The Art of Reviewing: Anthony Bourdain

Every blog needs a large-scale project. The Art of Reviewing will explore reviewing as an art form and as a valuable element to understanding society.  During this project, I will profile specific reviewers of merit.  Several specific cases also explore other facets of reviewing.

“I write, I eat, and I’m hungry for more.” – Tag line of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (2005 – Present)

The Foodie Revolution will be televised … again.  Anthony Bourdain represents another wave of popularizers.  With Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he has made it cool to think about food in all its various guises.  But Tony is not the first to give the American TV audience a swift metaphysical kick to the forehead.  He continues the tradition begun by former-OSS op Julia Child to familiarize and popularize French cuisine and to make us think differently about our foodways and folkways.  Both Bourdain and Child entered the mass media in a roundabout manner.  Both authored books before becoming TV personalities.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Badass

Anthony Bourdain entered the pop culture consciousness with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It read like a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Insane adventures combining drugs, sex, and food blitzed across the pages, the cod-Hunter S. Thompson prose reflecting the barely controlled chaos of a modern restaurant kitchen.  The book traces his ascent from grunt work as a line chef to running his own Manhattan restaurant, Les Halles.  One realizes that the lives of chefs are hard.  Really hard.  Long, long hours and not the best pay.  In order to score the really fresh, really good ingredients, one has to wake up early and snatch the best stuff.  The haute cuisine restaurant world is as ferocious and insular as high finance and politics.  Old rivals join together; partnerships shatter; and restaurants rise and fall with the vicious regularity of faddish tech stocks and whatever Goldman Sachs can dream up to bilk investors.  If you read the book, either it inspired you to pursue a cooking career or it scared the crap out of you.  The bombastic style combined with the insider knowledge of the restaurant world created a winning recipe for success.

Besides detailing the inner workings of a modern restaurant, Kitchen Confidential allowed Bourdain to vent his spleen on various topics.  One of these is vegetarianism and veganism:

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I’ll accommodate them, I’ll rummage around for something to feed them, for a ‘vegetarian plate’, if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.

It should be noted that Kitchen Confidential was not his first published work.  Bourdain wrote the Bobby Gold series, hard-boiled foodie noir novels.

More books followed and Bourdain eventually entered the world of TV.  His first show, A Cook’s Tour, aired on the Food Network in 2001 and 2002.  Published in 2001, A Cook’s Tour included extended background about the TV show’s segments and his dealing with the TV production process.  Bourdain had a falling out with the Food Network.  While A Cook’s Tour introduced America to Anthony Bourdain, the short running time made watching the program a masochistic exercise.  When he explored something as vast as the tapas scene in Spain or the syncretic cuisine of Singapore, by the time he scratched the surface the show ended.  It was not the best fit.

No Reservations and the Second Foodie Revolution

Bourdain’s second TV series, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations has aired on the Travel Channel since 2005.  Throughout the series, Bourdain has transformed from culinary badass to world traveler.  Hunter S. Thompson gave way to Sir Richard Francis Burton.  Like Burton, Bourdain has traveled the world, exploring little known folkways and sending his dispatches to a hungry TV audience.  The verbal bombast remains, but tempered by time, maturity, and comfort with the medium.

The series has explored his favorite locales including Vietnam and delved into areas one normally does not associate with foodie culture.  He has explored the Rust Belt, the elephant graveyard of late capitalism, Montana, Namibia, and Scotland.  In each episode, an hour rather than a half hour, Bourdain gives an overview of the region, styles ranging from the journalistic to the psychedelic.  He also gives equal due to street food and haute cuisine.

Bourdain has debunked the common mythology that food need to be expensive or rare to be good.  The cheap street food or little bodega has food as good as anything concocted by Thomas Keller or Mario Batali.  Haute cuisine just puts a nice frame around the same ingredients.  But both venues receive accolades when the owners bring creativity, fresh ingredients, and presentation to their food.  He has also advocated the best eating experiences occur when one is barefoot.  This reviewer concurs.

Bourdain, like Homer Simpson, also worships at the altar of all things pig.  No Reservations has become a treatise on how the global population uses that “magical animal.”  The pig, a generally humble animal that has provided income for farmers, has, through the magic of the cook, turned the various cuts into more divine meals that one could comprehend.  His legendary gut-busting meal at the Restaurant au Pied de Cochon involved a decadent exploration of pork products and foie gras.  He out-Trimalchio’ed Trimalchio.

In The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones, an essay collection fitting that description, a bawdy Rabelaisian mélange of fiction, non-fiction, reportage, and screed, Bourdain turns political.  He discusses the touchy subject of Latin American immigration and the very obvious contribution they have to our dining experience.

The idea of America is a mutt-culture, isn’t it?  Who the hell is American if not everybody else?  We are – and should be – a big, messy, anarchic polyglot of dialects and accents and different skin tones.  Like our kitchens.  We need more Latinos to come here.  And they should, whenever possible, impregnate our women.

The recent temper tantrums of the Right yowl for an anachronistic vision of America that is racist, unconstitutional, and hateful.  Above all, and this is the most important factor, that Ideal America, this Nativist wet dream, is unbelievably boring.  Everyone white straight and Protestant?  Ugh, change the channel.  What’s on Telemundo?  There’s a reason no one reads Henry James any more.  (Although they should because beneath the vapid WASPy exterior, the characters, heiresses and nouveau riche robber barons from the Reconstruction Era, play like Paris Hilton celebutantes chasing men.  There’s usually less cocaine use in Henry James novels.)

The horror!  The horror!

The books, shows, and magazine articles have enlightened Americans to rethink about what they eat.  The naked lunch at the end of their fork, to use William S. Burroughs’s phrase.  (Although the title was suggested by Jack Kerouac.)  Food is sensual, elemental, reflects where we are and the ingredients were proud.  Food encapsulates history, capital, politics, and biology into tasty little packages for our consuming pleasure.  If Julia Child was the First Wave, Anthony Bourdain is the Second Wave.

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