Monday, November 12, 2007

A Cook's Tour


This is the 2nd book I've read about food. The first, referred to in an earlier post, was Last Chance to Eat, a volume from which I learned a great deal. I took notes. This book, actually a TV show turned into a book by a "chef" famous as a writer/personality, not for anything he's actually cooked, had a couple of pages of describing his meals at Arzak in Spain and The French Laundry in California which I copied because I plan to go to both places. Although the book is very well written, entertaining, and frequently amusing, the author's taste in food (or that of his Food Network patrons) is as far from mine as possible. Good writing about gross food cancels itself out. The only show I've ever watched on the Food Channel was Mario Eats Italy, before we went there 5 years ago. The show was entertaining but its contention that the gnocchi of Sorrento is the best in the world was proved wrong our first hour in that city. We've had better gnocchi in North Vancouver. Mario looks like a fun guy to run into in his restaurant. Bourdain, I'd run away from.
The books's subtitle, In Search of the Perfect Meal, sounds like a trite TV premise but a good goal for anyone who likes to eat. I gather that includes everybody. When not diving and frolicing in guts, Bourdain sprays French food words (without explaining them, like the kinder Last Chance to Eat author) I know I should learn. I continually suffer from lack of knowledge when I read menus in "fine dining" restaurants. This is somewhat made up for by my famliiarity with Japanese ingredients that flood the better restaurants in this and many other cities. While most of what he gorges happily on would make me ill to watch on TV, his written reaction to the Japanese national dish Natto is the same as mine. Nothing could be viler.
Although he certainly knows French food from childhood, he doesn't make it sound any more appealing, perhaps less so. He complains endlessly about having to do stuff for TV that doesn't interest him, but he's certainly interested in getting paid to eat and babble. I kept looking for some bit of wisdom, which is why I've entered this genre. Finally, towards the end of the book, upon his visit to the "pilgrimage site" The French Laundry in rural California, he has an epiphany worth wading through his book to get to. Unlike him, and all the other chefs he pals around with, the Laundry's Thomas Keller (whom I had never heard of until a few weeks ago) does not compete. The anti-Bourdain. The food Buddha.
"The one compliment'explains Keller,"that I enjoy most is someone saying, "This reminds me of"- and they'll tell you of this wonderful experience they had somewhere else." quoth Bourdain quoting Keller. And then he riffs on Memory, "a powerful tool in any chef's kit. Used skillfully, it can be devastatingly effective." "It's good enough when a dish somehow reminds you of a cherished moment...When those expectations and preconceptions are then routinely exceeded, you find yourself happily surprised." p. 248
In recent visits to some excellent restaurants, memory has had a lot to do with my enjoyment of various meals. I'm not surprised the creators of those meals were doing it intentionally. "Cherished moments" are the ones we most seek to summon, by definition.
"We remain the kids we were, and our ideas stay rooted in our autobiographies, far more than is usually assumed. Those bios are not mere backdrop for the thoughts. The thoughts don't exist apart from the lives in which they are embedded. They are warp and woof."
"The Autobiography of an Idea," by Rick Salutin, The Walrus, Nov. 2007.
We are what we have eaten. The more memorable, the better.

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