Anthony Bourdain

This can’t be healthy.

How can it?

You want to talk about your mixed messages? The front page of the food section in the hometown newspaper last week was “Our Second Annual $10 Dinner Plan” as if we can all scrimp and save our way out of the current economic malaise.

Or is it economic mayonnaise?

But right alongside, a headline screams: “Endive and Frisee Inject Sweet Flavor of Bitterness.”

What the hell is frisee anyway?

One minute I’m being shown how to squeeze the most out of the grocery cart, the next I feel like I better make another trip back to for some freakin’ frisee to spruce up the whole dining experience and for the benefit of my food-wary, food-savvy, food-happy home. Or for the benefit of….me.

I’m not a food junkie. I’m not. Yes, I love to cook but that’s about it. What I am is a food-on-TV junkie. And how can this be healthy? All this food and it’s all looking so good and it’s all looking so easy to make and the people who eat it, well, they are all so happy. The camera lingers on a close-up of the sauce being drizzled on a steak and, well, how can you not watch?

Appetizer

Appetizer

I’ll get to Anthony Bourdain in a second, but really, is it possible we’re in this big meltdown (hmmm, the word melt!) because none of us were paying attention to what constituted a reasonable investment?

Instead, we were all too busy chasing down some exotic ingredient Bobby Flay told us would change our lives or at least boost our feeling of accomplishment on the outdoor grill?

Is it possible we fell asleep and signed up for a zero-down, zero-percent mortgages in houses twice the size of what we really needed because “Iron Chef” had us ogling the rare spices and had us mesmerized at the sheer audacity of whipping up so much food and presenting it so beautifully in mere minutes?

Maybe it was sight of Guy Fieri standing in so many diner kitchens, praising the bacon fat and relishing the enormous portions of chicken fried steak, over-stuffed burritos and stacked-high sandwiches with mouth-watering, thinly-sliced roast beef or corned beef or some other meat that drips with gooey sauce or cheese or au jus. Yeah, it was Fieri who distracted us and made us think that everything was just dandy with the world because hey, here we are, motoring around the country pounding plate after plate of stuff that probably isn’t great for your heart or your cholesterol levels but what the heck, dig in. When would we have had time to stop and realize that the average price-to-earnings ratios of the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at an all-time high, and therefore extremely unstable, if Fieri was showing us how some obscure drive-in outside Atlanta made the perfect batter for frying chicken?  What would you expect?

“Chopped.” Obscure chefs-bizarre ingredients: what will they do with macadamia nuts? “Top Chef,” of course! The dicey, delectable battle of personalities, craft, touch and food sense. Jamie Oliver. Could he just live with us for a month? Giada-that smile, those delicate hands, that easy enthusiasm. Bobby Flay, that smirky know-it-all, bring it on. The Neely’s. Nobody has more fun than Gina and Patrick (to nearly saccharine levels).

And then there’s Anthony Bourdain. Certainly I can’t feel bad about anything to do with food shows on TV if Anthony is my tour guide.  Can I? I watched about twenty episodes of “No Reservations” before I picked up “Kitchen Confidential,” so it was easy to hear his voice as the memoir flowed.

I’m just going to come out and say it: Tony is the best. Why? He’s got demons. He’s wry, occasionally bitter, sardonic, witty and just wants to savor life. It’s about the food, it’s about the moments that food creates. He’s willing to try almost anything. Almost. But it isn’t about the food. It’s the people.

In “No Reservations,” Bourdain heads down back alleys and side streets looking for good working-class food. Yes, he winds up in the white tablecloth joints too but I think he’s most comfortable around an outdoor flame, a hunk of meat (pork) and some indigenous spice. Food isn’t the ticket up and away into high society, it’s the common currency that opens the door (if there is one) to the corner bakery or the stand on the street in backwaters on the outskirts of far-flung international destinations.

“Kitchen Confidential” confirmed the demons. He’s a warts-and-all guy and the shooting galleries and self-loathing are all here. The highs and lows of the food biz.  The book starts strong and loses some of its focus with some of the more slice-and-dice minor essays, but anybody who is thinking about opening a restaurant will want to spend the few hours it takes to read the whole book, particularly the parts about ordering food, cooking food, hiring staff, firing staff, poaching staff (from other restaurants) and all many other aspects of running an eating establishment. (News flash: it isn’t just about the recipes and the quality of the food.)

Main Course

Main Course

“Kitchen Confidential” is driven by that colorful Bourdain voice and endlessly cheerleading approach to stretching your taste buds:

“Do all these horrifying assertions frighten you? Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant? No way. Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s a “play you pay” sort of an adventure, but you knew that already, every time you ever ordered a taco or dirty-water hot dog. If you’re willing to risk some slight lower GI distress for one of those Italian sweet sausages at the street fair, or for a slice of pizza you just know has been sitting on the board for an hour or two, why not take a chance on the good stuff? All the great developments of classical cuisine, the first guys to eat sweetbreads, to try unpasteurized Stilton, to discover what snails actually taste good with enough garlic butter, these were daredevils, innovators and desperados.”

Innovators? Daredevils? Desperados? Is this what we really need in the world of food? And, if somebody out there develops a new twist on foie gras or how to poach sea bass to perfection, what does that really contribute to the gross national product?

If there are others out there like me, future media archaeologists might look back at 2009 and see we spent more time watching food being prepared on television than we spent…preparing food.

And while we were learning to braise ox cheek in star anise, our 401(K)’s went up in smoke.

Dessert

Dessert

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8 responses to “Anthony Bourdain

  1. Joe Colacioppo

    Wonderful post! I love many of the tv chefs mentioned. I’m also a big fan of the ebullient Mario Batalli and the wonderfully elegant Eric Ripert (he shows up on Top Chef and on Bourdain’s show but doesn’t have a regular gig.
    Now that you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, find a copy of Bill Buford’s Heat. A writer for the New Yorker, Buford spends a year as a sous chef in Mario Batalli’s NYC restaurant Babbo. It is a great look into the restaurant world, the “foodie” subculture, and Batalli (warts and all).

  2. Mark, you have a BLOG and you didn’t tell me? Prepare to be stalked, sucka.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation — I’ll be all over it. Yes, Eric Ripert. He was one of the classiest guest judges ever on Top Chef during the recent season. He’s a statesman and I suppose he can cook just a little.

  4. Stalk all you want. I’m your willing stalk-ee.

  5. I get the feeling if I rush to my local Soopers and ask for frisee, I might get some pretty strange looks… Great post! Tony is THE MAN. I love his show and what he’s about.

  6. Yeah, Jody & I have watched a lot of No Reservations and we still look forward to the next episode. It never gets old because he’s just great to hang out with. I want him to come to Denver, but heard he’s made some disparaging remarks about the city. We’d love to show him it’s changed. A lot.

  7. Dig old Mark’s long ranting vamp, running up to the meat and potatoes of Tony B…fav sentence; “Maybe it was sight of Guy Fieri standing in so many diner kitchens, praising the bacon fat and relishing the enormous portions of chicken fried steak…”…like watching thick smoked bacon sizzling in a hot greasy skillet on a sticky morning in Macon, getting stung with grease spatter. Dang!

    Anthony B is a indeed a treat and is one of the safe havens on the tube these days…even though he can sometimes be a bit insufferable when he gets misty-eyed over Icelandic sheep guts rinsed in lye and its working-class sod-hutness.

    Great post…

  8. It’s about time. Now if you would just turn your piercing eye to HGTV who convinced us to replace our appliances with those clad in pure unobtainium while the value of the houses in which they were installed barely equal the downpayments we made 7 years ago.

    And don’t be talkin no smack bout my Giada.

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