As studio mogul Harry Cohn once famously quipped about swimmer-turned- pinup Esther Williams, "Dry, she ain't much. Wet, she's a star." The same might be said about the fiction and non-fiction of Anthony Bourdain, a New York chef who parlayed his adventures in the restaurant business into Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour, two books that resonate with a passion for food and the crazed eccentrics who devote their lives to it. In the kitchen, Bourdain's exuberant prose sings with unsparing observation and an insider's candor, digressing into thoughtful bits of philosophy, ribald behind-the-scenes vignettes, and the sensual rapture of a true food connoisseur. But outside of it, Bourdain turns into just another mediocre crime novelist, trying to push through by-the-numbers genre plotting, betrayed by a hardboiled style that too often curdles into cheap vulgarity and attitude. So it's not surprising that The Bobby Gold Stories–Bourdain's thinly conceived return to fiction after stints atop the bestseller list and among the Food Network's stable of celebrity chefs–only comes to life when the burners light up at a trendy nightclub/restaurant. As the book opens, Bourdain's titular nice-thug hero gets handed an eight-year prison sentence for cocaine possession with intent to distribute, and his incarceration transforms him from a promising pre-med student to a hulking block of muscle who knows his pressure points. After his release, Bobby has little choice but to hook up with his sleazy friend Eddie, a mid-level gangster who employs him as chief enforcer in charge of dealing with deadbeat gamblers, and the head of security at Eddie's popular NiteKlub. While a fearsome and highly capable bruiser, Bobby doesn't have the heart for the trade; in one amusing scene, he allows an aging debtor to choose which arm Bobby will break, and waits until the man's painkillers kick in before administering his punishment. Soon enough, Bobby's fortunes dim when he falls for the requisite femme fatale, an oversexed sauté cook named Nikki who ropes him into her half-baked plan to rob the NiteKlub safe and take off with a night's receipts. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain claimed the only women who could survive the macho boy's club of line cooks and sous-chefs were tough-talkers who could play along. But even by those standards, his Nikki is a fire-breathing monster (part shameless fantasy babe, part unrepentant skank and manipulator) who typifies Bourdain's weakness for sacrificing subtle grace notes at the altar of shocking effect. Left with a blank, passive hero and a story that trails off into the ether, Bourdain only seems comfortable when he's writing about restaurant culture, whether dealing with an officious customer or having Nikki whip together a special plate of monkfish and truffle risotto as a sly, affectionate come-on. With The Bobby Gold Stories, Bourdain proves he knows not to stray too far from his strengths, but he'd be wiser not to stray at all.