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Anthony Bourdain’s First Cookbook in Over a Decade is Not What You'd Expect

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Anthony Bourdain has been a driving force in the food world my entire career. I read Kitchen Confidential, the raucous tell-all restaurant world memoir that launched his career, on the back stoop of my first restaurant job each morning before the kitchen was unlocked. I gave it to the busboy when I was done.

The man, the mystery himself.
The man, the mystery himself. Photo by Lwp Kommunikáció

Later, at my first media job, I transcribed pretty much everything Bourdain said on television for an Eater column called The Quotable Bourdain. Accordingly, I’ve seen every episode of his shows No Reservations, most of Parts Unknown, and the entirety of the short-lived Bradley Cooper-starring fictionalized TV version of Kitchen Confidential. Known for his biting one-liners and habit of calling out the mediocrities he saw in food celebrities like Guy Fieri or Sandra Lee, he was always good for a sound bite. The man could sneeze and I’d have a post up in ten minutes. I met him a couple times, interviewed him once on a moody, windy, rainy beach in the Caribbean while drinking Dark ‘n Stormys. (I swear this actually happened.)

This is just my version of the timeline since 2000, when Kitchen Confidential was first published. But everyone who has come up in the food world since then has done so under the influence of Bourdain. A whole generation thought Kitchen Confidential’s warnings against the pirate ship world of restaurants were a dare to set sail. They cheered Bourdain on as he railed against Paula Deen in this interview, bemoaned truffle oil in that one. They lined up at his book signings, bought tickets to his speaking engagements, and called him “chef” long after he hung up his whites.

In recent years, though, these pirate chefs have quieted and the food landscape has shifted to become a touch more subdued. A floundering Food Network has left us with a dearth of straw chefs to knock down (save Guy Fieri), and chefs who once wanted to be rock stars are now vying for one of 50 spots on a prestige listicle, or playing food activist at international conferences.

As for Bourdain, he quit smoking. Became enamored of cinematography and moved his show from Travel Network to CNN. Had a kid. The bad boy chef persona gave way to that of a soulful world traveler.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Which brings us to today: Bourdain has written a cookbook. Appetites is his first cookbook in over a decade; his first since leaving the world of professional cooking behind. Not to say this is a career capstone—that is surely still coming, and besides, this book is somewhat lacking in the high poetry you find on Bourdain’s TV show, Parts Unknown, or in his other written works.

“This is our family cookbook,” writes Bourdain. It’s dedicated to his elementary school-aged daughter Ariane and her buddy Jacques; both are pictured in the book with their faces obscured, generally by vegetables. Bourdain explains that he made the conscious decision to write books and appear on television—to become famous—but he wants to let his daughter grow up and “make those kinds of decisions for herself. It would be wrong for me, or anyone else, to make those decisions for her.” This gesture sets a sweet, thoughtful tone for the rest of the book.

The recipes are all clearly meant to be used, and often: “They’ve been developed over time,” writes Bourdain, ”and have been informed by repetition and long—and often painful—experience.” In other words, the recipes weren’t developed specifically for the book. Rather, the book was developed to collect Bourdain’s workhorse recipes, the ones he makes for his family all the time.

Which means, yes, you’ll actually be able to cook them, but it doesn’t mean they’ll all be simple. He is still Anthony Bourdain, after all. Recipes fall into several categories: Some are family recipes that harken back to both Bourdain’s and his wife Ottavia’s childhoods (his mom’s meatloaf; recipes from her Sardinian relatives), others are recipes from Bourdain’s travels around the world (Macanese street food and Korean fried chicken). There are a number of nods to the family’s home in New York City—bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, Sunday gravy—and plenty of throwbacks to Bourdain’s cheffing days.

Throughout the book, these categories warp and twist around each other, mutating over the years as beloved recipes tend to do. An acai bowl recipe appears at a glance to be Bourdain kowtowing to the mommy blogger brigade, when actually it’s both a nod to his travels in Brazil and to his wife’s intensive jiujitsu training. He applies decades of experience cooking brunch to “providing efficient pancake service to sleepover parties,” and the result is conversational breakfast essays too loose to really be considered full recipes. He provides an entire chapter on cooking Thanksgiving dinner alongside a detailed preparation timeline that would be as easily followed in an army mess hall as in a home kitchen. (And, I imagine, will be followed to the letter in many homes come November.)

I tested recipes that I hoped would bring out the best of these latter-day Bourdain tropes. And, thanks to a clear and confident recipe style, I successfully produced the following: Budae Jjigae, a delicious concoction that mixes American foods like hot dogs and baked beans into a Korean-style soup with kimchi and rice cakes, was pretty simple and tasted like God’s own spicy SpaghettiOs. The meatloaf, an old restaurant dish inspired by Bourdain’s mom’s recipe, was traditional yet luxe, served with a killer mushroom gravy. The wedge salad, a classic dressed up with Vietnamese-style fried shallots, was predictably a crowd-pleaser. And it’s easy to see why the healthy, bright, simple roast beets with orange and mint are his daughter’s favorite.

The only issue I had with any of the recipes was in the Saffron Risotto recipe—a dish I made because the headnote mentions a restaurant method for half-cooking risotto ahead of time, and then finishing it when guests arrive, thus avoiding the typically laborious risotto process. Bourdain actually likes this particular trick so much he mentions it in the introduction as well.

But the recipe? It doesn’t explain how to pull it off. As near as I can tell, you pause when the rice is cooked halfway, but then what? Chill it? Leave it at room temperature? Unclear. I did my best, by which I mean I googled the technique and pulled the risotto when it was half-cooked, spreading it in a casserole and chilling it until dinner. I should note that if you’re looking to make risotto the old fashioned way, without stopping halfway through, it works like a dream. But cookbooks should be judged on how well they make good on promises, and this particular recipe did not deliver.

Burger people among us: Flip to the back of Bourdain's book, and you'll find this.
Burger people among us: Flip to the back of Bourdain's book, and you'll find this. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Still, the majority of the recipes are winners, both weekday warriors and dinner party showpieces alike. Apart from a few voicey narrative recipes in the breakfast chapter that opt for admonishments like “toast your goddamn muffins” and “If Jacques Pépin tells you this is how you make a fucking egg? The matter is settled” over actual measurements, the recipes trade Bourdain’s voice for a more traditional, dry tone. They do occasionally assume a bit of knowledge on the part of the reader, but for the most part they’re clear, straightforward, and well-tested. They’re not the easiest recipes I’ve ever seen—the names of chefs like Escoffier and Robuchon pop up more than once—but a home cook of middling skill can probably tackle most of them.

Bourdain begins his self-professed family cookbook by asking a question: “What is it that ‘normal’ people do? What makes a ‘normal’ happy family? How do they behave? What do they eat at home? How do they live their lives?” Bourdain, it seems, has seen himself as an outsider for most of his life, writing “Normal people [have] been my customers. They were abstractions, literally shadowy silhouettes in the dining rooms.”

These almost sinister abstractions of normal families that Bourdain describes seeing through the swinging kitchen doors of the 80s and 90s arguably never existed. Instead, Appetites represents a normal of Bourdain’s own creation, one that he leads not only his daughter into but, whether he intended to or not, an entire generation of food lovers as well.

This book represents what he wants his daughter to learn from him, sure. But these are also heirloom recipes for a generation of kids who grew up devouring everything they could get their hands on, teaching themselves to cook from books and from television, and following Bourdain on his adventures around the world. These kids grew up to open food trucks and bakeries, write cookbooks and grow vegetable gardens. And Appetites is their—our—messy, globally-inspired, classically-trained, restaurant-loving, food-crazed, normal family cookbook.

Tags: Cookbooks