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Foodies go hog wild

May 19, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

When Fergus Henderson published his cookbook in Britain in 1999, he promoted it by doing a single cooking demonstration at a supermarket in Cambridge and throwing himself a party at his London restaurant St. John.

Though that restaurant has a reputation as one of the best places to eat in Great Britain, the publisher, Macmillan, apparently was skeptical of the book's chances, and when the modest first press run of 5,000 copies sold out, they declined to reprint.

Their reluctance was understandable. "Nose to Tail Eating" is about cooking things most people refuse to eat -- offal such as tripe, brains and liver, and other cuts that are euphemistically called variety meats.

Really, in this day and age, who can get excited about recipes for rolled pig's spleen or cold lamb's brains on toast?

Well, quite a few folks, actually. Partly because it was odd, partly because it was good and partly because eating off-cuts somehow had become a foodie rite of passage, the British edition became quite collectible. The rare times it shows up on EBay, it routinely fetches $200 and more.

Among its biggest fans are Anthony Bourdain, and through a splendid example of viral marketing, now seemingly every chef in America. Henderson's book, which has just been published in this country under the slightly less explicit title "The Whole Beast," is what everyone who is anyone in the food world is talking about this spring.

It seems that everywhere you turn, you're bumping into newfound offal-ites. In a long feature story on the phenomenon, New York magazine has dubbed it "Extreme Eating."

Much of the success of Henderson's book is due to Bourdain, the roguish author of the bestselling "Kitchen Confidential." He adopted "The Whole Beast" as a personal crusade. He found it a publisher, wrote the introduction and then began sermonizing from every outlet he could find.

"Most Important Publishing Event EVER," Bourdain, a man admittedly given to extreme enthusiasms, trumpeted on E-Gullet, the online foodie salon. "Writing an intro for this book was perhaps the single proudest accomplishment of my life."

In that introduction he enthused: "If I'm ever sentenced to death, I want Fergus Henderson to cook my last meal. [This] is a cult classic from my favorite chef and favorite restaurant in the world."

Bourdain is not alone. Mario Batali, the cherubic and omnivorous chef of six Manhattan restaurants, blurbed, "Reading and dreaming of all these recipes makes me want to torch my own Babbo for pretending to be a restaurant and move to London to heed the master's call."

On, three of the first "consumer" reviews are by Bourdain, Bourdain's wife and Batali.

On his six-city American book tour, completed last month, Henderson was feted by local chefs at every stop, with parties hosted by personalities as diverse as Berkeley's Alice Waters and Chicago's Charlie Trotter.

In Los Angeles, the third city on the tour, he was still getting his feet under him. At his local party, hosted by old friends Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of TV's "Too Hot Tamales" at their Ciudad restaurant downtown, Henderson had the slightly bedazzled air of a man in the eye of a hurricane. His heavy canvas suit jacket, though artfully cut, was slightly askew, and his eyes looked wide behind owlish, modern black glasses.

"Honestly, it's a bit hard to remember oneself in all of this," he says. "I'll be doing a radio interview and they'll start reading quotes from the book, and I'll wonder if they've got the right person."

Henderson seems as unlikely a candidate for this kind of wild adulation as can be imagined. Quiet and reserved, he seems more like a respected academic on holiday than a superstar chef.

In fact, it's hard to imagine an odder couple than Henderson and Bourdain, who, with his tales of carousing and cooking (pretty much in that order), has created an image for himself as the Keith Richards of the kitchen. The two met when Bourdain came to dinner at St. John. As research for his book and television show "A Cook's Tour," Bourdain was traveling the world eating odd things.

"He had come in one night when, honestly, the kitchen was not quite chirpy," Henderson says. "But he was very generous. He came back and said something like, 'You guys rocked.' Then he included us in his television show. We cooked a 'Nose to Tail' feast for him, and he really became my champion.

"We do make quite an unlikely pair, but the odd thing is that it's not really that strange. Underneath, Tony is really a very gentle, lovely, calm chap, though I know he wouldn't want me to say that."

Neither is Henderson what you'd expect from someone who has made his reputation selling -- quite literally in some cases -- blood and guts. But despite those gory-sounding ingredients, his approach to cooking is anything but Braveheart. In fact, it's downright philosophical.

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