The colossal irony of the Food Network series on which this book is based is the heart felt statements in the author's previous book `Kitchen Confidential' that he will never get his own Food Network series. He goes on in that book to say some rather unflattering things about Emeril Lagasse that seem to be a guarantee that his prediction will come true.
Well, Anthony Bourdain got his own Food Network show, and it is, to my lights, the most enjoyable travelogue style show they have ever done. I will warrant the prediction that it will also be the most enjoyable travelogue show they will ever do. I think the original 16 to 18 episodes are even better than the `second season' episodes he did which were not in this book. In the follow-up episodes, Bourdain (or his handlers) tend to start parodying themselves and make more coy, self-referential statements such as the cute business when Tony is in New Orleans and he gets slugged by matronly women for dissing their favorite son, Emeril.
In case you are not familiar with the Bourdain persona, I can quote a local paper's comparison to Emeril as the Food Network's star student, Alton Brown as the class nerd, and Tony Bourdain as the perennial juvenile delinquent. That is not to say Bourdain's view of things is juvenile. It is, in fact, as insightful as any other culinary commentary. The difference between Bourdain and other culinary travelers is that Bourdain is telling us about things from the inside, from the point of view of palate, tongue, nose, ears, and tummy. He is also talking from the inside in that he has been a working cook and chef for his whole life, who has seen just about everything the other culinary journalists have seen and more, including a stint at a childhood in France. The sardonic twist which gives Bourdain's reporting an outlaw flavor just adds to the entertainment value.
One of the more successful realizations of this book is the author's interpretation of `Extreme Cuisines' in the subtitle. This includes all the expected venues such as a boatride up the Southeast Asian River to Cambodia, with more than a few references to `Apocalypse Now' and trips to Spain, Morocco, Russia, Mexico, Japan, and Scotland. How can you expect an exotic foods show not include haggis. But Bourdain also includes the very tame and very safe venue in Napa Valley called the French Laundry. While this site may be free of iguana meat or eels or lamb testicles, it is not safe for Bourdain's psyche and self-respect. This is the home ground of Thomas Keller, arguably the most distinguished chef in the country.
To insulate himself from facing the Olympian cuisine of Keller alone, and to insure that he gets his invite for himself and his camera crew, Bourdain sits down to the meal with three very well-connected colleagues. These three musketeers are Scott Byron, the chef at the New York City restaurant Veritas, Michael Ruhlman, a journalist / chef and co-author of Keller's cookbook, and Eric Rippert, one of the most highly regarded chefs in New York City. As predicted, Bourdain is humbled by the French Laundry tasting menu. As an at best journeyman chef in a somewhat better than average New York bistro, Bourdain ponders his wasted talents when he sees what Keller has done with food. I'm sure Bourdain is crying all the way to the bank with proceeds from his journalistic products.
One of Tony's colleagues has said Bourdain is a better writer than he was a chef. I believe it, because his writing is as entertaining as the professional writer Ruhlman, and even a touch more insightful due to his true insider's point of view.
Not quite as good as `Kitchen Confidential' but it does have all the stuff the Food Network could not show on television. Highly recommended.