Review: Anthony Bourdain’s 'A Cook’s Tour'

FOR THE FOODIE TRAVELER. Make the most out of your summer trips with this book from Anthony Bourdain. Cover photo from the 'Anthony Bourdain: A Cook's Tour' Facebook page

FOR THE FOODIE TRAVELER. Make the most out of your summer trips with this book from Anthony Bourdain.

Cover photo from the 'Anthony Bourdain: A Cook's Tour' Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines - In writing, we refer to a mysterious phenomenon which we call “voice,” which I always describe to my students and yet can never truly teach.

My simplest explanation for it is that "voice" is the translation of who you are, what you sound like, your linguistic background into your writing. Your original voice can get ironed out by years of oppressive teaching, or can get muffled by fear and anxiety when you sit down to write.

It isn’t achieved by just sitting down and getting words down on paper — it takes practice to know what you sound like, to know what sounds good, and to have the two meet in the middle somehow. A gifted writer knows how to translate the act of live speech into the written word, and still stay within the bounds of comprehensible, articulate writing.

A surprising contemporary master of the voice is Anthony Bourdain, the silver-haired, profane host of "No Reservations," "The Layover," and "Parts Unknown." As an unabashed Bourdain fangirl, I know exactly what he sounds like as a host — talkative, articulate, cranky, and occasionally insightful.

Watching one of his travel shows sounds like traveling with a badass uncle who’s seen it all. Going back to his writing, which is what made him a celebrity in the first place, rewards both fans of and newcomers to the cult of Bourdain.

If you’re part of his fanbase, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that Bourdain’s "A Cook’s Tour" isn’t just a transcription of episodes of "No Reservations." On the page, Bourdain is allowed to be more insightful and introspective than he is on TV. His essay on France, “Back to the Beach,” for example, is part travelogue on the French countryside, but also a memoir about how the France of his childhood shaped his development as a chef.

As a TV host, Anthony Bourdain is so over the top, and predictably grouchy to the point of caricature. However, the author Anthony Bourdain is allowed to become a more multi-faceted person, with insecurities, jealousies, hangups, and fears. 

One great example of how the essay form lets him transcend his TV personality is his essay on Vietnam, “The Burn.” The overarching mood of the essay, and the flow of the entire trip through Saigon, is an attempt to suppress his guilt over America and Vietnam’s shared history, and the frivolity of making a travel show in a war-torn country.

Here's part one of 'A Cook's Tour' in Singapore:

And so the whole essay becomes a romp through exotic snake wine, fresh spring rolls on the river, the artifacts of dead GIs, an interview with a chic, sharp-tongued restaurateur who is also Vietnam’s first female lawyer. Unfortunately, he’s never able to escape the horror of Vietnam’s history, nor his complicity in it as an American, and one making a show about the country, at that. 

One of the greatest things about Bourdain in "A Cook’s Tour" is that he doesn’t just make you want to eat — he wants you to eat local, eat authentic, and to eat it respectfully. Underneath all the gruffness and profanity is a deep love for food and the people who make it. The parts where he writes about food translate his passion brilliantly — his descriptions are so evocative that it often feels like you’re seeing and tasting the food yourself instead of just reading about it.

For instance, his description of his first raw oyster and how it got him interested in food made me rethink how I’ve been tasting oyster my whole life. If anything, read Bourdain for his gift of description, and how he provides a rich, sensuous experience for his readers.

Of course, the strong Bourdain voice is not without its flaws. One of Bourdain’s weaknesses as a writer is his underwhelming dialogue. As authentic as his first person voice sounds, he simply cannot capture the dialogue of other people. Somehow, it always comes out trite and scripted, as in the conversation between him and his brother in “Back to the Beach”:

...Chris did his best to pull me out from under whatever dark cloud was gathering. ‘Relax! You need a drink or something? Jesus, Tony. You can have all the Lucky Charms you want now! I saw a supermarche in Arcachon. We can go buy a box right now.’

‘It’s okay,’ [Bourdain] said, jolted back into the present. ‘I don’t know. I think I miss Dad.’

‘Me too,’ said Chris. 

Overall, "A Cook’s Tour" is an inspiring read. If you’re an aspiring food writer, travel writer, or both, there’s a lot you can learn from Bourdain and his journeys. Pick up a copy for your next trip, and you might start to love food just as much as he does. -

Florianne L. Jimenez teaches Literature and College Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a Palanca award-winning non-fiction writer, with a creative interest in the self, places, and consciousness. She has a massive to-be-read pile dating back to 2008, which includes such titles as 'The Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,' 'Book 5 of Y: The Last Man,' and 'The Collected Works of TS Spivet: A Novel.'