This article was corrected on Jan. 7, 2002.
The Food Network continues down a well-advised travelogue path with “A Cook’s Tour,” one man’s journey for Epicurean nirvana in the far-off reaches of the planet. Episode one of 22 is a tour of Tokyo, most fascinatingly the fish market where a master sushi chef buys before he slices. “A Cook’s Tour” fits in well with the cabler’s current fare, which gets further and further away from the two-camera-in-the-kitchen studio set and takes its shows into more visually interesting venues.
Bourdain, a lanky, steely-eyed presence with an intense yet mellow drone of a voice, arrives at his first TV show already something of a cult figure. He was executive chef of Gotham brasserie Les Halles before the publication of his nonfiction bestseller, “Kitchen Confidential,” the story of his life as a junkie and a chef and, most pointedly, why not to eat seafood in a restaurant on a Monday. New Line optioned the book and is adapting it into the film “Seared”; he has since published a novel and the companion book to “A Cook’s Tour.”
Show has tone like that of Les Halles, which is defined by the French-style butchering of high-quality meats — it’s all about the ingredients. For once, Food Network is putting on display food you can’t do at home — and they show that acquiring the ingredients isn’t all pretty before the meal hits the dining room table. The camera captures the knife skills of several sushi chefs — plain and simple, it’s art — and touches on facets of what makes seafood valuable. One scene involving the cutting open of a tuna, separating the toro and then eyeing the prized piece could repulse some, but it is absolutely riveting television for anyone interested in food.
A shorter second segment involves dining on the chanko dish, a bit of broth prepared tableside with meat, fish, tofu and other ingredients tossed in by diners, that sumo wrestlers dine on to bulk up. Bourdain senses that he has invaded a secret society — the sushi chefs were far more welcoming — and he takes an honorable hands-off position as he ponders, quite rightly, why the food has yet to reach the States. This sequence is watchable yet far less involving than the sushi seg.
Camera shots capture the frenzy of professional kitchens and extend that energy to Bourdain, who is quite rightly a little peevish about entering another cook’s kitchen. Considering the noise levels that surround Bourdain, audio is superb.
For this show, Bourdain traveled the world to find the exotic in Indonesia, the out-of-the-way places in Europe and his own personal hell — a vegan potluck in Berkeley — before ending at the U.S. mecca of cooking: the French Laundry in Napa Valley. It’s interesting that he avoided Italy, and well he should: Mario Batali admirably handles the country and its cuisine in the greatly improved “Mario Eats Italy,” a perfect example of how an FN show benefits from solid production values, a convivial host and a proper estimation of the audience.