BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 1, 2012
A long, long time ago, Anthony Bourdain was an average chef with a potpourri of substance abuse problems and a novel he was trying to sell. Then, more than a decade ago, he emerged as a nonfiction writer, a very good one, who made being an average chef sound like one of the world’s most fascinating endeavors. Next week, his show No Reservations, on since 2005, will air its last episode. It marks not an end to his career as food personality, but a next step in his move toward ubiquity. Bourdain has, just to name a few projects he’s got lined up, an ABC reality TV show he’s doing with Nigella Lawson, a travel show on CNN, a program on David Chang for PBS, his continued work on HBO’s Treme, and his own publishing imprint for Ecco. The food world is hardly lacking for celebrities these days, but Bourdain has managed to carve out a particular role for himself and his omnivorous, swaggering sensibility. Whether it’s because he changed the way we eat or because he eats in a way that fits with a changed culture, the easiest job description to attach to Bourdain, these days, is the man with the most admired tongue in America: for the tasting, the talking, and the lashing it does.
The Bourdain brand has been described as “a persona that's designed — some would say consciously — to stir the pot”; a “persona [that] is all about the uninterrupted projection of cool,” and one that “forsakes gentleness for machismo, balance for bluster. He has spawned an ethic, in the kitchen and in life, that poses as brave, but is really nothing more than the emotional equivalent of a keg stand, or maybe just a fear of being plain.” For the uninitiated: this, more or less, means that Bourdain swears a whole lot, eats as much weird flesh as he can, and wears a leather jacket as often as possible. His much younger, Italian second wife, who has a prodigious appetite of her own, is a competitive mixed martial arts fighter. He likes unfussy peasant cuisines, the Ramones, foie gras, Ferran Adria and telling you about how likes them; he hates Paula Deen and formality and LOVES telling you how he hates them.
Whether any of the above particularly interests you or not is almost beside the point: it's Bourdain himself who is the main attraction. The success of No Reservations has less to do with the plot (middle-aged dude eats food in locales near and far; scored by mannered voiceover and late-boomer musical preoccupations) and everything to do with his considerable personal and verbal magnetism.
But, more than any kind of machismo or peacocking, the Bourdain brand, in both style and content, is premised on the idea of Tony the Truthteller. It’s what first vaunted him into the spotlight with his memoir Kitchen Confidential—a willingness to let us behind the scenes for an unvarnished look at what really happens in a New York City kitchen, followed by his willingness to, as he might put it, shit upon the reputation of some of the industry’s biggest names, including “Saint” Alice Waters (whom he’s compared to the Khmer Rouge). That pugilism, plus the grabby, filthy frankness of his language (“Whether it’s the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’ or doing it doggie-style, good is simply … good”) has led many to accuse him of performing authenticity as shtick. But, as Bourdain’s editor, Daniel Halpern, wonders, does it matter if Bourdain’s become, to some, a caricature of himself publicly? “That’s what he does,” says Halpern. “That’s like saying Derek Jeter shouldn’t keep hitting to right field because that’s his schtick.”
Besides, when it comes to his critics, Bourdain is charmingly self-aware. “Some have said I’ve already become a cartoon version of myself. Maybe they have a point,” he says in No Reservations: Cleveland. And in the introduction to his post-fame collection of essays, Medium Raw, he writes, “I’d been savagely trashing the Food Network’s principal earners for some time—it was already schtick, part of a stand-up bit that would live on long after I stopped performing it.” He is in the midst of mounting what seems like a slightly embarrassed apologia for becoming as famous as the personalities he’s hated so publicly for so long. He’s even a little embarrassed that we’ve made him taster-in-chief. “Let’s face it: I am, at this point in my life, the very picture of the jaded, overprivileged ‘foodie’ (in the very worst sense of the word) that I used to despise.”
But that he’s risen to such heights of fame is partly because Bourdain has managed to bend the definition of foodie to his own: not only has he spawned a legion of imitators in the food writing world (Halpern says, wearily, that every food memoir proposal that crosses his desk promises to be the next Kitchen Confidential), but Bourdain’s truly changed food culture. GQ writer Alan Richman, a longtime champion of a more white-table-clothed dining room, whom Bourdain labeled a “douchebag” –and worse—in a whole devoted chapter of his book, says of their very public tussle, “I thought that the world would be on my side. It was a 19th century man against a 21st century man … He has captured the gestalt and morality of modern America."
The ascendancy of offal and bacon and low-key ethnic food and casual-but-adventurous dining and chefs who love to brag what food they eat when drunk was already well on its way in restaurateur circles before Bourdain hit bookshelves and TV sets (not trying to snub you here, Mr. Trillin!), but he’s managed to make viewers at home want to eat that way, too.
Perhaps Richman, with whom Bourdain has reached a mutually admiring-but-distant détente, is right to put Bourdain’s influence in moral terms. Bourdain is interested, largely, in the democratization of good food. “More than anyone, he began the movement away from the luxury and service element. He gave a voice to the guy on the line," says Grub Street senior editor Alan Sytsma. (Halpern, by the way, says he thinks the only people in the food world Bourdain truly dislikes are bosses who treat their employees poorly. Richman agrees.)
Bourdain also convinced more than a few readers that they might, as a career, want to be that line chef, and to set about doing it in a certain food punk way that, alongside locavorism, has been one of the most influential restaurant movements of recent years. See, perhaps: Eddie Huang's chef-on-chef verbal violence, and its preoccupation with authenticity —but also some truly meaningful culinary changes. Sytsma goes so far as to draw a direct line between Bourdain’s ascendance and that first of David Chang of the “cereal milk”-serving Momofuku empire and now of Danny Bowien of free-keg- beer-serving Mission Chinese—both of whom draw much of their buzz from allowing, quite literally, no reservations.
There’s a scene in No Reservations: Ireland when a chef who’s offered up a meal at the altar of Bourdain wonders exactly how much blarney is involved in the making of the show. “Do you call it how it is, Tony, or do you just say everything’s lovely?” asks Belfast's Paul Rankin. “I call it how it is,” Bourdain replies, enthusiastically sampling the sort of semi-precious fusion food (oyster-chicken wontons in lobster jus with tomatoes and spinach, Irish lamb with potatoes and kimchi) he has been skeptical of elsewhere, when served up by those less committed to bringing fresh culture to a hidebound food scene than Rankin is. “So I get to chuck you out if you say too many good things,” Rankin replies. “That would be good television,” Bourdain replies without missing a beat. He says he likes the food—but it doesn’t matter so much; Rankin served up exactly the kind of moment Bourdain loves. Some performers get applause when the curtain comes down; Bourdain gets his when the curtain’s drawn back.