The Nasty Bits, Anthony Bourdain

Bloomsbury, 2007 reprint of 2006 original, 288 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN-978-1-59691-360-8

In my continued quest to read all of Anthony Bourdain’s written output, I am now left to digest the “collected varietal cuts, usable trim, scraps and bones” of his career so far.  Or, in more prosaic terms, a collection of various pieces written following the runaway success of Kitchen Confidential and his rise as a celebrity food writer.  The Nasty Bits brings together 36 non-fiction pieces, accompanied by a fiction novelette and an essential appendix that comments on the various pieces.  The non-fiction content is subdivided in thematic seconds meant to evoke the five basic tastes, but the real flavour here is Bourdain’s punk-rock approach to food and travel writing.

A standout piece, for instance, is “Food and Loathing in Las Vegas”, a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired piece in which Bourdain describes his first visit to the new Las Vegas food scene.  As entertaining commentary wrapped in semi-fictional homage to its source material, it’s a laugh –and prior to Bourdain’s influence, it’s not always the kind of writing you could find in food/travel magazines.  Much of The Nasty Bits is unpretentious travel writing liberally seasoned with descriptions of good food: Bourdain’s prose is seldom less than fascinating, and he’s got a knack for living interesting experiences.  They don’t all have to involve eating strange new bugs in third-world countries: In “The Love Boat”, Bourdain tries to survive on a posh cruise liner with an in-cabin kitchenette and an on-board gourmet grocer: It’s a look at high-end decadent living from a reformed line cook, and it’s about as interesting a confrontation of world-views as you can imagine.  (More importantly, Bourdain manages to cook a perfect risotto with what he’s given on-board.)

Other pieces stand out for less-charming reasons.  Bourdain’s never been shy to criticize what he sees as being wrong with food culture, and in “Woody Harrelson: A Culinary Muse” takes aim at the actor for insisting on a vegan diet and ignoring what local food culture had to offer while traveling abroad.  Such openness to world cuisine (and Asian food in general) is a hallmark of Bourdain’s writing, and several other pieces document his growing fascination with the world of gastronomic possibilities.  An interesting pair of pieces in this regard are “Notes from the Road” and “Die, Die Must Try”, presenting Bourdain’s brutal first visit to Singapore and a far friendlier follow-up.

Such growth as a person and as a writer is an essential part of The Nasty Bits, allowing us to follow Bourdain’s quick evolution as Kitchen Confidential, then his TV shows, gradually opened more possibilities for him.  From a humble cook with a troubled past to a world-traveling food writer, Bourdain has grown up in public in the six years between Kitchen Confidential and The Nasty Bits, and this evolution is reflected here in many ways, between pieces but also in the second thoughts that ends the book.  In “Sleaze Gone By”, he wears his scrappy New York formative influences like a badge of honour in recalling with some fondness the rougher pre-Giuliani neighbourhoods he used to frequent.  But significantly, the back of the book commentary takes it back: “A pretty glib, wildly over-romanticized look at the New York City of my misspent youth.” [P.285])

Some other pieces stand out because of their unusual subject matter.  In “Warning Signs”, Bourdain describes a well-known London steakhouse chain and itemizes ten reasons why the place ought to be closed down; “The Good, Old Stuff” discusses how several restaurants still serve unfashionable food straight from decades past; “Viva Mexico! Viva Ecuador” pays tribute to the hard-working immigrants toiling away in American kitchens; “When the Cooking’s Over” discusses what chefs do after their shift is done, with several examples in various cities; “The Cook’s Companion” provides an essential bibliography of great writing about the real life of restaurants; and “System D” borrows from the French to explain one of the essential traits of any competent kitchen worker.

A special mention should also be made of “A Chef’s Christmas”, which showcases Bourdain’s fiction credentials to a wider audience.  The piece itself isn’t particularly refined (it self-consciously relies on a rich deus ex snowstorm to provide a happy ending, and seems to hop in-between half a dozen characters’ viewpoint almost at random in only thirty pages.) but it’s an entertaining change of pace from the non-fiction pieces and as witty as Bourdain can be.

All of it amounts to a collection that Bourdain fans will find essential.  The Nasty Bits is not the best introduction to Bourdain’s work (For that, try Kitchen Confidential, or the No Reservation TV series), but it’s a good satisfying read.

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