Anthony Bourdain: Is He A Better Chef, Writer, or TV Personality?
"I'm Taylor Houston. I write, I (wish I could) travel, I eat... and I'm hungry... FOR MORE."
Ok, so yeah, I stole that line from the opening of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations. You could say that I’m a fan. I have probably seen almost every episode and I’ll read pretty much anything he has written. I subscribed to Lucky Peach purely because his name was listed as a contributor, and I may even attempt watching CNN (which I tend to avoid) just because his newest show was picked up by that network.
The reason I like him so much is not even completely clear to me. I am not a foodie or food snob. I like to eat things that taste good. And if it tastes good enough, I’m likely not to care if it’s made completely of SPAM and Velveeta. I am an okay cook and can prepare a decent home-cooked meal. However, I cook with margarine, and I love Trader Joe’s because they offer so many frozen meals that are a cinch to make. Though I spent a year abroad in college, I wouldn’t really call myself a traveler. These days, I’m happy to make the two-hour trip to the Oregon Coast when I want to “travel.” I do, however, write. And I am, however, hungry—and not just for breakfast. Perhaps that is why I enjoy Bourdain—because I can live vicariously through him. I mean, the guy went from frying seafood and shooting up heroin to running a fancy restaurant, publishing a best seller, and hosting a travel television show. It’s a total dream job. My dream job, actually.
Anyways…back to Tony…he cooks, he writes, and he travels for TV; but he’s really only great at one of those things. Let’s take a look…
I often see Anthony Bourdain (whose birthday is June 25th) called a “celebrity chef.” Though he started his working career in the kitchens of Massachusetts and New York, I don’t think you could really call Anthony Bourdain a “chef” anymore. I would argue he was a chef, then a celebrity. But just for kicks, let’s examine his culinary career. While studying at Vassar College in the late 1970’s, Bourdain worked summers at seafood joints along the Massachusetts coastline. He enjoyed the experience enough to pursue a formal culinary education, and he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. After that, he moved to New York City and began to work in the incredibly grueling and little rewarding food industry. As he moved from restaurant to restaurant, he moved up (and sometimes down) the proverbial food chain, finally heading some of the better known (to New Yorkers and Foodies, anyway) kitchens of The Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue, Sullivans, and Brasserie Les Halles, a popular French bistro. And while he was undoubtedly quite talented at this gig, it certainly did not make him a celebrity.
As the son of a New York Times editor, Anthony Bourdain always loved writing, and in between back-to-back 12-hour shifts in the punishing restaurant industry, he wrote and published three food-themed crime novels: Bone in the Throat (1995), Gone Bamboo (1997) and Bobby Gold (2001). As you might have predicted, none of these attempts allowed Bourdain to set cooking aside and pursue writing full time.
Then, in the April 19th, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, the then little known chef and attempted crime novelist published an essay that would eventually free him from the kitchen and launch him to stardom. The essay was called "Don't Eat Before Reading This", and it exposed the less appetizing realities of the restaurant biz such as three-day old fish served on Mondays and food prepared by the “dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths” that make up the kitchen personnel of most restaurants. The essay garnered Bourdain enough attention that when he published the balance of his culinary musings in the book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, he became, much to his surprise, a bestselling author.
Since then, Bourdain has published several more memoirs which include A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), The Nasty Bits (2006), No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach (2007), and the follow up to Kitchen Confidential, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (2010). He’s written numerous articles and essays for publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Times, Los Angeles Times, The Observer, Gourmet, Maxim, and Town & Country. He is also a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s relatively new addition to its literary magazine empire—the food mag Lucky Peach. It’s safe to say the guy can write.
That said, I’d argue that his talents are not best spent as a writer. Even though I enjoyed both Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, his stories are often riddled with clichés and slightly overdone turns of phrase. KC came off far more authentic that MR. That’s not surprising, as Bourdain wrote that book mainly for an audience of fellow restaurant workers, so his tone is friendly and casual. When I was 14, my first job was bussing tables for a popular tourist restaurant, so I could completely relate to his descriptions of perpetually stoned line cooks, egotistical wait staff, deplorable work conditions, and questionable food preparation. (At this particular restaurant, they re-heated a bucket of butter in the microwave each day that was used to butter toast. A paintbrush applicator was dipped into the buckets several hundred times a day, and then the paintbrush and the bucket of unused butter was put away in the fridge until the next day.)
In the case of Medium Raw, however, he does not come off quite so pedestrian. His status as a well-heeled, foodie-know-it-all made it hard sometimes to follow his descriptions. Throughout the book, I felt like I needed a French Dictionary and a copy of Julia Child’s The Joy of Cooking to come close to understanding what the hell he was talking about. When he spoke of haute cuisine, Michelin stars, or big name chefs, I pretty much tuned out. I don’t have the budget to eat where those guys cook (or travel to where those guys have restaurants), so it means little to me that Ferran Adrià’s food foams are so five years ago or that David Chang is a total genius. Nor, too, was I particularly thrilled with the book’s scene of Bourdain being invited to eat a rare (and illegal) meal of some tiny bird cooked in its entirety and eaten piping hot with a napkin over your face. These kind of crème-de-la-crème food experiences are not a part of my life, nor will they ever be.
However, I can’t help but be won over in the end by Bourdain’s relentless self-effacing humor. When he calls himself “the very picture of the jaded, overprivileged 'foodie’” or “a loud, egotistical, one-note a-hole who's been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long,” I have to agree. But I can, however, respect the fact that he accused himself first.
After the success of Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain was approached by The Food Network to star in a show about traveling and eating called The Cook’s Tour. When The Food Network tried to dumb-down Bourdain’s content, asking for more BBQ/Americana-centric type shows aimed at people who could care less about foreign cuisines, Bourdain took his talents to The Travel Chanel. They allowed Bourdain a wider degree of creative control, and the 8 successful seasons of No Reservations were largely the result of Bourdain’s creative vision.
Since then, he’s also hosted Travel Channel’s The Layover, and when his relationship with TC soured (partly the result of it being bought by The Food Network) he moved over to CNN and started the new series, Parts Unknown. He’s appeared as a guest on countless other shows, including Travel Channel colleague Andrew Zimmern’s show, Bizarre Foods; ABC’s cooking competition show The Taste; as the voice of his animated doppelganger on The Simpsons; and even played “Dr. Tony” on the kid show Yo Gabba Gabba. Like so many others, he has become famous for just being himself in front of a camera.
Television is where I would argue that Anthony Bourdain excels. This hurts me to say because I tend to think of reality TV as total crap and literature in any form as a step, if not several steps, above even the best TV shows. However, in Bourdain’s case, I’d argue that his writing is mediocre but his television is excellent.
It’s not hard to tell that he puts a ton of work into his shows, and he really wants to show his audience things that are authentic and not necessarily attractive. One of my favorite shows is when he asked viewers to convince him to go to their hometown. He selected a Saudi Arabian woman, and they did a great show of Tony eating camel and dining on fried chicken at the Saudi Arabian version of a KFC. Better, however, was the fact that he later went back to the runner-up, a guy from Buffalo, NY—a less than exotic location—because the guy was just so damned insistent that Buffalo was a kick ass place to visit and to eat. So Old Tony took him up on it, and it was another great show.
Bourdain’s shows are marked by voiceovers in which he makes deadpan jokes and after-the-fact asides. They are clever, but never as entertaining as Bourdain in the moment. In the early days of No Reservations, he smoked endlessly throughout the show and was visibly drunk on many occasions. In all his shows, he curses and makes tasteless jokes about sex and penises, and it totally works. In the world of travel shows populated by the squeaky clean (Rick Steves) and the insufferably cute (Samantha Brown), Bourdain is a breath of stank air. He’s real, he’s dirty, and he’s full of shit. One minute he’s dissing Paula Deen as being “the worst, most dangerous person to America” because of her butter-loving style of cooking, and the next minute, he’s extolling the virtues of tubed-meat as he downs a hot-dog (or two) from some street vendor in one of the many, many countries he’s visited. Despite being a “foodie”, he’s not a snob. He eats what is served him—even if it’s fermented shark or warthog anus. And he says thank you.
Since I’ve never eaten his food, I can’t say that he’s a great chef, and considering he has a career eating what other people make, let’s rule out chef. He was one, but he isn’t anymore. As a writer, I’d say he’s mediocre. He definitely has some skills, but he’s not consistent and he can come off as condescending at times. But on television, I’d say Old Tony is a star. There’s something about his onscreen presence that is just as authentic as the warthog anus he’s choking down. It’s real and it’s nasty, and it makes for great entertainment.
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