My Beef With Bourdain

9 Nov

After reading Tamar Adler’s bomb to Anthony Bourdain on, some of my own grumblings with the food personality bubbled to the surface. Adler, author of Everlasting Grace, has reason to be peeved. Her blog, a clean and crisp collection,  couldn’t be more different to Bourdain’s drug-drenched Dionysian escapades. While Adler gives a lot of credit to Alice Waters and eating clean and ethical food, Bourdain is biting into filthy burgers with filthier language. Every bite he takes is a middle finger to what’s prim and proper. And he really peeves Alice Waters.

One of the highlights of this summer was getting to see and meet the irreverent author and television personality. He came and spoke in Brooklyn in June. I laughed at his jokes about Paula Deen’s deep-fried lasagna. For future chefs, he suggests getting started doing hard work, not taking classes, is the way to build a reputation. That’s unconventional, but in a really noble way. His show on disappearing Manhattan (and the pockets that remain) was an inspiring look at gentrification in American cities. He even introduced me to The New York Dolls, which I now think is the sound of Rocky Horror Picture Show and the N Metro Line coming together, in glittery and noisy perfection.

He’s made dining less fussy. Or has he?

Adler says “he’s left a crude hickey on this country’s food culture.” And though I think he’s a great influence on me, my view of him isn’t glossy like coagulated pork fat.

The article points out how much his ego plays out in his books and television series, and how his profanities have turned him into a populist hero. That makes sense, even after watching the video between him and Waters. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t value “rare commodity dishes” like shark’s fin soups. His last meal would be bones. It’s not hard picturing him as a guy at a pub who throws them back and just rants about whatever. He’s viewed as honest, but I don’t know if he sincerely wants a better food world for everybody, or just for himself.

Bourdain eats our local food, in ways that aren’t too divided from a politician on the campaign trail. But, he’s just like us. He champions small businesses. He doesn’t think anyone can be on their best behavior all of the time. He doesn’t make friends with corporations or cardboard cut-out cooking show hosts. And we love him for it.

Small businesses are what keeps our culture alive. They give character to a city. I’d rather hang out with locals than use a guidebook, too. But Bourdain’s seeming lack of fussiness is creating an all new kind of elitism.

He might be eating in the favelas and seedy sections of the Bronx, but he’s also got a tendency to snub the kind of people who form his audience. There’s a smug look when he can order off of a Chinese-only menu or when he gets invited up to the “secret third floor” of The Spotted Pig, where only the chefs hang out. There’s as much exclusivity with his adventures as there is with the frou-frou fine dining he rants about.

The tipping point for me was flipping through his first graphic novel, Get Jiro! His new venture covers a samurai-like sushi chef who puts any rule-based restauranteurs to shame. The page I read had three guys at the sushi counter. One rather pompously demands a California roll. Jiro loses it completely, whipping out a katana and decapitating the “ignorant” customer, thus marking the biggest wish fulfillment for any sushi snob. Once the dispatched head ended up at the feet of two cops arguing over sushi rice’s merits, I couldn’t take anymore. I had to put it down.

I think the food world’s become more localized and approachable. We also have become much more aware (and proud) about what we put in our mouths. I just hope we haven’t picked up a new kind of elitism, one that scoffs at california rolls and flaunts their exclusive experiences.


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