New York's culinary bad boy, Anthony Bourdain, will be in Houston soon promoting his latest release, Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. The book is an interesting balancing act between Bourdain's persona as a whistle-blower and his gig as a chef in New York's French restaurant Les Halles.
In his best-selling restaurant exposé, Kitchen Confidential, for instance, Bourdain warned diners that "mussels in restaurants are allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss." In the Les Halles Cookbook, he gives us his restaurant's recipe for them with a headnote that reads, "I know, I know I have famously frightened hundreds of people from eating mussels. But you'll be handling and cooking these mussels yourselves, and presumably you'll be more conscientious than some college student with a part time cook's job at a sports bar."
According to the promotional materials for the new book, Bourdain "acts as a drill sergeant as he insults and cajoles his newest kitchen recruit -- the reader -- through the classic dishes of French bistro cuisine." If you like your beef well done, Bourdain advises, "You don't deserve to eat this dish. See you at the Sizzler." If your green beans are limp, he says: "You've screwed up. Do it again."
Asked why he chose this tone, Bourdain replied, "Hopefully it was entertaining. This is the way we learn in the restaurant business: a slap on the hand when you scorch a sauce and a pat on a head when you do it right. This is the way I have taught countless dishwashers how to cook."
Was he trying to make it sound like boot camp? "Nah," says Bordain. "I was going for something more like a good, if slightly obnoxious, friend.
"Slightly obnoxious, yeah, I think that's me," Bourdain continues. What he was trying to avoid, he says, was another volume of food porn. He has little interest in coffee table books full of pretty food pictures. The cover of the Les Halles Cookbook is brown for a reason, he says. It is intended to get dirty.
"I have some strong opinions," he says, "and if I can, in my own way, dissuade people from committing food crimes, then I will."
There are a few food crimes Bourdain wants to stamp out. "I think snobbery and squeamishness are sins when it comes to food," he says. One common idea he wishes to shoot down: the claim that you have to have the best ingredients to cook French food. "A lot of this food came from real poverty," he says. "It's always been made with second-best ingredients."
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That's not the only philosophical bubble Bourdain wants to pop. "Food is about pleasure for me," he says, "and I am wary of any orthodoxy or overlying philosophy. An organic, sustainable wonderland is all well and good, but there are hungry people in the world. And if a farm-raised fish tastes better than a wild fish, then I'm going to eat it, even if a few wild fish get sick."
And what about genetically modified foods? "We have been genetically modifying things for centuries to make food; I have an open mind on the subject, I am not knee-jerk against it. It may be a menace to some, but again, there are a lot of hungry people in the world. I am more threatened by Kraft singles."
Bourdain won't be doing much for the Food Network in the future. "They wanted me to go to tailgate parties and dude ranches. I said, 'Fuck that, let Bobby Flay do that,' " he says. "So next year I have a contract to write a book about living in a small fishing village in Vietnam for a whole year."
Bourdain will appear from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, November 15, at the new Sur La Table in The Woodlands (9595 Six Pines, 281-298-7320), where he'll be signing copies of the Les Halles Cookbook. He'll also give a cooking lesson at Central Market (3815 Westheimer, 713-993-9860) from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, November 16. The class includes a demonstration on how to cook mussels, among other things.