Saturday, 2 February 2008

A Visual Feast

A hazard of reviewing a book you bought yourself and actually liked is that the review will never be published, not do the book justice, or both. Thank goodness I liked this one enough to keep it.



More or less of the same
Anthony Bourdain certainly has a way with words, as well as with food. Of course, being the bold soul that he is, there’s always another medium he wants to experiment with

first published in The Star, 02 February 2008

When I managed to get my hands on an unwrapped copy, I eagerly went through the pages. Why were they so thick, I wondered. Then, as I encountered page after page after page of pictures, I understood. It didn't help my disappointment, though.

Why, Tony, why? I mean, you used to ... write! You know, making words with a pen or word processor? What's with this glossy Technicolor travel scrapbook? You don't even cook anymore! What went wrong?

No Reservations
Around the World on an Empty Stomach

Anthony Bourdain
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
288 pages
Non-Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-7475-9412-3
To the uninitiated, "Tony" is Anthony Bourdain, that acerbic, trash-talking chef who made a splash in the entertainment biz with his book Kitchen Confidential.

He's currently the host of the travel/food show No Reservations, who has traded his sauté pan for a word processor, occasionally writing articles for food-related publications in between his travels and appearances on other food-related shows.

His latest book, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, is a collection of snapshots from the series of the same name.

Many of the pictures have appeared on the show's web site; the article on his Beirut show (rudely interrupted by the Hizbollah-triggered Israeli invasion of Lebanon) was published earlier on salon.com. It is a departure from his previous works, which he acknowledges and apologises for.

Sorry, Tony. It'll be a while before I can forgive you.

We are introduced to the members of the filming crew, before being taken on a whirlwind tour of the best and worst places of the series. There's even a list of addresses, which includes "The Place Under The Big Tree" (a steamed fish head eatery in Sungai Besi).

Rounding up all that is a travel tip section, food pictures, and a list of essentials for the typical travel show host.

Even though light on words, the commentary still retains its edge. The placement of some pictures also hint at the darker side of his personality.

In one photo he's holding a piglet with a strange smile on his face and a gleam in his eye. On the opposite page is a breakfast platter with eggs, sausage and bacon. "No piglets were harmed in this production." Yeah, right.

Another example of his wit is a helpful tip on finding the absolutely best place for your favourite food: start a flame war in a food forum.

Local fans would be pleased to know Bourdain has nothing but nice words for Malaysia (in addition to neighbouring Indonesia and Singapore).

The Malaysian episode of No Reservations, he enthuses, was among the nicest in the series. He also has nothing but praise for the durian. Who could hate a gwailo like that?

That being said, he is neither shy nor evasive about the things and places he doesn't like. Uzbekistan wasn't particularly pleasant while Iceland was boring. Then there was this one nasty meal he had in Namibia. Graphic examples of hazards encountered while filming (mosquito bites and mysterious welts) have a section of their own, as well as a small sample of bathrooms he and his crew have visited.

For those who appreciate the kind of writing Anthony Bourdain does, this book is a disappointment – at first, anyway. The pictures are nice, as are the captions, commentaries and whatever writing is available.

But, somehow, it still feels ...incomplete. He has voiced his doubts (in another book) about his ability to translate the beauty and sensory wonders he's experienced into words.

No Reservations (the book and the series) feels more like a personal project than a profit-making venture. For all his bluster, sarcasm and profligate use of the f-word, Bourdain's a pretty honest, friendly and sentimental guy.

And, of course, he loves food, and the people who make it. He may have left the kitchen, but his heart's still there.

Never mind that half the material has already been published. If anything, it gives a much clearer picture of Bourdain and his new life’s mission.

So clear in fact, a friend of mine actually felt inspired to follow in his footsteps. Looking at a picture of Bourdain, smiling beatifically with the ruins of Machu Picchu behind him, I couldn't blame her. He looks like he's having the time of his life.

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