Archive for the ‘Book’ Category

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The Nasty Bits

April 6, 2007

Nasty Bits
The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones

Anthony Bourdain

Full disclosure: I got the book for free (Thanks Eric!)

I love Anthony Bourdain. I think he is a very lucid observer of the food and restaurant world, although he does have many biases (none that he hides really.) Kitchen Confidential was a funny, informative and incredibly entertaining book. The same can be said about A Cook’s Tour. Even though you can, and probably will, call bullshit on him on more than one occasion, in any of his books, the reality is that I always finish his books with a huge smile on my face.

The Nasty Bits, just like Kitchen Confidential, is a somewhat disjointed collection of writings that makes use of most of Bourdain’s talents. From commentaries about the state of fine dining to an acerbic critique of the James Beard Foundation through the joys of world travel and the love of his fellow cooks, Bourdain covers a lot of ground. The whole thing is a bit of a mess but each of those articles make for an entertaining read, once again.

Bourdain has the gift of being himself, of enticing curiosity and of spectacular description all at the same time, something that you rarely see in food writing. When Bourdain loves, he loves with passion. When he loathes, he loathes with passion. Like the ex-junkie that he is, there are no half-measures both in his writing and with his persona. That brings two different results: he goes way overboard and is funny as all hell or he goes way overboard and you just call bullshit on his shenanigans, both results are equally fun for me to read. Much like Hunter Thompson, that he rips off lovingly in this book, Bourdain brings the whole food world to a new level of consciousness that you never thought he had at first. Nasty Bits is like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, the Food version.

Tunes: With Bourdain’s fondness for old school punk I have no other choice but to recommend The Germs’ (MIA): The Complete Anthology for the finest in L.A. Punk with Darby Crash at the helm and Pat Smear anchoring the rhythm section, great stuff. Since I am a little younger than Mr Bourdain, I would personally would have gone with Black Flag, Damaged. Damaged is quite possibly my favorite hardcore record of all time and makes you forget what became of Henry Rollins afterwards (see: Johnny Mnemonic.)

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The United States of Arugula

December 3, 2006

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation

By David Kamp

The United States has come through many phases in its development towards a force in world’s gastronomy. In a very descriptive and well researched essay on the world of food in the US, David Kamp follows most of the major figures in the country’s evolution since the lat 1800s.

Kamp has a very accessible writing style and pages after pages he describes the people and the events that forged the gastronomy of the United States. Kamp sounds so wide-eyed and excited of actually writing this text that he put forth some of the most enthusiastic writing I have read. This naivety and excitement by the author is endearing but also introduces most of the problems with this book.

This book is very uncritical about any of the figures that are exposed here and even the most hypocritical actions of some of those chefs are barely touched, if ever mentioned. Never, does Kamp attempt to draw conclusions or expose any kind of opinion about events, even though if you read between the lines you can clearly see his opinion. This manipulation of the language honestly pisses me off, when you want to say something, say it, don’t beat around the bush and try to make it as such as everything is done in some sort of journalistic integrity that you cannot even accomplish. My other problem with the book is that Kamp writes as if the majority of the United States citizens are foodies, which is obviously not the case because Kraft and General Foods would not be in such good financial states. Throughout the text he hints that “we” are eating lamb shoulder, Chateaubriand and lobster every week. I understand that the audience of this book are mostly gourmets, but to generalize on the entire United States population is a bit much.

That said, Kamp’s book is extremely entertaining. From James Beard, Julia Childs and Craig Claiborne to Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter and the Food TV types, he goes through most of the important chefs, journalist and events of the 20th century. Being a journalist I think Kamp give a bit too much weight to the foood critics that apparently made or broke some of the chefs presented here. While I understand the contribution of the writer, a bad review has never stopped a good chef from succeeding at some other place. Still, the book is amazingly researched and incredibly complete in its range.

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Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

October 10, 2006

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

Bill Buford

 

In Heat, we follow Buford as he encounters star chef Mario Batali and decide to follow Batali’s path to becoming a chef through the different people that have influenced his cooking. More than that, Buford also enlists as a kitchen help in Batali’s three star restaurant: Babbo. Buford, nothing more than a foodie at the time, gets to learn from the best in the business in one of the most celebrated and busy kitchen in New York. The book also doubles as a biography of sort for Batali and following his rise to the top of the culinary world, from apprentice to Food TV.

 

Heat is a terrific read if you are in any way shape or form interested in the food business, how kitchens are run and how difficult it can be to work in the conditions these people work. Kitchens in high end restaurants are just like the ones in corner dinner, simply hot, filthy messes that there is a good chance that your meal has been seasoned with sweat and some other people’s food. More to that is the physically demands required by a job where you are in front of a very hot grill, standing up for 9 hours at a time without any breaks. From preparation the ingredients in the morning to the cooking and serving of those same ingredients at night, every step is on the clock, one fatal mistake can halt everything for a long time. The pressure is something a kitchen thrives on apparently and as Buford dutifully explains when in particularly tense situation:

 

“It was, I concluded, my first glimpse of what Mario had described as ‘the reality of the kitchen’- a roomful of adrenaline addicts”

 

Heat is more than just the memoir of a man trying to survive in busy kitchen, which he did admirably BTW, despite the cuts and bruises and the fact that he is in his late forties. Heat is about a quest of culinary knowledge bordering on the obsessive. What starts with Buford interviewing and getting to know Batali’s past as a chef soon evolves in a full fledge mania about the history of Italian cuisine and a search for the authentic in a country with as many variations on a dish as there is regions. The simplicity and the charm of Italian cuisine soon takes center stage as he interns and interviews some of the people trying to keep the cuisine as authentic as possible in a context where cuisine is as much global in its influences as it is local, cooking with local ingredients being increasingly important.

 

The Tuscan Dante-Quoting butcher of the title is the incredibly entertaining, but also troubled, Dario Cecchini. The most famous butcher in the world it is said of him, but he is also a fierce defendant of Tuscan cuisine that yells at “unworthy” customers and throws balsamic vinegar of the floor of local restaurants (it is from Emilia-Romagna). Cacchini is troubled by the fact that his Tuscan heritage is disappearing all around him and he doesn’t seem to be able to stop it, despite the fact that he is doing the food cop all around his small town. Buford comes into this situation and gets to learn from the Maestro himself and also gets to reflect on the state of Italian cooking, where it came from and where it is going.

 

The book addresses some of the important questions about Italian cooking as it found today and the way it has evolved, or rather, not evolved since the renaissance. It touches on sour subjects like Caterina de Medicis’ passage to France and how that might have influenced French cooking, probably the most recognized cooking in the world. The leaves us on a question mark and certainly another volume from Buford that seems as passionate and as manic in his research about cooking than anything he has done before. The tone of this book is incredibly light and fun and describes with accuracy the culinary underworld, as Anthony Bourdain would say, and describes Batali as would Rabelais in all his excess and charms. In the end, Batali only seems like a jumpstart to Buford’s awkward quest that becomes a lot more entertaining than anything Batali has done. One more on the plus side, the food descriptions are mouth watering.