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One ingredient I can do without: celebrity chefs

When Anthony Bourdain began to cook for a living in the 1970s it was, he said flat out, "a loser profession."

Okay, so he was exaggerating when he said cooking was something you did between jobs or criminal convictions, but Bourdain, who was catapulted to celebrity when he wrote a tell-all memoir about life in a restaurant kitchen, is nothing if not outrageous.

Today, he says, cooking is "a glamour profession."

Today, chefs can be stars. Celebrities. Not all of them, obviously, but there are chefs who go on talk shows and have their own brand of olive oil or cookware, who have their own television programs - all because they are celebrities. Bourdain himself is host of the Travel Channel television series No Reservations, in which he and his crew travel the world in search of adventure and memorable meals.

Today, a coffee table book like My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals (Bloomsbury, $49.95) creates all kinds of buzz and gets spreads in magazines and newspapers all over North America, even though it's in large measure a pretentious and banal work, to my mind, one full of contrived photographs of chefs - including one, incidentally, of Bourdain, nude, holding a strategically placed bone.

What's that about?

"I'm sure we can all agree that it's probably not wise to make career decisions after four shots of tequila," he says of the photograph in the book's introduction, which he wrote. Photographer Melanie Dunea, who dreamed up the project, is a friend.

Today, a guy like Bourdain, who by his own admission did not have a particularly distinguished career in the kitchen in the many years he spent in one, fills a place like the 600-seat Corona Theatre at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday when theatre companies can't fill subscriptions. It amazes me.

Each person there had bought a copy of No Reservations, Bourdain's eighth and latest book, from Bon App�tit Cookbooks, which organized the event; they turned up at the Corona to pick it up and to listen, rapt, as he answered questions from Bon App�tit co-owner Jonathan Cheung on everything from molecular gastronomy to restaurant bloggers. Then most of them queued, patiently, to go up onto the stage, for Bourdain to sign their books.

He is wonderfully entertaining. Sure he's glib and, absolutely, he uses bad language, but he's sassy and smart, funny and articulate, and beneath the rock-star exterior, there's a humility. Plus he seems not to mind poking fun at himself - and the memoir, Kitchen Confidential (Bloomsbury, 2001 $19.95) that made him famous.

"I thought only a few friends in the tri-state area would buy this abomination ... not giving a s-t turns out to be a great business model."

Belonging to what he calls the International Fraternity of People Who Cook "has enriched my life and connected me with others in once unimaginable ways - as it connects all of us who've ever cooked professionally," he writes in No Reservations.

At 51, he says he doesn't miss the kitchen - "I got lucky and I got out" - although he does miss the sense of accomplishment and pride that cooking gave him. And he misses the after-hours camaraderie, "when the civilians are gone."

Indeed, several of the chefs interviewed in My Last Supper, including Bourdain, say they would want their final meals made by fellow chefs: He'd want roast bone marrow with parsley and caper salad, prepared and served by Fergus Henderson, chef and partner of St. John in London.

Most said they'd want their family and close friends as dining companions and, for all the elaborate meals they prepare, many would choose relatively simple fare: Jamie Oliver would have spaghetti all'arrabiata with three types of chilies; Gordon Ramsay would have a classic dinner for his last meal on Earth: roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

The lone Canadian in the book, Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, photographed in a lumberjacket on Mount Royal, said he would want Jesus as his dining companion, "because he is used to having a last meal."

I'm sure the book will do well. So will Bourdain's. But there are way better books out there, books in which chefs write thoughtfully about what they do, about food and cooking - books like How I Learned to Cook (Bloomsbury, $17.95, 2007), a fine anthology edited by Kimberly Witherspoon with contributions from the likes of Marcella Hazan and David Chang, or Becoming a Chef (John Wiley & Sons, $35.99, 2003) by Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page. It features recipes, too.

I believe people care about what they eat, that many of us feel strongly about the magic of being in the kitchen. I just don't get what people think they'll learn from celebrity chefs

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