Bad Boy Bourdain: The Culinary Gangsta

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I’m not really a fan of reality television, but there are a few notable exceptions. The one man who has the power to get me to watch anything he does is former chef, and culinary bad boy, Anthony Bourdain. I mean, I like cooking shows okay, but what he does is something special and altogether different. Although he was known primarily as a chef, Bourdain no longer works as one, especially since the wild success of his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and his move to the Travel Channel in 2005 to begin hosting the culinary and cultural adventure programs Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and The Layover. In 2013, he joined CNN to host Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. I was introduced to him first through No Reservations, and then more significantly through Parts Unknown, which has become one of my favorite programs on television. His shows make me forget why I hate reality television, and reminds me of how powerful food is in understanding a culture, and how a meal can change lives, topple governments, forge alliances, or simply make for a lovely afternoon. Anthony Bourdain understands the power of a meal, and expertly exploits each moment for not only our enjoyment, but our enrichment as well.

In the show Parts Unknown, Bourdain creates a postmodern mashup of cooking show, history lesson, cultural anthropology, travel documentary, and food appreciation. In Parts he travels to countries all over the world, including some rather unstable parts of the world (Columbia, Congo, Myanmar, Lybia — just months after Arab Spring). And in each place, he manages to have the most intimate and authentic experience you can imagine. He meets, greets, and eats with local chefs, writers, musicians, and other natives. They take him to their favorite restaurants — whether it be a five-star affair, or a food cart along the side of the road. He makes sure to try as many of  the main dishes of the region, and stays several days, to help facilitate that. It also allows him to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in different parts of the city. Without fail, no matter where Bourdain goes, he is at least familiar enough with their cuisine to know what ingredients they favor, and how they prepare their food. If nothing else, he knows just enough to ask all the right questions. This is all shared with the audience, and we are doubly rewarded in seeing this world through his eyes, because we have access to his knowledge, but also are allowed the joy in discovering and trying new things. One of the most valuable aspects of the show is how brilliantly Bourdain is able to put it all into context. He pays attention to the history of a culture, how their food shaped them, and how their history shaped the food.

As a television personality, and host of the show, Anthony Bourdain is so laid back, and easy to be around, he disarms his companions, and puts them at ease. His slightly detached and confident demeanor is complimented by his eager enthusiasm for food, drink, and culture. He is genuinely curious and interested in finding out what goes into a dish, and what makes a culture tick. His charm is in his self-assurance, yet egoless interest in what you say and do. It allows people to feel that they are the only person in the world at that moment, and that what they say matters. It cannot be overstated how comfortable Bourdain is at making other people feel comfortable, and come off as smart and well-informed. He simply makes other people look good, while masterfully guiding conversations where it needs to go. Through his eyes, we see the joy and the wonder he takes at literally consuming another culture.

What is perhaps most surprising about Bourdain’s style is not only that he makes other people feel safe, important, and knowledgeable without losing face, but that he does it while continuing to ask them challenging and often provocative questions.  His charm lies in the ability to play the innocent, and ask questions that challenge people’s assertions, but delivered in non-threatening packaging. It’s all in the inquisitive — almost childlike — tone of his voice and the assumption that he’s a friend, and that there’s not a hint of accusation in his voice. After all, most of these interactions take place while enjoying a meal the host has prepared. Bourdain knows the sanctity of the meal and the symbolism of breaking bread with another. Our intrepid chef knows his limits, but expertly exploits the moment. In the  very powerful episode set in Jerusalem, Bourdain employed this technique numerous times. Despite being Jewish on his mother’s side, Anthony did not grow up with any religion. Regardless, he made it clear that he still considers himself culturally Jewish. With this in mind, it was remarkable how even-handed he was to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, he sat down to eat at Jewish and Muslim tables. All the while, he was respectful, praised their food, and showed deference in their homes. He also asked them all very challenging questions. He occasionally asked them to clarify certain answers, particularly the more intolerant ones. Even such a simplistic technique proved moderately effective, when people slowed down their answers and were forced to confront the intolerance of their words. It may not have changed anyone’s mind, but it shone a light on the reality that even though they may live in close proximity, these two ethnic groups are isolated from each other. Each side only hears the rhetoric and confirmation of its own people echo back from the wall, without ever really knowing what it must sound like on the other side. During one exchange, Bourdain questions his Jewish host at the dinner table as to why it was acceptable for a nearby Muslim house to have hateful graffiti scrawled all over it. The man intimated that it wasn’t him, but villains who had perpetrated it. He pressed back, and asked why the man had allowed it to stay there. In that fraction of a second, the Israeli felt the impact, and there was recognition somewhere deep inside. The man replied that he did not know, but that they really ought to paint over it. There was no harm done and the meal continued to be a pleasant one. Those are the kind of acrobatic linguistics Bourdain can do. He may look like an easy going burnout, but underneath it all, he’s cleverly unraveling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, and inside an enigma. All for us.

Anthony Bourdain can have strong opinions, especially when it comes to food. However, he is very sweetly deferential when it comes to most people. He rarely injects his own argument or opinion, and sometimes the only way of knowing is in the content and tone of the questions he asks. When he does offer his opinion, it can sometimes be serious, and critical, but he offers it in the concern of a friend, and it reads as sincere and nonjudgmental. Examples of this can be found in his assessment of the challenges certain countries face. For instance, in Columbia, he witnessed the shells of buildings and the abject poverty left behind after the drug cartels retreated. He strongly pointed out the considerable work they still had left ahead, but praised them for their resiliency. He went on to say that if Columbia could recover from such dire adversity, imagine what a country with resources, like America, could do. In another episode, Bourdain traveled to Myanmar, not long after the country opened up. The infrastructure was archaic, and the country had withered with age and neglect under a military junta and dictatorship. The country had been plagued with fierce civil war, but in the years of military rule, there were countless instances of human rights abuse and harsh oppressive regime tactics. When Bourdain met with his various hosts, a few of them had been political dissidents, and had served time in prisons, under inhumane conditions. Bourdain listened and asked questions with ease and curiosity, even as they recounted their horrors. He’s not a sentimental man, nor is he prone to dramatics, and so when he heard of various atrocities, he didn’t feel the need to placate, comfort, pity, or encourage the speaker. He just listened. Although he has very clear opinions, we often only hear those in the voice over, not in his interaction with foreigners. (If you can call them that, in their own country!) It doesn’t take long to realize Anthony Bourdain’s about as sharp as they come. But he uses his intellect in interesting ways.  If he shows off or boasts, it’s never in a way that diminishes another person. He is very respectful of the people that play host and guide to him while he’s in country. Whether he honed his skills in the kitchen, or on air, Bourdain has come up with a television recipe that tastes great.

When our host went to Libya, it was only months after the fall of Gaddafi. At first, there was a contagious feeling of celebration in the air. Bourdain came across men and boys setting off fireworks in a large square, and the atmosphere was jubilant and joyful. He met with arab men that spoke of fighting in the resistance, and took pride in helping to overthrow the dictator. They spoke fondly of the bloodshed of Gaddafi, and wished they had held the knife themselves. Their words were brutal, but came across as those who have been victimized for far too long, and sought vengeance on their oppressor. Bourdain did not pass judgement, nor did he give them a pass and validate their words. Once again, he seemed to always know what to say. Whereas the first day or so was pleasant, and the he had met many gracious people, things took a turn for the worse soon thereafter. At the site of Gaddafi’s sacked and pillaged fortress, the camera crew was besieged by one of the many gangs that had formed in the vacuum of rule, and told to leave and surrender their film. They were a vigilante group, like many in the country, whose mission was to hunt down Gaddafi supporters. The irony of the whole thing is that the crew was hosted by rebels who had fought alongside the kind of men who made up this faction who was assaulting them. They had all fought on the same side, but already life was splintering all around Lybia. Chaos was scary, and Bourdain was now in fact shaken by what he had seen. The following days were equally tense and they faced challenges crossing checkpoints and traveling at night. The evening was a frightening time, and they were warned not to travel after dark. The episode ended warmly though, when Bourdain sat down for an outdoor meal on the beach, with several warm, but traditional Libyan men. They all ate from a large bowl of rice, with either freshly slaughtered goat or lamb on top. Naturally, they all ate with their right hand, and Bourdain effortlessly followed traditional Muslim custom. There was also a young woman there: a doctor from the village, who had been educated in America, and returned during the revolution to assist her people. She was a scholar and highly educated woman, and yet she was forced to sit at the kids table, removed from the men. It was their custom, and she did not question it. Bourdain mentions in his narration that he almost wished he could have said something, but what would he have said? It is their custom, and as always, Bourdain honored that.

In addition to learning about the food, drink, customs, and history of a country, the show functions as a compelling travelogue. Through his travels, we see a variety of the landmarks of each city, but more impressively, we see the underbelly and working class view of these cultures. That means that we often are taken into crowded and bustling farmer’s markets, into slaughterhouses, down thru wine cellars, into an ice house on a frozen lake, around ancient ruins, on a fishing boat down the Congo River, up a rocky narrow path to an orchard of Cacao trees, into a seedy hookah bar, and many more intimate, and uniquely cultural places. These are not the kind of locations you’re going to find in a Let’s Go Europe or similar travel guide. These are the gritty and unceremonious epicenters…the heartbeat of a city, if you will. By the time the show’s over, you can’t help but feel like you’d been there, and had tasted everything Bourdain had eaten, and felt the agony of each of his subsequent hangovers! You can’t help but feel like you got the insider tour and explored these cities like only the locals know how. Did I mention the show is less than an hour long? Yet somehow, Bourdain manages to fill that hour with meaningful and substantial material. This is not your typical travel show, where the camera moves at breakneck speed to make sure all the landmarks and significant neighborhoods are covered. Parts Unknown isn’t about showing you every tourist site there is to see. The name says it all. Bourdain is attempting to uncover parts or places unknown to us — even the cities we think we know well. He doesn’t just go to far flung exotic countries; there are episodes on New Mexico, Los Angeles, and Detroit, for example. The show is about immersing yourself in a culture, and meeting like-minded chefs and artists, who will show you the unseen hidden art, culture, and beauty of each place. It’s not surprising to learn that the true lessons in history and the fundamental knowledge of a people can’t be found where the tourists are, but must be earned in the streets, down the alleys, and in the cafes and bistros. We can’t help but come to the conclusion that the best way to know a people is to find what unites them. More often than not, a culture is identified with its food, and the act of preparing and consuming it. Food is what binds us together. Bourdain understands this better than anyone, and he uses the dinner table to question, savor, taste, smell, and comment on whatever place he happens to be. And he always knows how to speak the language, because he’s fluent in food, and that bridges all divides. When you sit down and break bread with a person, and allow them to share their food with you, you will learn more than you ever would on a ten day guided bus tour.

No discussion of Anthony Bourdain would be complete without mentioning his dry and acerbic wit and scathing sense of humor. As I’ve made abundantly clear, Bourdain is a very smart man and also exceedingly street savvy, as you would expect any native New Yorker to be. He grew up in suburban New Jersey though. His humor is an interesting mix of styles. He certainly has a wry Jewish wit, with the elements of intellect, irony, and sarcasm, and the historical timeline back to Vaudeville and Yiddish theatre. But it’s not only that. Although he grew up comfortable (Father worked for Columbia Records, mother for the New York Times, and he went to prep school and then on to Vassar.), Bourdain was drawn to the seedier underbelly. He ran with a fast crowd in the restaurant business, and began to abuse drugs. I mention this because I think his humor is also over-sexualized, crass, countercultural, anarchic, punk, and anti-authoritarian. So what this translates to is a smart and sometimes witty sense of humor, but sprinkled with a darkness, scathing sarcasm, goofy irony, and defiant streak. In the episode on New Mexico, he makes a sophomoric joke about a phallic shaped rock formation behind him. It becomes meta, when he comments on needing a 50-something year old sense of humor, and it was time to grow up. I cannot agree. His brand of humor is off-beat and refreshing, and serves the show well. Especially when paired with his more serious and hard-hitting style.

I’ve traveled across America, and been into Mexico and Canada a few times. I briefly lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in a 17th Century castle in the Netherlands. I made my way all over Europe. But I think what I am most proud of is how I made my way around. Like Bourdain, I suppose I’ve always had wanderlust, and was never just satisfied visiting a place. I wanted to know where I’d been. I always made an effort to go to the out-of-the-way bars and pubs, and I went to dance clubs and concert halls with no other English speakers present; I sat on bar stools and tried horse meat croquettes; drank Scotch whisky with bagpipers from a local tattoo; carried a journal to write down new Dutch words I learned in the village. Wherever I went, I asked what the locals were drinking and eating, and I was adventurous, perhaps to a fault. I made friends easily, and that’s part of what I admire about Anthony Bourdain so much. I see myself in him, and marvel at how easy and comfortable he is with new people and trying new things. He has such a remarkable confidence and command, while not boasting or using his ego to belittle others. But at the same time, Bourdain is no blushing flower. He can be rude and crass, and is renowned for his liberal use of profanity and sexual references, especially the use of double entendre to describe food. Furthermore, Anthony is no saint, and it quickly becomes clear that he has quite a colorful past. He is not shy about discussing his past drug abuse problems, and his struggles with staying clean. He also has a few tattoos that we can easily see, and the certain raggedness of a face that had seen some years. Ultimately, you get the feeling that this guy has lived life to the fullest, traveled extensively throughout the world, been in a few knife fights and gotten his ass kicked one too many times, been to bed with many different women, done far too many drugs, and tasted the most exquisite foods this planet has to offer. Although I am nowhere near his level of experience or debauchery, I have lived my life as if each day was my last, and tried to suck the marrow out of each precious moment. And as you might expect, that kind of commitment has led to many regrettable mistakes I wish I could take back. But just as assuredly, there have been even more sublime days of discovery and the bliss that can only come from those sweet moments you know are historic, and will never come again…except in your dreams. Anthony Bourdain lives life out loud, and his idea of adventure is not colonial or proprietorial, but respectful and sincere in moving amidst a people, and exploring their culture from the inside out. This ‘Chef-at-Large’ bears a confidence that comes from great sorrow and triumphant success, and has left him with the most impressive ability to put people at ease, and charm them into their own special greatness. All while never losing his cool or control. With Bourdain, we always know he’s steering the ship, we just don’t always know when and how. A man’s gotta have some parts unknown.

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