But a certain current food star seems authentic to me, someone I can imagine sharing a beer with or running into at a party in real life. There’s nothing fake about Tony Bourdain, with all-too-human qualities and a toilet mouth that could come from your cousin Tony. In the last decade Bourdain has evolved from kitchen shlub and self-described misfit without any special cooking talent into a superstar celebrity, bestselling author and TV show host.
His schtick, the stuff that sets him apart from the rest, is his forthright style, gargantuan humor and hard-edged, sardonic look at the world of food and the foodie world both. He has a unique way of viciously putting people down in one breath while in the next glorifying humanity and loving his fellow people of the planet, with less than zero tolerance for other celebrity foodies. It’s not an easy melding, but Bourdain manages it, in his own sexy, bad-boy, jaded-yet-appreciative style.
I first heard of Bourdain in 1999 when a co-worker at the newspaper office where I worked left a copy on my desk of The New Yorker article that later launched him into fame. He offered a perspective never before seen in print. “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” was an insider’s look at restaurant kitchens, and this bit of notoriety got him a book contract for Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Bloomsbury, 2000), which became a best seller translated into 28 languages.
I went on to read most of his books, which have included a few crime novels, treatises on traveling and on being a chef, and a cookbook on the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles, where he is executive chef. I got hooked on his Food Network show “A Cook’s Tour,” enjoying Bourdain’s hard-living persona and his honest and humorous perspectives on the world around him, colored by his own humanity and imperfections.
Since then a few more books have come out, and his current TV show is the popular “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. He has gotten married to a gorgeous Italian woman, has a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, has quit smoking and has toned things down a bit. I find lately that I’m less hooked on his show — which is quality stuff, well filmed, edited and produced. I concur with others that Mr. Bourdain has perhaps lost his edge a bit. As a dad, maybe he has softened and understandably shifted his priorities, focus and lifestyle.
But he is no less funny. An appearance at UPAC in Kingston on November 21 found him keeping the full house in stitches during his hour-and-a-half talk. I walked by the foie gras protesters outside and found my seat. Bourdain came on stage in faded black clothes and light brown cowboy boots — lean, mean Bourdain, way too skinny to be a glutton. He began by talking about Food Network star Rachael Ray, who has long been fodder for his caustic insults and put-downs. He said he’s kind of upset that Rachael seems okay now, kind of cool even, hiring the New York Dolls, a band he respects, and sending him a fruit basket with a funny note. Now his focus has turned on Sandra Lee, girlfriend of governor-elect Andrew Cuomo and host of “Semi-Homemade,” a Food Network show. He called her evil, the “hellspawn of Betty Crocker.” “Semi-Homemade is semi-food,” he added. He went on to rag on many other stars of the Food Network, though he was once one of them.
“It’s their world, I just live in it,” he said. Some of his references were lost on me because I watch so little of the network, but my family members are big fans of Adam Richmond’s “Man versus Food” and “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods.” Bourdain accuses us of watching the former, a sort of one-man competitive eating team, with fascination and has pondered why. “Look deep in your hearts…you want him to die!” he said, calling the concept “morally queasifying,” a sentiment with which I heartily concur.
Bourdain talked for a while about how to appreciate the cultures of the world, mostly by drinking heavily while traveling with everyone you meet. I suspect there may be some truth in that method.
He ranted about pseudo-Italian food in America. “Olives don’t grow in a garden,” he said, “and you don’t grill macaroni. And Chicken Caesar Pasta? Caesar isn’t even Italian. What the fuck is that?”
He seemed to enjoy the question-and-answer segment that followed his talk. Asked about his guilty pleasures, he spoke of his Kingston lunch that day, a box of microwaved Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese in his hotel room. With no utensils, he said, he had to use his key card to scoop the food into his mouth. Another, he admits, is “The Colonel,” although he has to be vigilant for Twitterers when he’s indulging.
In spite of his bitter diatribes, Bourdain appears a happy man. “I have the best job in the world,” he said. And his future is glowing. “No Reservations” is now in production for its seventh season. Coming episodes include the Congo, the Amazon and Haiti. He’s working on his fourth crime novel and writing for an HBO series, but he’s not afraid to express himself with everyday expressions, something that — as a writer who struggles to sound writerly — I find refreshing. As in: “What did you think of El Bulli?” someone in the audience asked him about that Spanish pillar of molecular gastronomy.
“It was really, really, really awesome,” he said. “Like hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time.”
Well said, Bourdain, well said. You’ve still got your edge. ++