Friday, April 10, 2009


As I made my way out of the crowded balcony of the theater, I heard the voice of The Knoxville News Sentinel Food Writer, Mary Constantine. “Hey chef, did you have fun?” she asked. The question caught me somewhat off guard, but after a moment’s hesitation, I answered “well yes, I guess I did.”

Her query referred to the 90 minutes or so that we had just spent listening to the phenomena that is Anthony Bourdain. I was at the time, already sorting through my diverse reactions (and crafting this post) about the man and his message.

In writing about this, I am determined to try to avoid some of the clichés that are so often used to describe Chef Bourdain. “Bad boy of cuisine”, “anti-celebrity chef”, “outspoken”, “rants and raves”…I would really like to come up with my own descriptions and honest reactions. Let’s see how I do.

First of all, we can start with “honest” …yes, I thought he was honest, even if I did not always appreciate the way he expressed himself. He was honest in a way that I swear reminded me of the poetry of Allen Ginsburg, read in person by the author. I was fortunate enough to have been able to spend a little time around Allen in the 70’s and that was my word for him, honest… sometimes embarrassing and uncomfortable, sometimes inspiring, but definitely his own truth.

I did not walk into the theater a “big fan” of Bourdain, but not particularly antagonistic either. I was curious and intended to make up my own mind about the guy. I knew a bit about him through his shows and reputation. I have also read just one of his books, which I thought was weird, but fascinating in kind of a guilty, voyeuristic way.

The stage was bare except for a drawn curtain and the wooden podium that the chef utterly avoided. Bourdain entered the stage to enthusiastic applause from the mostly packed house. I realized as I took in the crowd, that the younger generation of restaurant cooks and workers (with tattoos, piercing, and other fashion statements) were well represented. Later, as I listened to the question and answer segment, I noted the deference with which many addressed the chef. He is clearly a hero (notice, I resisted using anti-hero) to many of the millennial generation and maturing members of generation “y”- and I see why, I think.

What I gather is that Chef Bourdain is not necessarily critical of the classic lions of the modern culinary world, but is really truthful about the hard realities of working in a modern restaurant kitchen. He was also really truthful about the character flaws of many of us associated with this profession. However, I think he reserves his most genuine contempt for the modern “celebrity” chef and the media star making machine that creates them. To his credit, he also recognizes that his success is based on the same media.

As I have reached a little deeper into his statements regarding some of these celebrities, I see that he can be very contemptuous of the content of their shows but still respectful and even good friends with many of them. (Not all, of course)- I’m not sure how he could be more disgusted with the work of Sandra Lee or The Food Network in general. I am very glad however to have found one of his statements concerning a personal culinary hero of mine, Julia Child. The chef writes …” the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us—teach us – and in fact, did…”

He proclaimed that he did not consider his career as a working chef to have been particularly distinguished, but now he has the “best job” in the world. He calls himself an “old school French chef”, a description that I like a lot, of course. I’m not quite sure his opinions about New American and Fusion Cuisine, but I’m guessing it depends on whether or not it was well prepared. Other examples of his opinions were very unambiguous. Bourdain calls the popular program Hell’s Kitchen (which I loathe) “a circus of cruelty”.

He certainly has a lot of freedom to do what he wants and says what he thinks in whatever colorful language that suits him. He is indeed noted for his profanity and the fact is that his language was a little hard for one of the members of our group that attended the event together. She is a very elegant and cultured lady in her eighties and it was certainly a little rough for her. It was quite clear to me however, that his loyal fan based loved it- based on their wild cheers after each expletive.

In the darkened theater it was impossible to take any notes and it was probably not necessary anyway, because a good deal of his presentation can be found on line, in his books, blog etc., etc. –this not a criticism, but actually rather convenient for anyone wishing to write about him or at least his opinions.

For a man whose reputation is totally entwined with judgments and criticism, I was surprised to note that some of my first impressions of him were of his open mindedness. I really admire his appreciation of the everyday people of the world, their kitchens and their real food and customs. His advice about not eating in restaurants frequented by tourist Americans while traveling in foreign countries was well taken.

I enthusiastically agreed with his attitude toward trying new foods, pushing personal limitations and honestly examining cultural prejudices. My wife and I have been appalled by some of the comments that have been made by some acquaintances returning from Cancun. Such as –“we didn’t even have to change our money into pesos or we stayed right at our hotel and ate all the time at the golden arches where everyone spoke English” … we find ourselves thinking “why did you even bother going to Mexico in the first place?”

I still wouldn’t describe myself as a “big fan” exactly, but I think Anthony Bourdain is a very healthy development in our “foodie” culture. He confronts issues that need to be addressed and stimulates valuable discussion and debate. In the several days since Mr. Bourdain’s appearance, I’ve given the man and his work a good deal of thought, and you know what I did have fun –a lot of fun!


Devadasi said...

Great article, Joseph! I feel as if I had been there with you!

midnightsun said...

Bourdain saying that people should be open-minded is silly when at the same time he criticizes people who are vegetarians as "rude" for not eating meat when in foreign countries. His "attitude toward trying new foods, pushing personal limitations and honestly examining cultural prejudices" ends at his own nose, I guess.

I'd like the guy, if he didn't think I was rude for no discernible reason. I've tried the cuisine of many countries, most of which are much more friendly to vegetarians than the United States is. Bourdain implies with his criticism that vegetarian cuisine is not the real food of a country, which is questionable.