So last Friday, I finally joined the 21st century and started using Google Reader. I added some Philly events blogs, and the first thing that popped up was an announcement that Anthony Bourdain would be speaking for free at the Vine St. library the following day. I’ve been a fan of Bourdain’s since his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and have since enjoyed both of his TV shows, A Cook’s Tour and, currently, No Reservations. So I changed my plans (thank you, Diana!), grabbed my copy of Bourdain’s new essay collection, The Nasty Bits, and joined an absurdly long line in the library basement to wait for a seat.
Bourdain didn’t disappoint– despite being exhausted from his book tour and ready to go home to his wife and baby in New York, he gave a heartfelt and witty talk urging his fans to get passports, see the world, and open their minds to new ideas, foods and cultures. He answered lots of questions from the audience, including mine, and then he stayed for at least an hour signing books. (I gave him a card for this blog, so Tony, if you actually read this, hi there!)
I’m not much for TV chefs (except for Alton Brown), but I think Bourdain is a talented, decent guy, and you should totally buy his books and watch his show. For the uninitiated, here’s why I’m a Bourdain fan:
1. He’s hilarious, and a talented writer.
On filming in Singapore:
I am barely able to speak. I can’t even drink my industrial-size Tsing Tao beer. My eyes swim around in my head like drugged minnows, and my stomach is in full warning mode, signaling “one more thing, Tony– and it’s curtains.” I know what the penalty is for publicly urinating in Singapore. What, I wonder, is the penalty for lurching into the street and spraying vomit into the gutter? Then collapsing into a gibbering, crying, spastically shaking heap?
He’s funny, but not at the expense of the people he’s visiting, and not without conveying some genuine feeling.
2. He’s serious about food.
3. He has the only show on the Travel Channel that doesn’t suck.
Yes, that includes Andrew Zimmern (although he seems like a decent guy). No Reservations is great because Bourdain treats the people he meets with respect. He interacts with real people– he eats street food with the locals, gets drunk on the local firewater, accepts whatever he is offered, acknowledges it respectfully when he doesn’t understand something, and actually talks to people as equals. None of that travel-host pseudo-anthropology shit. He’s a refreshing change from the Orientalist crap the Travel Channel usually shows– not perfect, but it’s a start. And he tells off his ‘corporate masters’ at the network at every opportunity. Heh.
4. He stands up for immigrants.
Take this passage, about Latinos in the restaurant industry:
It was once said that this is the land of the free. There is, I believe a statue out there in the harbor, with something written onit about “Give me your hungry… your oppressed… give me pretty much everybody” — that’s the way I remember it, anyway. The idea of America is a mutt-culture, isn’t it? Who the hell is America if not everybody else? We are– and should be– a big, messy, anarchistic polyglot of dialects and accents and different skin tones. Like our kitches. We need more Latinos to come here. And they should, whenever possible, impregnate our women.
…But you don’t see too many chefs of French or Italian or even “New American” restaurants with a last name like Hernandez or Perez or Garcia. Owners, it seems, still shrink from having a mestizo-looking chef swanning about the dining room of their two- or three-star French eatery– even if the candidate richly deserves the job. Language skills are not the issue. Chances are, Mexicans or Ecuadorians speak English a hell of a lot better than most Americans speak Spanish (or French for that matter). It’s… well… we know what it is, don’t we?
It’s racism, pure and simple.
As a working New York City chef, Bourdain has worked with Latin American, particularly Mexican, cooks/chefs/dishwashers for many years and is outspoken about his respect for them. He speaks out regularly in interviews against the rank hypocrisy of nativist zealots who are OK with immigrants doing their dirty work, but don’t want to treat them as human beings. When I was called on during the Q&A, I asked about the reaction he’s gotten to comments like this. He replied that the No Reservations episode they filmed at the Mexican border “got the most violent reaction I’ve ever seen,” and went on to argue that people really need to understand who is actually doing the cooking and other work in this country before they start talking about border walls and the like.
And check out what he had to say about the Beard Foundation’s treatment of Latinos on Ruhlman.com…
5. I never would have gone to Chez Napoleon if I hadn’t read his book.
So after Bourdain signed my book, I got on the train and headed up to NYC for a belated-birthday girls’ night out with my friend Diana. As we walked down 50th St., I noticed a sign with a little tricorner hat on it. “Chez Napoleon?” I gasped. “That’s in Bourdain’s book!”
Here, in fact, is what he says about it, in an essay on the forgotten little gems of old-school French restaurants in New York:
For sheer number and frequency of lumbering, old-style, unapologetically French dishes, you’ve just got to give it up to… Chez Napoleon. A trip down memory lane into inspired lunacy: rillettes de porc, veal forestière (Remember that one from school? Anybody?), tripes, kidneys, liver, brains, boudin noir, coq au vin, bouillabaisse, hot soufflèes– and cherries freaking jubilee! The mind reels.
And yeah, it’s totally like that. We went all out– Diana gamely abandoned vegetarianism for the evening in favor of escargot, frog legs and wild boar stew. It wasn’t her thing (her words were “I’m brown, I like my food to fight back!”) but we had a great time. We drank a lot of wine followed by a shitload of port (their bartender has a very heavy hand). I found out that I actually love frog legs. It was a vastly entertaining meal– thanks, Bourdain!
[where: 365 W 50th St, New York, NY 10019]