Bourdain cooks the books

Anthony Bourdain is one of the most recognisable chefs around but he’s the first to admit that it’s not necessarily for his cooking skills.

The New Yorker’s travel exploits have taken him worldwide in search of the most interesting cuisine and fun adventures, and along the way he’s picked up one or two great stories too, as he told a packed audience at the Cayman Cookout 2011.

“You don’t know my name because of my fabulous, creative improvisational skills in the kitchen; I had 28 chequered years and at no point in my life would a chef as gifted as Charlie Trotter let me work even as a prep cook and at no point in my career were my skills up to that level,” he said.

It was the book, Kitchen Confidential, which launched Bourdain’s career, plus his curiosity about the world that has taken him so far. He enjoys travelling and eating on the road, he said, as he took the audience through some of the things he’d learnt over the past ten years on the road such as where not to eat – Uzbekistan, for example.

“I don’t like clean, well-organised countries; I like messy, dysfunctional countries that are hot and full of passion and barely held together, where people get into six hour long fights over pans of spaghetti… where people are passionate about food you have more of an expectation because people are interested in food which to me makes them interesting.”

Oh, and if you were wondering how to get on the correct side of a sushi chef, don’t mix in the wasabi with the soy; pick up the roll with your scissored fingers and do ask the chef how to eat it properly.

“Chances are if it’s a good sushi bar it’s got enough on it already.”

Culinary background

Bourdain did in fact give a hint of his own culinary background at his lunch in Periwinkle, which was billed family-style dining. With such simple but delicious rustic French dishes as traditional Provencal fish soup, pissaladiere, grilled lamb chops, Gambas a la Plancha – grilled salted prawns – and grilled ribeye steak with herb butter, it was as eloquent a summation of his own style in the kitchen as you could hope for.

The brasserie-style lunch also featured Moules Basquaise – Basque mussels – in a tomato-based broth with peppers, garlic and spicy chorizo sausage.

“This is the kind of food I’d serve my family if we went to the beach,” he said and, as if to prove the point, took time to eat a dish of the mussels.

The French summer time fare was served with a crisp Sancerre wine from the Loire Valley and a Rose from Provence, an increasingly popular summertime afternoon wine.

Bourdain said attending the Cayman Cookout was something that was a highlight of his year.

“This is an event I look forward to all year long,” he said. “This is a big, big deal for me and my family.”

The TV show host said that are a few places he’s been, he said, that are surprisingly welcoming, such as Medellin in Columbia which is usually in the press for other reasons.

“People were so pleased that we weren’t there to make a programme about guns, gangs and coke.”

The chef took questions from the audience and – not for the first time, probably – explained how the production team decide on a location to visit.

“It’s no more complicated than being in a bar and the guy sitting next to me says ‘you should go to Panama to film a show’… or I’ll be watching Apocalypse Now and think, wow, Vietnam looks awesome.

“I am well aware that I have the best job in the world; me and my friends just sitting around drinking beer, looking at a map and saying ‘I just saw a cool film… let’s shoot an entire episode in black and white. Where would the best place be to do that? What will the network hate more than anything else? What will our fans hate more than anything else? Where can we do that – maybe Rome to do the Fellini thing… we want to get out there and play… we’re all film junkies and looking to tell stories in an interesting way,” he said.

And as with Cookout 2010, the Cuba question came up. During last year’s event, Bourdain explained that the crew were trying to visit for some filming. It never came through on that occasion, but there are still plans to visit Cayman’s neighbour.

“I’m hoping to do a baseball show before it becomes Miami South; [when] Fidel hits the ground, about five minutes later it’s [going to be] Miami,” he said. “I’d like to go there when the best baseball players are playing for $26 a month. It’s history; it may not be good history.

“We have a lot of trouble, every year [in trying to film there]. They say yes, yes, yes and then at the last minute it’s manana. We can’t make television when it’s manana – we need to make sure,” he said.