When news of Anthony Bourdain’s death first broke on social media, then rapidly spread — the virtual pop culture equivalent of a California wildfire — I was certain he had incurred a travel-related mishap. Leave it to Bourdain to go down in flames: an airplane, a motorbike, a car. But no. According to some bright spark in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Psychiatric Disorders Manual-5, Bourdain (along with fellow suicide Chester Bennington) suffered from “smiling depression”.
Bourdain smiled his way right out of this life, leaving the living crying.
There are losses we absorb. Others we simply abide.
* * *
Bourdain was a relentless traveler who met countless people, often fleetingly. Now those countless people posted those fleeting moments with him on social media. The countless are notable in photographs, their brightly goofy “I’m meeting a famous person” grins. Bourdain is notable in these photographs for two reasons. The first is his height: he usually towers over his fans. The other, noticed too late, is how seldom he smiles.
Hindsight is worthless.
I never met Anthony Bourdain. Nor did I watch his television shows.
Bourdain nevertheless left a profound and lasting impact on my cooking. He did this with Les Halles Cookbook (Bloomsbury, 2004). Les Halles Cookbook is an excellent instructional manual for cooks who have no intention of attending culinary school. I was just this sort of person in 2004. Further, I knew just enough about cooking to know I didn’t know much.
Subtitled “Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking”, Les Halles Cookbook isn’t so much a narrative as it is a harangue, delivered in what would become Bourdain’s trademark blend of insolence, irreverence, and profanity. “Become” because in 2004, Bourdain was fresh off publishing Kitchen Confidential (Bloomsbury, 2000) worldwide fame hadn’t happened yet. Bourdain was still working at Les Halles the restaurant in New York (now closed). He was still married to Nancy. Fame’s attendant lunacy — photo ops with Iggy Pop, beers in Vietnam with President Barack Obama — had yet to occur.
Where most contemporary cookbooks open with discussions of ingredients and/or necessary equipment (I once read a cookbook suggesting, straight-faced, 48 tartlet pans and a cookie press), Bourdain begins Les Halles Cookbook with “General Principles”. “General Principles” starts with mise en place, the French culinary concept of bringing a recipe’s ingredients to readiness by washing, cutting, dicing, peeling, and so forth, then setting each element in a small dish, bowl, or ramekin.
Mise en place established, Bourdain doesn’t send you to the stove. Instead, he suggests you stop and think about the meal you’re planning to cook. Ideally, overnight. Make lists. Lots of lists.
In the two decades I’ve spent cooking seriously, decades that include writing professionally about cooking, maintaining a cooking blog, reading innumerable cookbooks, and building a cookbook library that threatens to overrun my home, I have never read another cookbook that suggests thinking about cooking this way. I’ve read books that suggest thinking about ingredients. I’ve read cookbooks suggesting the cook think about shopping for food, (Judy Rodgers’s classic Zuni Cafe Cookbook, W. W. Norton, 2002, comes to mind) but never in the depth as brought forth by Bourdain.
Bourdain calls this kind thinking about cooking “deep prep”. If you are a 30-ish cook who, until quite recently, worked as a housecleaner and topless dancer, this kind of thinking about food is news to you, because having the time and money to spend on food — let alone cooking food — is news to you.
Expanding this notion of deep prep, Bourdain devotes a section to “Scoring the Good Stuff”. Scoring the good stuff, i.e., finding ingredients, was far more challenging in 2004 than it is today. Why? Single word: internet. Nor did farmers markets sprout on every street corner. What farmers markets there were charged prices a woman with student loan debt could not afford.
No matter. Bourdain advised readers to patronize their local Chinatowns, seek out Kosher butchers, and search for Muslim Halal groceries. No go? Suck it up and visit that annoyingly expensive gourmet shop. The owner knows somebody who can order you foie gras. Befriend your butcher. Befriend your fishmonger.
“Above all, do not be a snob. It’s the worst sin there is for a cook.”
Although the recipes of Les Halles Cookbook demand little by way of equipment, Bourdain makes one single demand of the serious cook: “A sharp knife is a must.”
I did not possess such an implement in 2004. At Bourdain’s written insistence, I got myself to Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco, where I spent $100 on a Henckels chef’s knife. It was my first serious kitchen purchase. Until then all my cooking was done with a red-handled Victorinix paring knife, a find from my housecleaning days. Though sharp, it’s far too small for serious kitchen work. I have the scars to prove it. The Henckels, however, was something else again.
Bourdain imparts a final piece of wisdom before moving to the recipes involving the making and use of broths. Remember, this is 2004, long before modern people began extolling broths as a drinkable cure for all that ails. Bourdain advises readers to make broth and demi-glace at home. Freeze it in ice cube trays. This, he says, will improve your cooking immeasurably. I did what he said. He was right. Of course.
And what of Les Halles Cookbook recipes? Here is what Bourdain says of them: “The recipes, for the most part, are old standards, versions of which can find in scores of other books.”
Bourdain is both right and wrong, here. Les Halles Cookbook recipes are indeed standard bistro food — rillettes, beef daube, pâté… You will find them in any French cookbook. Yet they are easy to follow, and as noted, require no specialty equipment, making them a special pleasure for cooks with rudimentary kitchens.
Nevertheless, the recipes, good as they are, aren’t they reason you should buy Les Halles Cookbook. And yes, you should, if you aren’t yet convinced.
There are scores of wonderfully written cookbooks filled with great recipes out there. There are even bad cookbooks out there with bad recipes you can mess with. But scarce few are the books that truly change your thinking, in the kitchen and out — books that really teach you something besides how to make another smoothie, or God help us all, why carbs are bad for you. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook taught me how to think about cooking. Even today, when he’s in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, he can teach you, too.
I’m only sorry I was never able to thank him.