Wayback Review: Anthony Bourdain’s “The Nasty Bits”

Originally written in 2010 for The Green Man Review.  But felt like posting it again today, as I’m still in shock from the news of his sudden passing.  May he rest in peace, with the knowledge that he made a positive impact in so very many lives.

I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain.  Love No Reservations, thoroughly enjoyed (and sometimes eek-ed out by) Kitchen Confidential…heck, I even liked A Cook’s Tour.  Those of you who think this is gonna be a puff piece?  You’d pretty much be right.  But with The Nasty Bits that’s a good thing; anyone who wants to know what it’s like to eat, cook and enjoy food like a chef should read this book.  Folks into really getting to know places they travel to – or just armchair dreamers like me – will also find a lot to sink their teeth into.  (What, a gal can’t make a pun every now and then?)

The Nasty Bits is a collection of articles that have been previously published in foodie publications, travel magazines and elsewhere. The articles are sorted into five main sections that correspond to our basic tastes; Salty, Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Umami, that difficult to put into English taste that is typically thought of as “savory”.  (Think sauteed mushrooms, lightly seasoned seaweed, roasted carrots….)  The articles in each section correspond to each taste, which makes sniffing around to find what you want pretty easy.  You want a glorious article about NYC?  Check out “My Manhattan” in the Sweet section.  Tony Bourdain smack-talking?  That’d be “Is Celebrity Killing The Great Chefs?” in Sour.  Or perhaps you’re like me and love to hear him when he’s on his soapbox.  “The Evildoers” in Salty or “Food Terrorists” in Bitter could be just the thing. 

I’m over-generalizing here; anyone who has read or seen the man in action knows that like a good meal, there are many levels to Bourdain. An individual article (or episode) can contain several flavors if you just sit back and enjoy.  “Counter Culture” in Salty is an example.  The piece starts out with Tony railing against “chefs” that try to tell diners how to eat, then transforms into a bit of indescribably delicious Umami as he talks about the way top chefs have turned to the diner for inspiration.  He ends with an uplifting, Sweet bit of praise for those chefs who have dared to tone down the fussiness of haute cuisine so enjoyment becomes the order of the day.  It’s a great piece that gives you insight to the business with a touch of food porn, plus you walk away learning something.

The articles here vary in length; from “A Drinking Problem”, a quick-n-dirty bit on the British pub scene, to longer travel features like “Food And Loathing In Las Vegas” and “The Love Boat”.  I could discuss my love for each article, but I’ll give an amuse-bouche or three.  Just enough so you’ve got the idea and want a bit more.

“Evildoers” takes aim at the fast food industry and our obsession with overindulging on crap food.  It’s a quick, to-the-point argument for people everywhere to get their food act together.  I’d like to see this piece, along with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (sorry Tony) dropped on the doorstep of the White House.  Because something does need to change, and “Evildoers” outlines exactly why.  “Viva Mexico!  Viva Ecuador!” talks about something I surely hope everyone knows; typically, the people cooking your food aren’t from the region you’ve come in to enjoy unless it happens to be Central or South America.  It’s a slap to culinary grads who think they’re too good for “real” work but can’t seem to find a job, and to the restaurateurs who aren’t giving the people doing the tough stuff proper credit.

“A View from the Fridge” should be required reading for anyone who ever wants to eat in a restaurant.  Tony gives a peek into how your behavior at the table affects restaurant staff.  You want to be one of the good guys, the type that waiters and chefs enjoy serving?  It’s all right here my friend.  “What You Didn’t Want to Know About Making Food Television” is exactly what I do want to know, thank you very much.  Here he talks about the people that help make the show, and throws a few insider bits in for good measure.  Hey, any time a straight dude plays with homo-eroticism in a cheeky but positive way?  I’m one happy gal.  “Brazilian Beach Blanket Bingo” is a piece that is the poster-child for why I love Anthony Bourdain; his ability to describe something in such a way that you feel yourself there.  After reading this piece I know that this isn’t some skill he’s developed over time.  It’s of the blood, a natural talent he’s got that had me checking for sand in my shorts at the end of this piece. 

At the end of The Nasty Bits there’s a commentary section, where Tony takes these essays and looks at them with fresh eyes.  It’s interesting reading, and for the most part shows a change in how he looks at the world, and himself.  Wussification as the years have gone by?  Hell no.  His edit button is still broken, thank God.  But just before the commentary there’s A Taste Of Fiction, which holds a single short story.  “A Chef’s Christmas” is a wet dream of a fairytale for anyone in the restaurant business, and a nice bit of coffee and chocolate before you leave the table. 

Readers who are familiar with his other books, or who have seen No Reservations, will be glad to know that his trademarks are well represented here.  His love of the Ramones, the Stooges and Manhattan, his history with coke and heroin, and his ability to drink like seven sailors are mentioned throughout this collection, whenever it might be relevant or enlightening to the topic at hand.  “When the Cooking’s Over (Turn Out the Lights, Turn Out the Lights)” and “Bottoming Out” are first-rate pieces that highlight his rawer edges.

I’ve always heard that cooks would use the nasty bits – pieces nobody else would want, unpalatable to most – to make the most amazing things.  Sausages, soups, stews…everything goes in, and the end result is mouthwatering.  So it is with The Nasty Bits, a collection of older bits and pieces that have been given new life, and are all the more delectable for being blended together into a single volume.  Just make sure you have your neighborhood supermarkets mapped out and your favorite delivery place on speed dial.  You’re gonna get hungry.

(Bloomsbury, 2006)

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