Film & Television

Anthony Bourdain, the anti-foodie foodie

By Matthew Clayfield
The so-called bad-boy celebrity chef has always offered a smarter take – and now we’re beginning to notice

Did anyone see it coming? Did Anthony Bourdain himself? How did a man who made his name with a book that largely glamourised the swinging-dick bro culture of professional kitchens – a book whose cover showed him and a couple of other dudes wielding long, sharp, rather phallic-looking knives – come to be a much sought-after interview subject on everything from the Trump presidency to the Weinstein scandal? How did he come to be treated as a public intellectual?

At least part of the answer is that Bourdain has always been a smarter, more moral and self-interrogating individual than he’s been given credit for. It’s simply taken us a while – too long, really, given the evidence of his work – to notice. This is partly down to who the man is, or presents himself as, in his work: rakish, devil-may-care, cool. He swears, he drinks, he smokes. (He also churns out work at a rate that no real hard-living alcoholic could match, which should have tipped us off.)

But the number of people who read Kitchen Confidential and still somehow manage to persuade themselves that it’s a paean to curse words and being a jerk is finally beginning to dwindle. Any serious engagement with Bourdain’s output – including Kitchen Confidential, which actually condemns the lifestyle it describes, however subtly – leaves one wondering how that number could have been so high in the first place.

The evidence has been piling up for a while, of course. Bourdain’s first television series, A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network, was basically what it said on the label. (You can catch that series on Netflix, and it’s a fascinating document about being a middle-aged career cook whose book has become an unexpected bestseller.) But in the series that followed it – No Reservations on the Travel Channel and Parts Unknown, the tenth season of which just finished airing on CNN – Bourdain’s desire to do something more important than simply service the bourgeois-bohemian predilection for food porn was immediately apparent. (The only other celebrity chef whose work comes close is Jamie Oliver, who clearly believes he has a social mission. We’ll come back to the others, who essentially amount to corporate mouthpieces, in a moment.) Travel broke something in Bourdain. Or, perhaps, fixed it.

No Reservations, repeats of which are constantly airing on SBS Food, was always a more serious affair than A Cook’s Tour. But we can nevertheless point to its most famous episode, “Beirut”, as the point where Bourdain really stopped producing a particularly well-made but otherwise stock-standard food-and-travel program and started making a kind of high-minded news program disguised as a stock-standard food-and-travel one. Other episodes in its vein soon followed.

One always hopes to catch one of these episodes when flicking through the channels: the episodes that abandon food entirely in favour of reporting the news of the day, or dealing with history, or both. In the “Beirut” episode, which went on to win a Peabody Award, the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War breaks out, cutting short the shoot and forcing the host and his crew to evacuate. (The episode is unremittingly depressing. Bourdain has said that he was adamant there not be “any corny element of hope there at the end. You know, we’re all going to end up ground under the wheel.”)

I would also point to No Reservation’s Laos and Haiti episodes, the first of which is primarily occupied with the ongoing matter of unexploded ordnance that has bedevilled Laos since the end of the United States’ secret bombing of the country throughout the Vietnam War (Bourdain almost can’t bring himself to eat the meals offered by the dirt-poor people doing the cooking, wanting only to apologise for his country’s actions) and the latter of which unintentionally finds itself tackling, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, the fraught morality of international aid. (It does so in spectacular miniature: Bourdain buys out a street vendor, telling her to serve the kids who have been eyeing him eating at her stall, with the result that a massive line forms and fights break out.)

Parts Unknown has been even bolder in its commitment to current affairs. Season three’s “Russia” episode, shot in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, reveals perhaps more than any other where Bourdain’s interests increasingly lie. He meets Boris Nemtsov, the liberal leader who was murdered the following year, and Alexander Lebedev, the publisher of Novaya Gazeta, the famous independent newspaper where Anna Politkovskaya made her name before being gunned down in her apartment building 11 years ago. There are shots of the food coming out – and shots of the shots you inevitably wind up drinking in Russia – but very little discussion about it once it’s on the table (though there’s a little bit about Lebedev’s potato-farming interests). It’s an episode almost exclusively dedicated to Russian politics under Putin, and Bourdain has no reservations (I’m so sorry) about telling us what he thinks. One might also point to the harrowing episode about Massachusetts, in which Bourdain visits the kitchens in which he first started cooking and the alley in which he first bought heroin. Talking to doctors, narcotics officers, kitchen-sink drug dealers and a support group for former prescription drug-turned-smack addicts, he puts together one of the best hours on America’s opioid epidemic you’re likely to see. The episode ends – it’s a food show, right? – with a clam bake.

Obviously, food continues to feature prominently in Bourdain’s television work, and his latest literary offering, Appetites, is a cookbook. In an excellent review of Appetites for Canada’s Globe and Mail – I defy you to name anyone else on the planet who could command space in the literary pages with a cookbook – Jen Agg noted that even here there’s a subtle political element to what’s going on. “He’s reaching into the subconscious of middle- and lower-class America to pull out these recipes,” Agg writes. “But this is also the same Anthony Bourdain who is one of the most well travelled people on the planet, so the overwhelming majority of his comfort food recipes are from far-flung places such as Kuala Lumpur and Budapest ... This subtle drawing of similarities between American and ‘foreign’ food is, to me, the best thing about this book – not that the flavours are the same, but that the feelings comfort foods evoke in people are.”

It’s a good observation, if not a great sentence, because it recognises the key thing about Bourdain’s work: the fact that, because food is really about people, food is itself, by definition, political. Indeed, Bourdain recently narrated a film about food waste, Wasted!, which is available online. “I don’t like the idea of being an advocate,” he said in an interview about the documentary. “But this is an area, this is an issue, that goes fundamentally against my instincts as a long-time working cook and chef.”

The structure of his television work remains as simple and straightforward as his prose: Bourdain visits a place, tracks down a local fixer or chef or cab driver (or, in Hanoi, Barack Obama), and chows down for the next 40 minutes or so. But the manner in which he does so – indiscriminately – is entirely at odds with the approaches taken by every other celebrity foodie you could name. Bourdain means it when he says that food is for everyone and isn’t that important anyway. (There’s a reason he gives craft beer a hard time and claims not to give a shit about wine.)

This isn’t an argument being made by any other food show on the market. It certainly isn’t an argument being made by any of the food magazines on our supermarket shelves. Early last year, despite my better judgement (and theirs, as it turned out), I found myself working for a “premium” food magazine. Its primary goal was to be that most horrid of things: an aspirational title.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to something, of course. But when the thing that one is aspiring towards is the ability to make mango tiramisu or deconstructed lamington, or to whip a superfood-based smoothie, on the basis of the pretty pictures in a magazine sponsored by a major supermarket chain ... well, that’s a little different.

Last year, accredited dietitian Melanie McGrice told the Herald Sun that a growing number of Australians were falling victim to “food fad peer pressure”, particularly when it came to so-called superfoods, including many people who couldn’t afford to.

“I’ve seen people who can’t afford basic fruit and vegetables spending unnecessarily on things like coconut water because they feel pressure to purchase,” she said.

I put together a rewrite of this piece – it was my job to regurgitate others’ work with a bit of snark thrown in for flavour – realising as I did so that the result would never see the light of day. How to report the news of the moment without acknowledging that all our previous articles about kale and goji berries and gluten-free diets were in fact bullshit designed to make people buy shit? I tacked on a half-hearted ending about how we tried to make all our recipes healthy and cheap. But my suspicions proved correct: the article was never published. The last thing we wanted to do was point out the inherent classism of what we were doing.

Bourdain has no time for this sort of thing, and doesn’t believe that you should, either. For every fine-dining establishment he features on his shows – and he admittedly visits some of the best in the world – he features ten or more no-name street vendors you wouldn’t be able to find if you tried to.

The “Istanbul” episode of No Reservations is a good example of this, though you can pretty easily find the döner place he eats at. He later accepts an invitation to dine with his fixer and her family. The family in question was no doubt vetted in order that this could happen, but he still calls the breakfast they enjoy together the best he’s had in town. I don’t doubt it.

Or consider his excellent episode in the American south-west with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, in which the pair visits crappy diners, eats a bunch of greasy hangover food, and then cooks a basic pasta at the Rancho de la Luna recording studio in Joshua Tree, California. Or – perhaps most relevantly – consider the “how-to” episodes in which well-known chefs demonstrate how to make basic dishes that don’t require much time, money or effort. (A few more detailed recipes aside, Appetites takes the same approach.) There’s not a superfood in any of these dishes. There’s not a superfood in any of these episodes. It’s also telling that, no matter where Bourdain happens to find himself, he drinks the local beer without complaint, however tasteless, and has a great time.

This is more important than it sounds. In an age in which food and the ability to pay for it – not to enjoy it, necessarily, but to tell people later that you ate it – has become a kind of whack social currency, Bourdain has fashioned himself as the anti-foodie foodie, the guy who insists that food can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, at any time and at any pricepoint. He wants his viewers to aspire, but only to their own enjoyment. The rest of the culinary-industrial complex, in striking contrast, doesn’t. Its sponsors don’t make money that way.

The gradual but undeniable shift in the content of Bourdain’s work – if not its tone, which remains an appealing mix of irreverence, moral seriousness and occasionally a little cheesy wistfulness – has no doubt contributed to his appeal to journalists as a go-to cultural commentator. As has his willingness to talk on the record without taking any prisoners (and, I suspect, the fact that he has the imprimatur of CNN behind him).

Last December, Eater ran a long-form interview with Bourdain about the election of Donald Trump. We can probably now see it as the point at which his persona began to undergo its most radical change, at least as far as the wider public’s perception of it is concerned. (There was little in the interview – in terms of what he said or how he said it – that followers of his work and the shifts in it would consider especially new.)

“I think to mock constantly, as so much of the left has done – to demonise, to ridicule, to treat with abject contempt people who live in a very different America than they live in – is both ugly and counterproductive,” he said, pointing out that he’s travelled through that “very different America” enough times to know that, well, some really nice people live there, and are just trying to get on with their lives. He also said, recalling his comments about not wanting to be an advocate, that “I have really no – zero, I don’t feel that I have any – responsibility.”

But that was then. In the past two months, Bourdain has become one of the most unequivocally outspoken male commentators, famous or otherwise, to have weighed in on the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. This is in part because Bourdain’s partner, the Italian actor and filmmaker Asia Argento, is one of the women who has gone on the record to level such allegations at the disgraced mogul. It’s also because the Weinstein affair has inspired women in the restaurant business to stand up and call out insitutionalised sexism in their own industry. (It’s also because Bourdain is a good person.) In late October, New Orleans chef John Besh, who has appeared in Bourdain’s television work, was forced to step down from the group of restaurants he owns after the Times-Picayune reported allegations that Besh’s company ignored sexual harassment claims and that Besh himself had engaged in harassment himself. Bourdain had already been going after Weinstein and his enablers on Twitter with a ferocity unusual even for him. Now the world he grew up in – the world he wrote about in the book that made him famous – was under fire, too.

His response has been a masterclass in how to own up to something. Not for Bourdain the equivocating of your Matt Damons and Ben Afflecks. In an extended interview with Slate, Bourdain put it this way: “I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, ‘To what extent in [Kitchen Confidential] did I provide validation to meatheads?’

“[T]he system itself, from the very beginning, was abusive, was male-dominated and cruel beyond imagining … [The Besh affair] is an indictment of the system.”

This reminded me of a line from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the late journalist’s excellent book about the Vietnam War: “You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” I’d eat my shoe if Bourdain hasn’t read that line and let it linger a little. His work has always suggested it, and continues to suggest it now, despite his comments deriding responsibility – a position that, in any case, is beginning to fall away.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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