Taste for travel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Saun­ders

No Reser­va­tions: Around the World on an Empty Stom­ach By An­thony Bour­dain Blooms­bury, 288pp, $ 35 Food: the His­tory of Taste Edited by Paul Freed­man Thames & Hud­son, 368pp, $ 75

AT first glance, th­ese two books could not be more dif­fer­ent from each other. Food: the His­tory of Taste is a col­lec­tion of 11 es­says, richly il­lus­trated with works of art from China, Europe and the Mus­lim world, se­curely un­der­pinned by four pages of bib­li­og­ra­phy. Ev­ery one of its con­trib­u­tors be­longs to a univer­sity or a re­search in­sti­tute. By con­trast,

No Reser­va­tions is light on text and heavy on pic­tures ( win­ning snaps of our hero, the food he ’s eaten on his trav­els and the land­scape in which he has eaten it).

Yet they tell the same story, and the story is about how ev­ery so­ci­ety can be char­ac­terised by the food it eats and the way in which it pre­pares that food. The schol­arly book as­pires to be global. It doesn ’t quite suc­ceed: the bias is Euro­pean, though there are chap­ters on im­pe­rial China and me­dieval Is­lam, and one on pre­his­tory that draws ev­i­dence from all over the world. But the fi­nal chap­ter, by Bel­gian his­to­rian Peter Schol­liers, ad­dresses the ex­cit­ing and strange en­vi­ron­ment in which many of us live to­day. We might visit an Ethiopian restau­rant, say, in the in­ner city, and hes­i­tate over spicy, raw, minced beef while con­grat­u­lat­ing our­selves on be­ing re­ally hap­pen­ing, global din­ers.

What you and I get by hit­ting the plas­tic down­town, An­thony Bour­dain gets by trav­el­ling the world. Not that he ’ s ex­actly the fear­less foodie equiv­a­lent of Cap­tain Cook ( a man who, in­ci­den­tally, pos­sessed the cast- iron stom­ach that all global ex­plor­ers needed).

No, he has gone around the planet with a cam­era crew and

No Reser­va­tions is the book of the television show. Yet there ’s a se­ri­ous story here and it be­gins with Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial , Bour­dain ’ s first work of non­fic­tion. ( He ’ s a crime nov­el­ist, too.)

Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial is Bour­dain ’ s best- sell­ing ac­count of his ed­u­ca­tion in the hard school of restau­rant life, where the cui­sine is French, no­body as­pires to great­ness and al­most ev­ery­body seems to be a ma­cho man ad­dled by drink and drugs. ( This is a world where women be­long front of house or in the white and quiet of the pas­try kitchen.) The re­sult was that Bour­dain be­came one of the best- known chefs in the world, even though he would prob­a­bly be the first to ad­mit that he was es­sen­tially just a com­pe­tent pro­fes­sional, not an in­spired and creative artist.

So there had to be a cook­book, and there was, rather a good one, help­ing the ama­teur cook to im­i­tate at home the busi­ness- like meth­ods of the French restau­rant kitchen. But it was clear Bour­dain ’ s in­ter­ests lay else­where.

No In fact, they were ev­ery­where else: Reser­va­tions takes in China, In­dia, Ja­pan, Korea, the foodie heaven that is Sin­ga­pore, Ghana, Si­cily, Mex­ico, Ar­gentina, and Beirut. Then there are less likely des­ti­na­tions such as Cleve­land, Uzbek­istan, Que­bec, Ice­land and Swe­den. There ’ s a chap­ter on Malaysia that reads very like some­thing out of

Heart of Dark­ness . Bour­dain was in a bad way when he went into the jun­gle: con­fused, emo­tion­ally wounded, at some sort of cross­roads. If you care about Bour­dain ( which I do), you ’ ll care about this.

In Food: The His­tory of Taste , chap­ters by Alain Drouard and El­liott Shore de­scribe the ori­gins of the world in which Bour­dain had his ed­u­ca­tion. The re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth in France fol­low­ing the revo­lu­tion cre­ated a new cus­tomer base, an ur­ban bour­geoisie, and the per­son­nel ready to sat­isfy their de­sires: skilled cooks who could no longer hope for em­ploy­ment in an aris­to­cratic house­hold. It also en­cour­aged a rel­a­tively new in­sti­tu­tion, the restau­rant ( new, that is, in Europe, though, as Joanna Wa­ley- Co­hen tells us in her chap­ter on im­pe­rial China, there had been pub­lic eat­ing places in Chi­nese cities since the 12th cen­tury). The re­sult, though, was not re­ally a na­tional cui­sine, but as Freed­man re­marks in his in­tro­duc­tion, a col­lec­tion of re­gional items turned into a grand cui­sine and then pruned for ex­port. And now it ’ s all nearly over.

Global French cui­sine spruced up for ex­port is be­gin­ning to look like a thing of the past, so per­haps Bour­dain was wise to get out when he did. The term gas­tro­porn ’’ was coined more

‘‘ than 20 years ago to de­scribe the sort of pic­tures you might en­counter in the pages of food mag­a­zines, which at the time would have meant ter­rines and mousses and food art­fully painted on large white plates. There ’ s a chap­ter called Food Porn in Bour­dain ’ s book and it de­picts things that would have once seemed de­cid­edly un­pho­to­genic: roast geese hang­ing up in Hong Kong, tofu awash with pep­per- laced oil, a burger in Los An­ge­les. That ’s what we want in the age of global gas­tron­omy: au­then­tic­ity, not ar­ti­fice.

Or, to put it an­other way, au­then­tic­ity is the new ar­ti­fice. Alan Saun­ders presents By De­sign and The Philoso­pher s Zone on ABC Ra­dio Na­tional.

La belle bistro:

Restau­rants around the world stay true to French tra­di­tions

Global gour­mand:

Celebrity chef An­thony Bour­dain

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