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Book 12: The Nasty Bits, Anthony Bourdain.

The death of Tony Bourdain earlier this year came as a nasty shock to the global food community. All those of us who make a living from cooking, running restaurants, writing about food, even from eating it, felt we'd lost one of our own. No writer had ever better expressed the somewhat marginal, slightly out of kilter life of the professional chef with more verve or accuracy, and few have done as much to make us feel as proud of what we do. Bourdain was real, he was a proper cook who came up banging out covers in restaurants of varying degrees of quality, a world away from the idealised aspirational plates of the Sunday supplements, or the latest gushing broadsheet review of some high concept place you'll never in a million years be able to afford. He was emphatically not a celebrity chef. He was a cook. Who along the way acquired a degree of celebrity.

He understood in his bones that sometimes it's just about getting it done, and this book collection of his journalism and random articles opens with perhaps the strongest piece here: "System D" the expose of the moves chefs make when under a bit too much pressure, a few too many covers, the pressing need to just get the fucking food out, leaning on steaks, slightly over-liberal use of the microwave or deep fat fryer (the "wet oven" to those in the know), the alternatives rustled up when that pea shoot garnish has just disappeared (anything green!), as well as even more dubious practices . It's a funny piece which manages to encapsulate a broad sweep of culinary history in a just a few pages, and will have any seasoned pro nodding and smiling wryly in recognition (though no such practices ever occur in my kitchen, I assure you. Ahem.)

Eslewhere it is, as you'd expect from a collection of journalism, a bit patchy. Some pieces are clearly written for a market (which Bourdain makes clear in an illuminating appendix detailing the reasoning behind each piece). It's interesting to see him developing his writing chops over time, gradually losing some of the more obnoxious edges which made Kitchen Confidential, such a compelling read in my twenties, something more of an eyebrow raiser once I'd grown up a bit. I could live without his overly street celebration of the grimier side of New York (and so could he, he eviscerates it in the appendix) and some pieces read as a bit dashed off. The short story at the end is trite and sentimental (though worth reading for the list of dishes concocted by its chef protagonist if, like me, you like that sort of thing).

Elsewhere there are interesting musings on schisms within chefdom ("Are you a Crip or a Blood?") which are food for thought for pros, and probably slightly mystifying to everyone else, and plenty of travelogue type pieces which are clear pointers to his later television career. There's also a slightly troubling piece from the set of one of those TV programmes, in which he jumps from a huge rock into the sea, not caring whether he lives or dies. It's unsettling to read in the aftermath of his suicide.

What you have here, ultimately, is something of a gumbo. Some delicious bits, some less interesting bits, and some bits that are downright confusing. Me? I like gumbo.


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