Book Review: The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain

The Nasty Bits is yet another book by Anthony Bourdain, whose overexposure is becoming somewhat legendary after Kitchen Confidential. This one is a collection of short pieces that he wrote for various magazines over the past few years.

As usual, Bourdain is at his best when digging in with gusto to a down-home local cuisine. He does have a knack for making friends with his love of food, and the obviously genuine zeal with which he can tuck into pretty frightening "delicacies" makes him entertaining. The opening couple of pages, where he shares a whole seal with an Inuit family is maybe hard to read for those of us that lead sheltered lives, but compelling. ("… frozen blackberries. She generously rolled a fistful of them around in the wet interior of the carcass, glazing them with blood and fat before offering them to me. They were delicious.")

And he’s at his worst when he drags out the pathetic macho chef schtick, combined with the sentimental longing for when he could cook, shoot up, and screw with the best of them. Believe me, not all kitchens or chefs are like this. I don’t doubt that he’s painting a fairly accurate picture of a certain place and time, but please take this stuff with a grain of salt.

If you take the time to read the notes in the back of the book, he actually admits as much. Referring to an essay where he waxes nostalgic about how dangerous New York used to be, he says "Who was I kidding? The bullshit meter is flashing bright red." Actually I think this book would be stronger if they included these notes right with each piece.

One article I found really interesting was about his visit to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, which is probably the most revolutionary restaurant of this generation. He admittedly went with the assumption that he would hate all this molecular gastronomy stuff. And he was blown away  by the incredible sophistication and flavor of the food. They spent several days together and made quite a good DVD showing Adria & Co.’s process. I had seen this a couple of years ago, and it is well worth getting. It was interesting to hear Bourdain’s perspective as everything he thought he knew about cooking was turned upside down.

The final, and longest, piece in the book is a piece of fiction called “A Chef’s Christmas”, in which a chef who has sold his soul for celebrity returns to his roots as a brilliant cook. The writing isn’t spectacular, but if you have the cooking bug you’ll be rooting for the characters.

Bottom line: if you liked Kitchen Confidential, you’ll probably want to read The Nasty Bits. He’s as hyperbolic as ever, and you might feel like you are listening to a three year old sometimes, but many of his criticisms of the elitist food world are spot-on, and his portraits of far-away adventures will fuel your wanderlust.

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Friday, March 7th, 2008 in Miscellany.

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