Charting the etymology of the term "food porn" would be an interesting exercise for any student of language. So au courante, so correct, it captures, with the touch of derision reserved for all things bourgeois, the peculiar relationship that a TV show or book about food has to food itself; with a few logistical differences, it's an awful lot like the relationship between pornography and sex. Not surprisingly, the phrase has taken off like wildfire.
More so than anyone else, Anthony Bourdain understands the whole food porn phenomenon. It could be said that he is the first post-food porn food pornographer; although he spends pages and pages waxing poetic about ingredients and dishes that the reader will never experience, he does it with a Johnny Rebel insouciance that says, "I may be a chef, but that doesn't mean I can't rock and roll."
A COOK'S TOUR is food porn of a high order, but it's also personality porn. How much you enjoy A COOK'S TOUR depends to some degree on how cool you find Anthony Bourdain. For the record, I'll say that I find him only medium cool. Vegans and vegetarians may find his bombastically pro-carnivore stance annoying --- and his zealotry does smack of desperation --- but that aside, he comes across as reasonably big-hearted. The greatest casualty of his bluster is the absence of a memorable character in the book aside from Bourdain himself; with all the ranting and introspection, there's hardly time.
The loose concept of A COOK'S TOUR is a simple one: America's favorite ex-junky celebrity chef travels the world searching for the perfect meal and offering his wry take on the mise en scène. The structure is that of a typical travelogue, with each chapter devoted to a particular country or trip. Bourdain's style is so breezy you won't mind that he often veers off topic. Discussing pubs in Scotland, he is typically relaxed: "This is mean of me, because I'm not going to give you its name --- and I'm certainly not going to tell you where it is --- or next time I go, there'll be a bunch of 'bloody Yanks' at the bar --- but a friend of mine took me to his local awhile back, on a narrow cobble-stone street in Edinburgh..."
Bourdain is at his best talking about things he loves: the Japanese obsession with quality, the dark vitality of the Russian frontier, the sense of community in small town Mexico. As the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, Bourdain-proclaimed Anthony Bourdain of nations, Vietnam is clearly his favorite, and it gets more time and pages than anyplace else. It sounds vain to be so magisterial with foreign cultures, but his snap judgments are actually quite endearing. Some of the Viet-centrism can also be explained by the book's credits section, which mentions one of Bourdain's earlier books called GONE BAMBOO (according to Bourdain it's the expat's term for going local, Vietnam-style) so maybe he just knows Vietnam better than anyplace else.
Because of the massive success of Bourdain's previous book, KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, A COOK'S TOUR is also a TV series on (what else?) the TV Food Network. It may or may not be a coincidence that A COOK'S TOUR the book resembles a TV series in some ways. Each chapter is a free standing episode that works without reference to the rest of the book --- at times Bourdain goes so far as to repeat anecdotes from earlier chapters as if you hadn't just read the same thing 50 pages ago. But mostly the arrangement works quite well, allowing the reader to read in small bits without getting lost. For those craving absolute continuity, the back flap includes an itinerary of Bourdain's adventures. In the end it doesn't really matter; there is no plot development to speak of. The rebel chef arrives, eats, records his impressions and moves on to eat again.
If you are sensing my ambivalence about what is truly a very enjoyable book, perhaps I can explain it this way: It seems silly to criticize what is essentially escapism for being too shallow, but I think, in this case, Bourdain is asking for it. Unlike his cronies on the Food Network, Bourdain isn't content to just mug for the camera. In his book he takes swipes at his readership, at other food celebrities, at the food porn culture in general. I like that idea, but I want more: I want critiques that sting a bit. The fact that Bourdain backs up his complaints with nothing more than quips is a problem. It doesn't ruin his book, far from it; A COOK'S TOUR is often a great read. But it does leave a bad taste in one's mouth.
Reviewed by Fred Kovey on January 21, 2011
A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal