The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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America's boldest chef, up close

On June 30, 1965 at the Burdwan (now Barddhaman) train station platform, I bought a hardback edition of End of an Innings, the autobiography of the sporting life of English cricketer (and footballer) Dennis Compton, for the princely sum of Rs 6 from an A.H. Wheeler and Co bookstall.

One of the amusing anecdotes in the book is about the Hollywood star Tyrone Power who, on a visit to England, took part in a festival match in which Compton also played. Power had never donned pads or gloves; he thought that if you played baseball you might be good at cricket. He hit a six off the very first ball he faced and was bowled next ball. He didn't realise the significance of either of the two happenings and things had to be explained to him but a good time was had by all.

On February 15, 2006, at the Maidan ground of the Dalhousie Athletic Club, I found myself explaining the niceties of cricket to Anthony Bourdain, who has been described as America's boldest and bravest chef.

He has been a professional cook for 28 years, is currently executive chef at the Les Halles Brasserie in Manhattan, is a bestselling author and a well-known television personality.

He has a strong mind of his own, his language is hard hitting and unsparing, he plunges into the experiences of life headfirst and despite hardship and controversy from time to time, Bourdain is clearly a man who empathises with humanity at large, has a romantic centre somewhere inside, believes in life and love and has little time for people who live in plastic bubbles passing holier-than-thou judgment on the world without getting into the nitty-gritty dirt and sweat, which is an integral part of passing through this world.

'The ugliest face of America, the pits, and I mean not just in culinary terms, but in every socio-cultural way, is the Big Mac, the KFC and all the other similar fast food chains. They degrade the palate, they degrade the very meaning of good food and the less said about them the better,' was the gist of his views on that topic.

By now we had walked out of the clubhouse on to the grounds. We were both wired with transmitters on our hips and little clip-on mikes recording every word, and there were cameras as well. Bourdain was on the Indian leg of a tour; he had been in Rajasthan, and that morning had just returned from the Sunderbans after a two-day sojourn.

We both agreed that on a single day it was possible only barely to scratch the surface of a city, its culture and cuisine, but in any case, he wasn't aiming at laying down some authoritative treatise on Calcutta; he was, literally, just passing through, and picking up a few fleeting glimpses on the way. And cooking up a strong resolve to return in the near future.

Bourdain had heard about our passion, almost religious fervour, for cricket and wanted to witness a match. We stood on the sidelines and watched the game as I explained how you can bowl a maiden over, or 'be stumped' and several other facets of the game. After the match was over, he stepped out into the middle to have a first-hand feel. He held the bat aloft as one would do in baseball, struck the ball sweetly a couple of times, got out a couple of times, which was not very different from his compatriot Tyrone Power 50 years ago, but a good time was had by all.

Bourdain asked what I felt was the strength of Bengali cuisine and I said that its wealth of vegetarian variety, which follows the dictum of use and eat anything that is edible ' flowers, leaves, stalks, roots, stems ' everything and anything, no matter how painstaking the process. And nature's bounty in our variety of fish and seafood where again our mantra is 'throw nothing away'. We eat the tails, heads and even make a chorchori with the bones.

The ugliest face of America, the pits, and I mean not just in culinary terms, but in every socio-cultural way, is the Big Mac, the KFC and all the other similar fast food chains. They degrade the palate, they degrade the very meaning of good food and the less said about them the better — Anthony Bourdain

During a brief encounter it is impossible to touch upon anything more than the broader, salient features but the more I think of it, the more I am convinced, without any parochialism, that it is a cuisine to be proud of, comparable to any of the classical cuisines of the world.

In his introduction to the book A Cook's Tour. Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, in which Bourdain travels from California to Cambodia and through some of the most god-forsaken places on the planet in search of an ultimate culinary experience like some sort of holy grail, he has this to say: 'Few sane persons like French pop music... but they know what to do with every scrap of hoof, snout, endrail and skin, every bit of vegetable trimming, fish head, and bone'

'Why is that' Why them and not us'

'The answer is, in many ways, to be found elsewhere in the world ' in Vietnam, Portugal, Mexico, Morocco ' because they had to. It was not, in 18th ' and 19th century France ' as it is not today in much of the rest of the world, an option whether to use the nasty bits. You had to' or they'd go broke, starve, never be able to afford the really good stuff for special occasions' those shrewd and wily French toiled mightily over the years, figuring out ways to make just about everything that grazed, crept, swam, crawled or hopped, and every growing thing that poked through soil, rotted on the vine, or hid under dung, into something edible, enjoyable ' even magical!'

What Bourdain has to say about animal activists and others who criticise his celebration of various cuisines, which to him is a celebration of life itself, of the human spirit, of survival, would fill another page at least. But it is sensible, mature and logical and certainly not inhumane.

Here's hoping that his resolve to return to what he described to me as 'your great city', bears fruit.

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