Disclaimer: This is not a post about boudin noir – though I can tell you that I’d very much like to eat some – nor is it about Bourdain being black, or a black Bourdain, or…well, it was just a terrible pun, you know, a stupid play on words to grab your attention about the thing that I’m trying to –
The hell with it: let’s talk about Anthony Bourdain.
What do you call a guy like Anthony Bourdain? You could say he was a chef, in fact the executive chef (now “chef-at-large”) at Brasserie Les Halles in New York for some time, and leave it at that. But then you’d neglect his TV career, with the brilliant No Reservations, wonderful Layover, and intriguing Parts Unknown series (and the slightly less gripping A Cook’s Tour one) under his belt (I haven’t bothered to watch him on Top Chef). And with all of the traveling he’s done over the past decade and more, you’d have to call him a world traveler/gastronome. Yet you wouldn’t be able to accurately capture his snarky – and almost always cuttingly correct – commentary on food, culture, music, politics, and everything else under the sun. So he’s a kind of cultural commentator, not in the ubiquitous-pundit sense but more in the sufficiently amusing mold.
As convoluted and multifaceted as all of that is, the fact remains that Bourdain was also, all along, a fantastic writer. After all, it was his first book, Kitchen [Fucking] Confidential, that (rightly) put him on the culinary and literary map. I read
KFC (ok, ok, it was a deliberately terrible pun!) the book for the first time three years ago, at which point I’d already watched No Reservations for…er, two years. But in Confidential I saw Bourdain actually come to life. It’s a strange conclusion to come to, especially since the book actually came before any of his TV series. But the snappy style, intriguing insight, and simply brilliant stories he has to tell just shot out at me with inexplicable force. Damn the man too, because he makes it all sound so…easy. Here’s a taste an excerpt about his childhood vacations in France:
My parents did their best. They took us everywhere, from restaurant to restaurant, cringing, no doubt, every time we insisted on steak hache (with ketchup, no less) and a ‘Coca.’ They endured silently my gripes about cheesy butter, the seemingly endless amusement I took in advertisements for a popular soft drink of the time, Pschitt. ‘I want shit! I want shit!’ They managed to ignore the eye-rolling and fidgeting when they spoke French, tried to encourage me to find something, anything, to enjoy.
And here’s another about his training in the CIA (deliberate(!) acronym for the Culinary Institute of America):
[One] class, Oriental Cookery, as I believe it was then called [in 1975], was pretty funny. The instructor, a capable Chinese guy, was responsible for teaching us the fundamentals of both Chinese and Japanese cooking. The Chinese portion of the class was terrific. When it came time to fill us in on the tastes of Japan, however, our teacher was more interested in giving us an extended lecture on the Rape of Nanking….In between describing the bayoneting of women, children and babies in World War II, he’d point at a poster of a sushi/sashimi presentation and say in his broken, heavily accented English, ‘That a raw a fish. You wanna eat that? Hah! Japanese shit!‘…
If you watch No Reservations or the like, you can easily tell how Bourdain’s writing slips into his TV narrative, even if it has to be toned down somewhat for the audience. But it’s probably why I keep getting drawn to watching and re-watching almost all his episodes. (Well, except for the Romania one. That was a little more than cringeworthy.)
Speaking of Bourdain’s TV career, it’s amusing to look back on A Cook’s Tour – the book, not the show – and read about how pained he felt at times when recording episodes for the ill-fated Food Network series. Ten years can do a lot to your opinions, but reading about the guy “making television” is classic:
But you want to know what it’s like making television? Even a completely nonscripted, cinema verité, make-it-up-as-you-go-along travel and food show, where you do whatever the hell you want and hope the cameras can keep up? It’s being poked in the head with shotgun mikes so often, you feel like the leading lady in a late 1970s Ron Jeremy flick. There is no halfway. You don’t, it turns out, sell out a little bit. Maybe you thought you were just going to show a little ankle – okay, maybe a little calf, too – but in the end, you’re taking on the whole front line of the Pittsburgh Steelers on a dirty shag carpet.
So back to that first question – what do you call a guy like Anthony Bourdain? Cook? Chef? Writer? TV host? Commentator? Philosopher? Renaissance man? Or just an all-around badass?
I’ll just let the man speak for himself on this one.