The best Anthony Bourdain books to read and cook from wherever you are right now, whether you’re lucky to be spending the holidays in a place opening up to tourism, you’re staying at home self-isolating, or you’re heading back into lockdown, include everything from Kitchen Confidential, the book that made Tony Bourdain famous, to A Cook’s Tour, the Bourdain book for lovers of food-focused travel.
The best Anthony Bourdain books for us include Kitchen Confidential, which I recall Terence, who had spent more time in restaurant kitchens than I had, buying as soon as it published, and A Cook’s Tour, which resonated with us, as Bourdain travelled the way we’d always travelled, guided by our taste buds, connecting with locals through food, and getting beneath the skin of places through the people who inhabited them as much as our appetites.
Like many of you who went into lockdown in March, I built paperback towers on my bedside table, work desk and office shelves of the books I’d bought in recent years, but hadn’t yet read, that I intended to get through while we were staying at home self-isolating. Instead, in between the many cooking projects that kept us sane and kept our anxiety at bay, I found myself reaching time and time again for familiar favourites, including the well-worn copies of the best Anthony Bourdain books.
The best Anthony Bourdain books are books that I can rely upon to take me on a journey, a culinary journey that is about so much more than the food – although eating to get a taste of a place, sharing meals with strangers and new friends, and connecting over feasts on the streets and in homes are central to Bourdain’s narratives on paper and on screen.
Read these books in the order in which they were published and together, as a body of work, they serve as a biography of Tony Bourdain, revealing as much about their author as his own autobiographical writings do – not to mention the cookbooks that come at key moments in his life. Cook your way through Bourdain’s recipes as you read his books and you’ll find yourself fully immersed in the worlds of food and travel without having to leave your home.
And I don’t know about you, but as the pandemic continues to spread around the world and coronavirus cases increase at an alarming rate in some countries, I’m happy to not travel for now. Although that doesn’t mean I’m not dreaming about culinary journeys. For now, I’m content with cooking and eating in the safety of our home – and dipping into the best Anthony Bourdain books whenever I’m longing for a taste of the sort of travel and eating we used to do.
Best Anthony Bourdain Books to Read and Cook From
These are the best Anthony Bourdain books to read and cook from wherever you are right now, whether you’re lucky to be on holidays in a place opening up or you’re staying at home self-isolating or heading back into lockdown.
Kitchen Confidential Deluxe Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
For many fans, one of the best Anthony Bourdain books is his first, Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the book that brought Bourdain fame, or rather, infamy. Released in 2000, it was the first Bourdain book that many of us read, especially those who had worked in restaurants. “When Kitchen Confidential was published, I hadn’t filed taxes in about 10 years,” Bourdain wrote. “I was seriously behind on rent. It had been about a decade since I’d communicated with American Express in a timely manner.” The book is crammed with crazy tales of Bourdain’s debauched drug-fuelled exploits, as well as sobering confessions – “In my daily life, the goal was to muffle the anxiety that I’d feel as I tried to drift off to sleep knowing that, at any point, what little money I had in my bank account could be garnished by the IRS or the credit card company. The landlord could kick me to the curb. That was my reality for many years.” – and mouth-watering descriptions of food: “I love heating duck confit, saucisson de canard, confit gizzards, saucisson de Toulouse, poitrine and duck fat with those wonderful tarbais beans, spooning it into an earthenware crock and sprinkling it with breadcrumbs. I love making those little mountains of chive-mashed potatoes, wild mushrooms, ris de veau, a nice, tall micro-green salad as garnish, drizzling a perfectly reduced sauce around the plate with my favourite spoon.” It not only captures a period of Bourdain’s life, but a period in the restaurant that is long gone.
Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking
A few years after Kitchen Confidential was published came Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking, and it’s easily another of the best Anthony Bourdain books you can have on your shelf, only this one will go on your kitchen shelf. It’s something of an ode to the French bistro and bistro fare as it is to the cooks Bourdain worked with at the New York City restaurant Les Halles. Bourdain admits that you’ll find these classic French bistro recipes for dishes such as bouillabaisse, cassoulet, steak frites, steak au poivre, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, chocolate mousse, and the like, everywhere. What he’s doing here is sharing his Les Halles recipes in easy step-by-step instructions, in true no-nonsense Bourdain style (which means you can expect a few insults along the way; for Bourdain you’re a “dip-shit” if you’re nervous about making any of these recipes) and in the process he’s demystifying French cooking. There’s plenty of attitude and advice (laced with Bourdain’s favourite profanities) for professional chefs as much as home cooks, with tips on everything from the importance of a good knife to why you need to take time to set up your mise-en-place, even when cooking at home. More entertaining, funny, candid, and insightful than most cookbooks, Les Halles is also personal, with all the confessions, revelations, reflections, and insights we’ve come to expect from a Bourdain book, such as this, on building relationships: “Good cooks do not exist in a vacuum. They are at the very end of a long supply train that begins, in our fortunate case, all over the world. You need friends to navigate. You need connections. You need to be a citizen of the world – or, at least, of your local markets.”
A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
This is the best of the best Anthony Bourdain books for me, the one I regularly dip into. My 2001 copy of Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines is actually called A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. It’s a shame the title was changed, because Bourdain’s original quest wasn’t really about seeking out ‘extreme cuisines’. Bourdain writes in the intro: “I wanted the perfect meal. I also wanted – to be absolutely frank – Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, Kim Philby, The Consul, Fowler, Tony Po, B Traven, Christopher Walken… I wanted to find – no, I wanted to be – one of those debauched heroes and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola, and Michael Cimino. I wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble. I wanted adventures.” Bourdain wanted culinary adventures but not necessarily of the extreme eating kind. Bourdain confesses to wanting to go into the heart of darkness of Cambodia, to ride into the desert on a camel, to eat a whole roasted lamb with his fingers, to recapture the past in an oyster village in France. He writes fondly about a meal in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta – a “humble farmer’s meal of clay-roasted duck, duck and banana blossom soup, salad, and stuffed bitter melon” – with Uncle Hai, “his right hand clutching my knee. Every once in a while he gives it a squeeze, just to make sure I’m still there and that I’m have a good time. I am having a good time. I am having the best time in the world.”
The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
Published in 2006, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones is a collection of stories Bourdain had written for magazines and newspapers, and it’s another of the best Anthony Bourdain books as far as I’m concerned, despite being a tad darker in tone, and the writing more uneven. It’s clear that Bourdain is exhausted, a tad frustrated, and questioning his ability as a storyteller despite his writing having a freshness, energy and immediacy that few writers achieve: “I went seal hunting yesterday. At eight a.m., swaddled in caribou, I climbed into a canoe and headed out onto the freezing waters of the Hudson Bay with my Inuit guides and a camera crew. By three p.m., I was sitting cross-legged on a plastic-covered kitchen floor listening to Charlie, my host, his family, and a few tribal elders giggling with joy as they sliced and tore into a seal carcass, the raw meat, blubber, and brains of our just killed catch… Soon everyone’s faces and hands were smeared with blood.” Okay, so that’s extreme eating. Bourdain confesses to words often failing him, to being tired, and questions his life choices: “Fragments. Pieces of the strange ride, the larger, dysfunctional but wondrous thing my life has become. It’s been like this for the last five years. Always in motion, nine, then ten, then eleven months of the twelve. Maybe three or four nights a month spent in my own bed – the rest in planes, cars, trains, dogsleds, sailboats, helicopters, hotels, longhouses, tents, lodges, jungle floors. I’ve become some kind of traveling salesman or paid wanderer, both blessed and doomed to travel this world until I can’t anymore. Funny what happens when your dreams come true.”
No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
A year later No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach published and it is definitely one of the best Anthony Bourdain books to buy if you were a fan of Bourdain’s Travel Channel series. Published in 2007, it was created as a companion book to the show, but it’s a cross between a travel journal and scrap book. The book is littered with Bourdain’s usual incisive observations and poignant reflections, but what’s also wonderful to see are the behind-the-scenes photographs, captioned with hilarious commentaries by Bourdain that give a glimpse into what life was like on the road. There’s also that Bourdain honesty we came to love over the years: “Of our subjects and the places they live and the way they live there – the things they love, they people they are – we get only tantalising glimpses. We necessarily skim across the surface of the places we go, never staying long. We point our cameras, make a few observations, and move on. “I missed that,” I’ll say to myself afterward. “I didn’t notice.” Or I was too tired, sick, bored, frightened, or closely involved to see. Sometimes the truth about things reveals itself only when we look back at the photographs.” I also love this: “In these pictures, too, I hope you’ll get a whiff of our travels. The smells of Southeast Asia, for instance: burning joss, jasmine flowers, the seductive reek of durian, pepper oil, fish sauce, and the exhaust from a million motorbikes.” And this: “Looking at these photographs, I know that I will never understand the world I live in or fully know the places I’ve been. Ive learned for sure only what I don’t know—and how much I have to learn. I have come to realise with certainty, however, that I have the best job in the world… I don’t know where I’m going. Or when I’ll stop. But I know what I’ve seen. I saw this…”
Medium Raw, A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Can Cook
In his preface to The Nasty Bits, Bourdain referred to Kitchen Confidential as the “obnoxious, over-testosteroned memoir” that transported him from the kitchen into a never-ending tunnel of pressurised cabins and airport lounges. Four years later, in the opening pages of Medium Raw, A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Can Cook, Bourdain exuberantly describes a late-night forbidden meal of “endangered species and fine wine” at a New York high-end restaurant with a dozen chefs who represent a Who’s Who of the top tier of American cooking. Wondering how he got to be there, “because – just so we all understand – I’m not sitting here at this table among the gods of food because of my cooking” Bourdain writes (referring once again to that “obnoxious but wildly successful memoir”), he questions what his tales of “an undistinguished – even disgraceful – career have said to people of such achievements?” Medium Raw is Bourdain’s attempt to explore that, as well as write more seriously and more insightfully about the restaurant industry and his journey from cook to globe-trotting writer, documentarian and presenter. The testosterone of Kitchen Confidential and open-mouthed enthusiasm of A Cook’s Tour is replaced with an increasing cynicism and cutting, no-holes-barred style of writing that sometimes leaves the reader with a bad taste in the mouth (the Alice Waters chapter in particular). Despite occasionally disliking the tone, it’s great writing and a riveting read and remains another of the best Anthony Bourdain books, particularly right now during a time of momentous change in the restaurant industry.
Appetites: A Cookbook
Anthony Bourdain only wrote two cookbooks before he committed suicide in June 2018. Appetites: A Cookbook was his second and his last cookbook, cowritten with his assistant Laurie Woolever. Of the two cookbooks, it’s the most approachable. It’s also family-focused, reflecting the fact that Bourdain had become a father in the interim and had begun to spend a little more time at home. Focused on home-cooking and home-entertaining, Appetites features a collection of personal recipes from Bourdain’s kitchen and travels that he cooks for his own family and friends, revealing his “Ina Garten-like need to feed the people around me”. While Appetites is more accessible than Les Halles, it’s still highly opinionated and laced with Bourdain’s favourite expletives. Expect recipes for dishes such as scrambled eggs, New England clam chowder, mac’n’cheese, Korean fried chicken, mapo tofu, ‘Mashed Potatoes Kind of Robuchon Style’, and ‘Chicken Satay with Fake-Ass Spicy Peanut Sauce’ – dishes that Bourdain reckons that everyone should know how to cook. There are also helpful sections on Thanksgiving and ‘Party 101’ that will help you plan holiday meals with precision and make entertaining for large groups easier than before you read this. Sadly, Appetites will probably make you wish Bourdain had lived to write another cookbook.
Note on the photo by Terence, above: this is an image of a luxuriant bowl of bánh canh cua, a rich Vietnamese crab soup brimming with sweet crab claw meat, plump prawns, fish cakes, quail eggs, fatty pork, pork blood cake, bouncy button mushrooms, and slippery udon-like tapioca and rice noodles. The cook of this heavenly bowl of soup is Nguyen Thi Thanh, nicknamed ‘The Lunch Lady’ by Anthony Bourdain, who featured her popular Saigon lunch stall in a 2009 episode of No Reservations. She’s famous for her rotating menu of daily soups that are richer, heartier and more abundant than most and this is her Saturday special.
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