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Originally published Monday, July 9, 2012 at 10:00 PM

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Bourdain book goes graphic: Chef playfully skewers foodie culture

Anthony Bourdain cooks up a graphic novel

San Jose Mercury News

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Top-ranked restaurants? Check. Best-selling memoirs? Sure. Emmy-winning television series about all the places where food and travel intersect? Of course.

If Anthony Bourdain was a triple threat before, the arrival of his first graphic novel — the witty and sly "Get Jiro!" (Vertigo, $24.99, 160 pages) — makes the culinary world's bad boy a quadruple threat now.

With illustrations by DC Comics artist Langdon Foss and a story co-written with Joel Rose, "Get Jiro!" is a hilarious sendup of our food-obsessed culture. It's set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, where Los Angeles' chef warlords battle for surf and turf, Pasadena, Calif., has been zoned vegan and sushi-related homicides are perfectly acceptable.

The hero of the tale is Jiro, a hard-core sushi chef with a low tolerance for California roll-loving, wasabi-dolloping dilettantes. However, he's up against two cutthroat warlords: the effete, very French Bob and locavore Rose, who grows her own greens, raises grass-fed lambs and wears a very familiar cloche hat. Is that — could it be — Alice Waters?

Bourdain's laughter floats across the phone lines.

"I can't imagine why," he says. "Those are composites. Stereotypes is the better word for it. I don't know of any chefs who are lopping heads off or feeding other chefs to their pigs. I would be shocked if anyone took this as anything other than it is — and most chefs have a sense of humor."

Foss won't answer the question without first asking, "Wait, what did Bourdain tell you?" Then he laughs, too.

"As luck would have it, Rose's original name was Alice," the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based graphic artist says. "But Rose is a great name, and how she looks? I designed the character based on the script, without knowing who Alice Waters was, I promise very sincerely."

Every foodie stereotype gets skewered here, some lines are laugh-out-loud funny, and the level of detail — every unagi, every uni and even the sushi bar counter, made from hinoki wood from Nagano Prefecture — is perfect.

The project, Bourdain says, was "a knuckleheaded and intensely pleasurable enterprise," launched over beers with his good friend, Joel Rose (no relation to the locavore character). That the hero would be a sushi chef was a given.

"For some time I'd wondered — fantasized — about a really hard-core, old-school sushi chef, who took his distaste for ignorance or abuse of sushi to violent extremes," Bourdain says. "I thought it would be entertaining, and I'm a big fan of spaghetti Westerns and classic samurai films. All those things came into play."

Bourdain, Rose and Foss were in contact almost daily, discussing details to make sure, everything was "excessively correct," Bourdain says. The fact that Foss had lived in Japan for several years made the decision of which artist to choose fairly easy.

"We didn't want any foodie nerds to say, 'That's not the way you make sushi. I wouldn't serve that wine. The sea urchin didn't look right,' " Bourdain says. "Langdon did incredible work. He really got that dead on."

Foss put a tremendous amount of research into the project, poring over industrial kitchen catalogs, poking around restaurant kitchens and asking questions.

"Do broilers always go next to the chafing stations? What is the perfect workflow for a kitchen?" he says. "Bob (the French chef) was interesting. They didn't give me much to go on. He's international, with heavy European roots, and I couldn't shake this typical French-looking guy. But no, he's tough, he probably boxed as a boy, came from the streets but climbed to the top and has the scars to prove it. He's a well-coifed thug with a manicured suit."

But even Foss realized that he'd likely run into trouble dining at Jiro's sushi bar, where a hapless trio of diners make the colossal mistake of soaking their sushi in soy sauce and ordering California rolls. When the police arrive at the blood-spattered scene, their response is, "You know, the rice here is exquisite. People miss that. They think it's all about the fish."

The book is "a little tongue-in-cheek," Foss says, but his family would never survive a dinner at Jiro's.

"My kids love California rolls," he says. "And I've eaten sushi for years, and I had no idea you're supposed to eat it rice-side up."

Jiro might forgive the latter transgression, but a quasi-sushi roll?

Foss' detail-filled images are perfect, from the rice grains floating, egregiously, in a pool of over-wasabied soy sauce to the blood spatters and body parts. It is, after all, a graphic novel — with Bourdain-esque, blue language inappropriate for bedtime read-alouds or show-and-tell at school. For older teens and grown-ups, on the other hand, it's awesome.

For Bourdain, a longtime comic book devotee, writing a graphic novel is the "manifestation of a childhood dream." So you can guess where Bourdain, Rose and Foss are headed next — Comic Con for book signings, fan panels and, of course, a little sushi.

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