ANTHONY BOURDAIN, A COOK’S TOUR: THE COMPLETE SERIES – DVD review

As a cook, tastes and smells are my memories, and I’m in search of some new ones. So I’m leaving New York and hoping to have a few epiphanies around the world. I’m looking for extremes of emotion and experience. I’ll try anything; I’ll risk everything. I have nothing to lose.

Anthony Bourdain, the current host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” has never had any hesitation when it comes to sampling exotic foods in faraway lands. In 2000 and 2001 he filmed his first series, “A Cook’s Tour,” for the Food Network, in which he did basically the same thing . . . but without as many bleep-outs.

Every episode of “A Cook’s Tour,” which now airs in reruns Tuesday nights on the Cooking Channel, had him following essentially the same formula as “No Reservations.” He travels, he stages misadventures, he “runs into” various hosts and fellow chefs, and he samples the fare–regardless of whether it’s raw, still squirming, or killed right before his very eyes. Bourdain’s style is a combination of equal doses tongue-in-cheek humor and erudite food snobbery, which is what you’d expect of a former New York City executive chef from Brasserie Les Halles.

The Food Network approached Bourdain after his exposé-memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, made the New York Times best-seller list, and the first episode of “A Cook’s Tour” aired in 2001. In a voiceover title sequence he declares he’ll eat anything and take any risk, because what does he have to lose?” Well, apparently a marriage, since he cited the time spent traveling as a primary reason for the divorce of his first wife. But he’ll calmly watch a live octopus being butchered for his meal, or ingest a cobra–live heart and all–as part of his try-anything philosophy as he “searches” for the “perfect meal.” Of course, that’s just an excuse to travel and try exotic things, because most of the time he tells his host that what he’s just eaten was one of the greatest meals of his life. They believe him, and, to an extent, so do we.

All 35 episodes from the show’s two-season run are included here, with brief descriptions. Although Bourdain jumped around from country to country, this DVD collection from Questar Entertainment groups the episodes by region rather than taking a chronological approach–which is to say, they’re not in shooting sequence.

Disc 1 – The United States

  • “Los Angeles: My Own Heart of Darkness.” Bourdain descends into the culinary underbelly of his metropolitan nemesis, Los Angeles, where he experiences the trials of celebrity fame and the joys of West Coast cuisine.
  • “My Hometown Favorites.” Bourdain gives us an intimate tour of the New York City foods he knows and loves: sturgeon and bagels, fluke ceviche, pan-seared foie gras, braised veal cheek, authentic cheese, and, of course, a hot dog at Papaya King Frankfurters and Juices.
  • “My Life as a Cook.” Experience the formative moments of Bourdain’s career as he revisits his first job, the culinary institute that taught him the basics, a normal workday at Les Halles Brasserie, and his mysterious mentor, Bigfoot.
  • “Elements of a Great Bar.” Join Tony in his quest to characterize the perfect bar in New York City. With him, discover the importance of a “maniacal bartender,” the proper chemical makeup of drinks, the joys of seedy-dive bars and the need for late-night snacks.
  • “The Struggle for the Soul of America.” Tony travels to the grain belt capitol, Minneapolis, to inspect the conflict between creative independent operators and generic franchises. Beginning in the food nightmare within the Mall of America, Tony vows to find good cuisine within the city.
  • “The BBQ Triangle.” Which style of BBQ reigns supreme–Kansas City, Houston, or North Carolina? Huh? What about Chicago? Tony journeys to three cities, judging the secrets behind sauces, wood pits, and slow smokers.
  • “No Beads, No Babes, No Bourbon Street.” In New Orleans, Tony catches a Bayou alligator, cools off with a world famous sno cone, gets in trouble with the law, eats jambalaya with a dancing chef, and, finally, relaxes to some local jazz.

Disc 2 – Mexico and the Americas

  • “Tamales & Iguana, Oaxacan Style.” Bourdain explores the exotic and colorful indigenous zone of Mexico’s Oaxaca region. Here he tastes toasted grasshoppers, tripe soup and local red-oil sausage, while observing he making of the regional variation of tamales. His adventure ends with dinner on the street, mariachi music, and, of course, lots of tequila.
  • “Puebla, Where Good Cooks Are From.” According to Tony, the best line cooks in NYC come from Mexico, and with this in mind he travels to the Puebla, heartland of Mexican cuisine, and enjoys numerous mole sauces, toasted ant eggs, fried worms, and the legendary pulque (a slightly hallucinogenic drink made from cactus sap).
  • “Food Tastes Better with Sand between Your Toes.” In an attempt to escape the stress of city life, Tony visits the island of St. Martin, where he eats a healthy Rastafarian meal with a freedom fighter, helps prepare grub for a food caravan, discovers foodstuffs not available at American supermarkets, and relaxes at a beach bar.
  • “A Mystical World.” Known as Brazil’s capital of happiness, Salvador da Bahia offers fruitful local markets and rich Bahian cuisine: fried shrimp, palm oil, chili peppers, and coconut. Here, Tony takes part in a traditional ceremony and experiences the culinary talents of the famous Bahian, Chef Dada.
  • “How to be a Carioca.” What is a Carioca? These natives of Rio are lovable scamps who somehow find ways to avoid work altogether, preferring the beach, flirting, and hanging out at restaurants and bars. Tony, under the tutelage of an exemplary Carioca, gives the lifestyle a try, enjoying a savage tan, Brazilian barbecue, and one too many Caipirinhas.

Disc 3 – Europe

  • “Childhood Flavors.” Arachon, birthplace of Tony’s father, is where Bourdain first learned to love food as a child. Returning to France for a trip down memory lane, Tony enjoys childhood staples, including steak frites, gaufres (waffles), soupe de pecheur (fisherman’s soup) and fresh oysters. Tony’s sentimental journey ends with French bread and garlic sausage–a simple tribute to his father.
  • “Stuffed Like a Pig.” Visiting his boss’s family farm in Portugal, Tony helps slaughter and feast on a pig the family has been fattening all year. Having had enough pork, Tony heads to France to experience the rich delights of a foie gras farm. Finally, Tony revisits Arachon with his brother Chris, where he attempts to devour a calf’s head.
  • “Cod Crazy.” Portuguese cuisine holds a dear place in Tony’s culinary heart. Not only is it the first type of food he learned to love as a young chef, but his boss, Jose Meirelles, hails from Portugal. With Jose, Tony travels to Porto, home of the famous port wine, where he is immediately exposed to the codfish and the almost mythical place it holds in Portuguese cuisine and culture.
  • “Highland Grub.” Adventuring to the outer reaches of the UK, Tony insists that Scotland is a place of extraordinary cuisine. Beginning in Glasgow, Tony experiences the heart-clogging glory of deep fried pizza, deep fried mars bars, deep fried pickled eggs, and deep fried everything. Moving on to more traditional fare, Tony tastes a classic haggis and learns to hunt and fish for his food.
  • “A Pleasing Palate!” Tony lands in London on a mission to dispel the myth that all English food is disgusting and over-boiled. Trying nose-to-tail eating, Tony enjoys a meal of kid liver salad, whole roasted pig head, grilled ox heart, and breaded pigtails. Tony also explores traditional fare at Pie and Mash Shoppes and then visits a predominantly Indian community and indulges in a home-cooked London Punjab meal.
  • “San Sebastian: A Food Lover’s Town.” In San Sebastian, Spain, Toiny explores the food-crazed Basque culture. Tony’s guide, Chef Luis Irizar, takes tony into the exclusively male underworld of Basque gastronomic societies. Later, Tony explores tapas bars that reflect the city’s finest example of everyday Basque delights.

Disc 4 – Morocco and Russia

  • “A Desert Feast.” Bourdain arrives in Morocco with a mission: to eat a roasted sheep in the desert. As Tony journeys through the Sahara, he observes the slaughtering of a sheep, eats meat pies with blue-robed Berber men, rides a camel, and experiences the flavors of mud-roasted sheep.
  • “Traditional Tastes.” Tony is invited to experience the culinary heart and walled medinas (districts) of the Moroccan city Fes. Tony’s meals revolve around the family’s home kitchen, where the cooks show Tony how to prepare pigeon bastilla, cous-cous with steamed vegetables, and a variety of exquisite salads.
  • “The Cook Who Came in from the Cold.” Tony plays spy in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he and his “contact” set off to locate the best blinis and borscht St. Petersburg has to offer. But first they enjoy a country lunch of pickled salads and braised reindeer. Tony concludes his mission with a trip to St. Petersburg Market and a hearty home-cooked meal of borscht, meat-filled dumplings, and large amounts of vodka.
  • “So Much Vodka, So Little Time.” Tony continues his mission in Russia with a tour of local working-class specialties. First stop is the frozen Neva River, where he tries his hand at ice-fishing–an exercise in stamina and vodka drinking. Following the workout, Tony feasts on the rare koulibiak (a baked fish pie formerly eaten by the Czars). After so much food and vodka, Tony takes a break at a Russian bath. He steams, eats smoked fish, and ends the outing with a dip in the outdoor cold pool.

Disc 5 – Australia and Japan

  • “Mad Tony: The Food Warrior.” Tony makes a pilgrimage to Sydney, Australia, so he can indulge in a meal made by one of the world’s best chefs, Tetsuya Wakuda. But first, in the Outback he enjoys a slap-up meal of bush tucker, including kangaroo and wattleseed-bush tomato, with locals.
  • “Down Under: The Wild West of Cooking.” Melbourne boasts a bunch of hard-living, good-natured, and eccentric food lovers–Tony’s kind of people. In search of the outlaws of food, Tony explores a pasteurization-free cheese factory and an old-world cured jamon workshop. After having lunch with some of the chefs who are making culinary history in Melbourne, Tony ends his day with a “barbie.”
  • “A Taste of Tokyo.” Tony travels to Japan, where he discovers a radically new cooking attitude with a delicate respect for ingredients. He begins in the Tsujiki market, Tokyo’s largest fresh fish market, and then is introduced to the sophisticated techniques involved in preparing edomae sushi. Finally, Tony is introduced to the hefty-but-sophisticated diet of Sumo wrestlers.
  • “Dining with Geishas.” In rural Japan Tony takes the high-speed Shinkansan bullet train, which takes him to an old-style Japanese inn that specializes in kaiseki cuisine, ancient tea ceremony, and local ingredients served by women in traditional geisha attire.
  • “Eating on the Edge of Nowhere.” Cambodia and Japan are calling, and taking his obsession with the film “Apocalypse Now” a little too seriously Tony sets out for Pailin–reputed to be one of the most dangerous towns on earth. Along the way he experiences nameless waterways, landmine-infested roads, unwelcomed guests, and roadside delicacies. In Pailin, Tony realizes the city may be much different that he imagined.

Disc 6 – Asia

  • “Singapore: New York in Twenty Years.” Bourdain searches for the real Singapore with its multicultural restaurants and markets. He samples prescription food dishes, explores the Geyland Serai Market, rides the clean and efficient subway, and visits the Little India neighborhood.
  • “Let’s Get Lost.” In Chaing Mai, Thailand, Tony takes a tuk tuk taxi, soaks up Thai culture, and gets lost in the cuisine–from spicy soups and noodles in the busy city marketplace to the hospitality and delicate dishes of the countryside.
  • “My Friend Linh.” Tony returns to Vietnam to visit his friend, Linh, in Hanoi for the Vietnamese lunar New Year. Together they enjoy the holiday and indulge in all the exotic delicacies Vietnamese culture offers.
  • “One Night in Bangkok.” A layover leads tony into Bangkok, where he tries strange meals of deep-fried frog skins and pla rah–a fish paste that has fermented for three months to a year.
  • “Cobra Heart: Foods That Make You Manly.” After taking a cyclo ride through Ho Chi Minh City and trying various foods from roadside vendors and markets, Tony enjoys a unique dining atmosphere where sizzling hot rice cakes fly overhead. Later, he tests his might with a few shots of snake wine and a live cobra heart.
  • “Eating on the Mekong.” Tony soaks up the beauty upriver of Ho Chi Minh City as he samples the wares of the Cai Rang floating market. Further upriver he shares laughs, sings, and drinks a lot of Mekong moonshine with the welcoming owners of a duck farm. Although thoroughly seduced by his Vietnam experience, Tony is not sure the royal dish “Bird’s Nest Soup” is all it’s cracked up to be.
  • “Wild Delicacies.” With a friend, Tony travels to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he explores a food culture that is both pleasing to the palette and slightly frightening. Scouring the local outdoor market for delicacies, they experience everything from deep-fried crickets to fluorescent Jell-O-like substances and steaming containers of tripe and tongues.

In total, there’s some 13 hours of food-related adventures here.

Video:
This TV series is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with 1.78:1 menu screens. There’s a consistent layer of grain, as you’d expect, but even on a widescreen TV with the image stretched it still looks decent. Colors have lost a little of their brilliance, but skin tones are natural and the contrast levels are fine.

Audio:
Sound is nothing special here. It’s all talk, and appears to be a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The only thing worth mentioning is that there’s no excessive noise or corruption of sound.

Extras:
There are no bonus features.

Bottom line:
“A Cook’s Tour” is an engaging series–one which fans of “No Reservations” should equally enjoy–but as with any reality or hosted show, much depends upon how much you like spending time with the star. Bourdain has developed a reputation for language, sexual innuendo, and snide remarks, and he also imbibes a lot. He can seem arrogant at times, but he’s also a knowledgeable “foodie” who seems to melt every time his culinary heart beats a little bit faster when the meals are incredible.

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