If the television is on in our house, it's tuned to the Food Network. This sad state of affairs is likely to remain unchanged until I can locate a twelve-step program or rehab clinic that will treat my wife Kathy's addiction to cooking shows. For Kathy, a very busy HR manager for a local technology company, it's as much a matter of stress relief as it is an interest in cooking. For me, watching chef after chatty chef deftly wielding a knife to produce yet another mound of finely chopped shallots scores just below any NASCAR event on my list of things that make me want to stab myself in the brain with a pencil. There is, however, one notable exception, and that is Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour series, which, sadly, only recently ended its run on Kathy's favorite TV network.
A Cook's Tour was unique among cooking shows for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Bourdain never actually cooked anything, and only infrequently stepped inside a kitchen. The show's premise took Bourdain to exotic locations around the globe, where he sampled the local fare as served by street vendors and lunch stands far more often than he ventured into any place with a maitre d', let alone tablecloths and metal utensils.
But more than the locations and the food it was Bourdain's running commentary and street-savvy attitude that made the show so entertaining and turned me into a fan. Bourdain often appeared on camera unrepentantly puffing a cigarette or imbibing enthusiastically in the local spirits -- sometimes both. His observations and narration offered ample evidence of a sharp wit and a writer's eye for irony. One episode featured a trip far up a Cambodian river for lunch at a small outdoor café in a jungle village where assault rifles are a commonplace fashion accessory for the local dudes. But even with the far-flung locations and strange cultural practices, the show rarely ventured into Fear Factor territory, although the episode involving the still-beating snake heart appetizer very nearly brought my lunch back for a curtain call.
Bourdain's program was hipper, funnier, smarter, and far more entertaining than any other program on the Food Network, or most programming on any other network, for that matter. Given a choice between the funky urbanity of Bourdain's perspective on, say, the practice downing alternating shots of tequila and hot sauce in a Mexican sidewalk café, versus watching Emeril Lagasse incite a studio audience of whooping douche bags, I gotta go with my man Tony.
Given Bourdain's on-screen persona I was not at all surprised to learn that in addition to a his food-related nonfiction, including the 2000 best-seller Kitchen Confidential, he has also written a handful of hard-boiled crime novels. The most recent is The Bobby Gold Stories, a slim but eminently palatable noir novel of wiseguy dirty dealing set against a backdrop of a trendy Manhattan bistro. It's a great read, and only cemented my opinion that Bourdain is way cool.
So when Kathy mentioned that Lola Bistro (home of Cleveland's own Food Network celebrity chef, Michael Symon) would be hosting a "book dinner" to promote the release of Bourdain's new Les Halles Cookbook, attended by the man himself, I was happy to shell out the $150 each. The deal included a copy of the book, plenty of wine, a four-course French bistro dinner based on recipes from the book, and chance to rub elbows, however briefly, Bourdain.
When we arrived we were a bit surprised to learn that we would be sharing a table with two other diners -- the event was a sell out and Lola was packed. But our table mates turned out to be quite pleasant, and as we meandered through the champagne and into the wine the conversation became more and more like the kind of conversation people have when they're getting their grape on.
Bourdain, in a black leather jacket and black slacks, arrived just ahead of the first course, making his way from table to table, chatting amiably and stooping to sign books. It doesn't come across on TV, but from my seated perspective Bourdain appeared to be well over nine feet tall. When he stopped at -- or should I say "loomed over" -- our table our companions were suddenly transformed into giggling seventh-grade school girls. One asked Bourdain to sign her book "to the light of my life." Bourdain added, "and the fire in my loins." I had a brief moment to ask if he had any plans to write any more fiction (he does), and he also mentioned that he's working on a new series for the Travel Channel. He moved on, and we got about the business of stuffing our faces, French bistro style.
The first course was something called "paté de lapin", which, the menu revealed, included rabbit, truffle, foie gras, and sweetbreads. Sweetbreads, according to the Food Network's website, are "the thymus glands of veal, young beef, lamb and pork." So it's readily apparent why they're called sweetbreads; I can't imagine the waitress coming around offering, "More thymus glands, Hon?" But the paté was delicious. I ate my share, and when one of our companions offered me her portion, I snarfed that, too. Accompanying the paté de lapin was a lovely Reisling, which is a crisp, slightly sweet white wine, not a cute fraulein in lederhosen.
The second course, "quenelles de brochet", consisted of a half-dozen small dumplings made of walleye and lobster, in a light cognac sauce. Delicate, delicious, and surprisingly filling, the dish was nicely complemented by a '99 Savigny-les-Beaune. I think that was the wine. There was a lot of wine.
Course number three was identified as "choucroute garnie", which, roughly translated, means "big plate of many meats that you should not mention to your physician." The choucroute garnie consisted of a hunk of smoked pork loin, a big, fatty cube of bacon, four inches of garlic sausage, and something called "boudin blanc," which, I suspect, is French for, "another kind of sausage." The accompanying wine, also something French, apparently, and a 2000 vintage, contained alcohol, and might have inspired me to enter the limbo contest had there been a limbo contest.
At this point in the dinner I realized that the single roasted carrot on my plate was the only vegetable I'd seen all night, with the exception of a spoonful of pickled something -- onion? cabbage? -- that garnished the bunny and thymus paté two courses earlier. But the dearth of veggies wasn't a high-priority issue, as evidenced by the fact that when the very pleasant waitress removed my plate there wasn't much left for the dishwasher to do. Could it be that French bistros subscribe to a belief system that allows the harvesting of paté ingredients from the local petting zoo, but draws the line at making vegetables uncomfortable? But who am I to question this, especially when the result is tasty enough to convert even the most fervent vegan?
The dessert course was an incredible surprise. If you had asked me to conjure up the most exotic ice cream flavor, I never would have thought of Roquefort cheese. Crumbled on a salad, sure. But blue cheese ice cream? But there it was, a rich, white scoop sharing a plate with two halves of a pear poached in spiced red wine and lightly sprinkled with candied walnuts. An intoxicating combination of flavors, to be sure, though I already had a pretty good head start, what with the Reisling and the Savigny-les-Beaune and the champagne and the wine we ordered before the dinner officially began. And just to seal the deal the dessert course arrived with tiny glass of Bonnezeaux as an aperitif. If only I knew what the hell "Bonnezaux" meant -- though by then it hardly mattered. Between the wonderful food and the wonderful wine, Elvis had left the building, and my wife was driving.
When I got up to powder my nose I noticed that Bourdain had settled in at a table near the door, and was engaged in a quiet conversation with a couple while digging in to his own dinner. Diners at the surrounding tables stole glances at the celebrity chef, and the room hummed with the vibe that can only come from a concentration of contented people. Kathy and I bid good evening to our table mates and made our way into the night, feeling mellow and well-fed. When we got home, she turned on the Food Network, and I watched it, too.