I spent several years working in an artisanal bakery. There were things to enjoy about the job, but the hours were awful and the work was messy and repetitive. There were certainly days that I resented our general cultural romanticization of food production. After the umpteenth stranger told me how “relaxing” and “zen” my job must be, I was primed for enjoyment of Kitchen Confidential, Tony Bourdain’s breakout book. He revealed the seedy underbelly of his life in kitchens, presenting it all with a preposterous, but enjoyable, swagger and snark. He followed that up with a series of television shows in which he travelled the world eating interesting food and mercilessly ragging on celebrity chefs and foodie poseurs. This was lots of fun, but as I left the bakery and got happier about life I appreciated that Bourdain’s snark and vitriol were gradually tempered by an open-minded culinary multiculturalism. So, while it wouldn’t have fazed me coming from old Tony, I was a bit surprised that new Tony started his comic book with a guy getting his head chopped off for daring to order a California roll.
Get Jiro! is set in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles utterly dominated by foodie culture. Restaurant reservations are matters of life and death and chefs are big societal powers. Two chefs are particularly important: Bob heads the haute cuisine Internationalists and Alice heads the militantly field-to-table Vertical Farm. (Side note: anyone else remember when Bourdain said some bad words about Alice Waters’ insistence on local produce? Makes me wonder who Bob’s named after!) The two factions are locked in a heavily-entrenched gang war, angling to control the best chefs, locations, and ingredients. On the outskirts of the city, Jiro quietly makes his superlative sushi, sticking doggedly to traditional ingredients and practices, culinary perfection his only ideology. When he comes to the attention of Bob and Alice they both try to seduce and then strong-arm him into their camps, but he turns his nose up at both of their operations and chooses a third path. Jiro, it turns out, is ex-Yakuza, as skilled a killer as he is a chef, and he chooses to burn the LA food scene to the ground rather than compromise his sushi.
In precis, the sushi samurai plot is totally unworkable but Bourdain, co-writer Joel Rose, and artist Langdon Foss commit to it so wholeheartedly that one simply accepts and enjoys it. Chefs already have lots of knives — why wouldn’t they turn them on each other? The tensions between differing culinary philosophies are easy to spot in the real world; they’re simply writ a little larger here. The characters are consistent and the dialogue is fairly believable, so it’s easy to come along for the ride when folks get ready to fight to the death over a menu. There were a few little things that could have been clarified; I wasn’t quite sure why Jiro spared a particular sous chef or what I was to make of the couple brief appearances of the Maoist soup vendor who rallies behind Jiro. However, on the whole, it’s a good execution of a fun premise.
Foss is a big part of keeping the book believable. His art is heavily derivative of Frank Quietly — doughy figures, copious blood, and panels bursting out of the grid every which way– but it’s good. He’s put some obvious effort into nailing the details of all the food (as well as the deadly culinary tools), which is hugely important, both because the food is the soul of the conflict and because Vertigo is surely trying to snag some of Tony’s food-savvy fans who are likely to notice if the sushi rice is packed too tightly or the pot au feu is made with the wrong cuts of meat.
In the end, my only complaint about the book was a philosophical one. Bob and Alice are villains because of how they treat other chefs, but Jiro’s the one who murders a customer for ordering poorly. In fact, Bourdain devotes quite a bit of page space to how food should be enjoyed and heaps scorn upon those who do so incorrectly. So, to be clear, chefs are artists who must be given free rein to follow their personal visions. But customers? Those philistines are the real enemies here. Glad to know where we stand, Tony.