Camp Casey soldiers get an adventure in dining with TV chef

Sgt. Luciano Vera, left and Pfc. Amanda Merfeld talk with chef and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain while filming for the television show, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” The show will air on the Travel Channel in the U.S. in June, and later on Discovery Channel Asia.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2006

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — You’re about as likely to spot Anthony Bourdain in a fast food restaurant on a military base as you are of finding a Howitzer on the Dalai Lama’s front porch.

But the chef and author of “Kitchen Confidential” and “A Cook’s Tour” was on this Army base Tuesday. Not to sample the Gorditas or the alleged 31 flavors of ice cream in the food court, but to take two soldiers out for Korean food in downtown Dunducheon.

The dinner date was for a segment in the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel Asia television series, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” The taping is to air in the United States in June, with an Asia air date yet to be set.

“What happens when you’re an American, you’re in the military and you’re confronted with kimchee? That’s interesting,” Bourdain said.

Fortunately for Bourdain, the soldiers who joined him had no hang-ups about breaking away from on-base fare.

“I like Korean food because it’s healthy,” said Sgt. Luciano Vera. “So for me, it’s not much of a transition at all. If soldiers are barracks rats, they’ll never experience Korean culture. If they’re adventurous, it’s a simple as going off-post and experiencing it.”

But after Bourdain asked if Vera’s love for Mexican food extended to worm tacos and ant eggs, the sergeant discovered Bourdain’s definition of adventurous. Bourdain, after all, has eaten the beating heart of a freshly killed cobra on television.

Bourdain is usually the honored guest when he walks into a foreign kitchen or restaurant. Often, the host will prepare a “special” food just for him.

“That means ‘take one for the team’ when handed a seal eyeball,” Bourdain said.

The only time he has ever spit out food? An undercooked iguana in Mexico.

Despite those culinary challenges, Bourdain’s show isn’t a “Fear Factor” knock-off. His passion is finding quality food in countries passionate about their cooking. Countries without that love usually have unimpressive food, he said.

“I knew very little about (Korean food) when I came,” Bourdain said. “But I’ve been very impressed with how good it is, and how crazy they are about food and drinking.”

Bourdain acknowledged that Korean food hasn’t caught on the way that Chinese and Japanese food have in the United States. But that could change.

“There was a moment in the United States where, suddenly, it was OK to eat raw fish,” Bourdain said. “Now it’s everywhere. There is definitely a critical point where people decide, ‘It’s cool to eat this.’”

One day it may be cool to eat at places like Cheogajeep Restaurant, where Bourdain took Vera and Pfc. Amanda Merfeld for a heaping bowl of budaechigae — also known as “army stew.”

Fortunately for the soldiers, there were no moving octopi or anything that could be considered “gross” by American standards. They dined on a hearty bowl of hot dog, bacon and other pork products mixed with Korean vegetables and noodles in a spicy red sauce.

“I’ve never had budaechigae before and I expected a lot worse,” Merfeld said.

She described the food as “an interesting mixture of Willy Wonka-like wallpaper” — referring to the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s” many-flavored, lickable walls, where even the snozzberries taste like snozzberries.

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