Okay, let’s be honest – Anthony Bourdain stopped being a chef a LONG time ago. He may still be listed as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, but there’s not much point in eating there just to spot Tony sneaking a cig in the doorway in his bloodstained chef’s whites.
But the thing that worries me about his Travel Channel series No Reservations is not that it prevents him from being a cook. It’s that it prevents him from being a writer.
Tony stopped being a bona fide chef about seven years ago, when he first published Kitchen Confidential. That bestselling expose of behind-the-pass debaucheries at top Manhattan restaurants — it gave new meaning to the term “line cook” — forever altered Bourdain’s career. To be fair, Bourdain had already written two crime novels before Kitchen Confidential; this was a guy who ended up at the Culinary Institute of America only after dropping out of Vassar. What made Kitchen Confidential that season’s must-read was not just the shocking news that our restaurant food was prepared by crews of potty-mouthed druggies; it was the hyperkinetic wit, the surreal descriptions, the dramatic confrontations, the apt use of the well-placed obscenity. Tony Bourdain was the first gonzo food writer, and still nobody does it better.
In case you haven’t noticed, however, we live in a media age, and I can’t blame Anthony Bourdain for selling out as soon as TV came a-calling. It’s not like he was a Nobel Prize-winning poet, anyway – he was just a chef, folks, and not a particularly distinguished one at that. At least his first foray into the televisual realm was on the Food Network: the 12-part A Cook’s Tour, which played off on his willingness to eat gross local specialties from around the globe. Fair enough, and he did write a very entertaining book to go with it.
What A Cook’s Tour really revealed, however, is that Anthony Bourdain is extremely telegenic. He’s got those bad-boy good looks – lean, rumpled, sardonic, dead sexy, like a tall Humphrey Bogart without the wonky upper lip. He’s got the craggy voice to go with the looks, perfect for snarky voice-overs. He looks great in dirty jeans and a scuffed leather jacket, even better if his gray curls are wind-tousled and he hasn’t had a chance to shave. Doubtlessly Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay produce tastier food, but who would I rather watch on TV? There’s no contest.
Now Bourdain is on the Travel Channel, a bit more of a stretch. He’s still chasing down mystery foods in exotic locales, though – the emphasis is just a little more on the locales and a little less on the food. It doesn’t really matter, since Bourdain never does any cooking on these shows, only eating. (By some inscrutable programming logic, it’s been paired on the schedule with a very similar show, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, a move that only shows up how much more telegenic Bourdain is.)
Luckily, the visual style of these Travel Channel shows has found an equivalent to Bourdain’s prose. The handheld camera, the quick-cut editing, the ambient soundtrack, put us right in the thick of his culinary adventures. Bourdain’s voice-overs are astringent, self-mocking, wry – a perfect antidote to the gushing prose usually found in travel documentaries. The segments also smartly construct a story line for each episode, turning the whole thing into some sort of post-modern Graham Greene escapade.
Nothing really fazes Bourdain — he makes a great armchair travel companion. Take this week’s episode, for example, in which Bourdain explores São Paulo, Brazil. (No Reservations is aired at 10pm Monday nights, with an encore broadcast Friday nights at 8 pm.) He leads off by declaring that São Paulo is ugly – “It looks like LA threw up on New York” – and notes cynically that every film about Brazil is conveniently set during the four annual days of Carnivale, a festival Bourdain professes to despise. What he does like, though, are the fat-laden mortadella sandwiches sold at the Mercado, a chance to play in a pick-up soccer game between cooks and waiters, and a laid back lifestyle where you can call in sick to work and swill caipirinhas at the beach. “Life does not suck,” he pronounces authoritatively after stuffing his sunburned face with bananafish. Would I like to be there with him? Yeah, you bet.
We still get fixes of Bourdain’s trademark wit, of course (“I feel like two small woodland creatures are having sex inside my head,” he groans to two friends the morning after his day of sun and caipirinhas), and there’s the added value of those glistening close-ups of food being prepared, accompanied by the audible hiss of dripping fat and steam, to whet my appetite.
All right, then, I don’t mind if Anthony Bourdain would rather roam the world appeasing his omnivorous hunger than preside over the stove in Manhattan. It’s been an odd career arc, that’s for sure, but somehow this guy has landed where he probably was destined to land all along. And me? I plan to pencil Monday nights at 10 into my datebook.