthony Bourdain’s popularity, it was the spare-part relishing, often obnoxious chef/author himself. Bourdain, now host of the popular food and travel show No Reservations, once commented that he couldn’t believe he got paid to travel and eat. He has also always been a guy who has believed in honest, hard work, and so his latest book is more of a disappointment.
No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach: Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $34.95 (about Rs1,400).
It seems like Bourdain has finally given in to his own hype and created a “celebrity” product—it bears his name, will probably sell a lot of copies, but adds no value to anything, except his checking account.
No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, is meant to be an “illustrated journal of his far-flung travels”. It’s probably not easy to translate a travel show that enjoys cult-like status into a book. What makes the show a hit is undoubtedly Bourdain; he prefers dodgy local joints, eats anything that’s offered and downs copious quantities of local moonshine. His more repulsive meals: A raw seal eyeball, and a whole cobra, beating heart, blood, bile and meat (he once claimed the most disgusting thing he had eaten was a Chicken McNugget). But in the book, the warthog rectum he ate in Namibia is the “number-one worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth”.
That’s what makes Bourdain so addictive. He’s a hero for food lovers; we live out many of our fantasies through him. We may not have the opportunity to try a Bushman-style ostrich-egg omelette (cooked directly in a pit of hot embers) but we love to egg Bourdain on when he eats it and tells us, in his acerbic way, with that goofy grin, what it was like to consume the “dirt frittata”.
The main bulk of the book is photographs shot by the crew of the TV show. The book is divided into continents, Bourdain gives an introduction about his experiences in each one, and has written the captions accompanying the photos. What’s great is that the text is so stamped with Tony-isms you can almost hear him speaking out loud. He moves through Uzbekistan, Ghana, Iceland, Peru, China and India in a whirlwind of food, eating whatever comes around. On the way, he’s felicitated by tribal chieftains, forced to dance at village gatherings with nubile maidens, and offered the best part of the meal (the raw seal eyeball in Quebec). It’s all great fun, but we’ve seen it all on the show.
The book does have some good photographs: the crew stoned outside a government-authorized bhang shop in India; a field with rows of unidentifiable animal carcasses roasting on either side of a long wood fire in Argentina (it was for a party of 5,000 people); markets and eating with local families.
Food Porn is one of the best sections, with images of local specialities such as roast goose, noodles, poutine, paan, khimchi, and a thali. In case you thought his life was too darn idyllic, there’s a section on “Bathrooms around the World”. Bourdain mentions there that he and the crew, when confronted with a hellhole in Uzbekistan (there’s even a photograph), decided to load up on Imodium to keep their internal plumbing on hold until the plane ride home.
Bourdain says he didn’t want the book to be a cynical, cheap-ass companion book to the series. While it isn’t that, it also isn’t a book you’ll keep going back to. You could just watch the TV series.