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TV Review: No Reservations – Yet Another Sweet Gig for Anthony Bourdain

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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.

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About Holly Hughes

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I am seen his screeds on blogs and appearances on other shows. The DVR is catching this season, but I haven’t made time to catch him. I must remedy that soon. Good write-up.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    great stuff!

    bourdain is a fun read and is suprisingly likeable for such a snotty bastard.

    i can do without the “extreme food” portions of the show (live beating cobra heart….icky), but the rest of it is great.

  • Chris

    Check out his audio interviews on wikipedia. he’s brilliantly hilarious!!

  • http://www.thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    Even in his unscripted dialogue on the show (I have to assume it’s unscripted) he’s hilarious. There are clips to check out on the
    Travel Channel
    website.

    Luckily, going for the travel angle as opposed to the food angle allows him to focus more on street food and home cooking, as expressions of the local culture — there’s fewer boar testicles and more feijoada on the menu. A lot of the show’s about the locals that he hangs with in each destination. I look forward to the Cleveland episode (8/27) where he’s going to go out eating with Harvey Pekar.

  • http://www.thegeminiweb.com/babyboomer/ Rhea

    I loved Kitchen Confidential and am now reading The Nasty Bits (a compilation of his essays, etc.). I really get a kick of him. Take a look at “Heat,” not by Bourdain, but really, really good restaurant kitchen memoir.

  • Tom

    I read most of Kitchen Confidential and that’s really all I know of him, but just from that, I’d say he’s earned his keep, and every penny he’s obtained from his books and celebrity status. Maybe you would prefer he’d just go to prison, or end up in the streets or just dead. He deserves more than your blow hard nonsense.

  • http://thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly A Hughes

    Perhaps if you read the review more closely you’ll see that I do indeed admire Bourdain. (And I, unlike you, actually HAVE read all his books.) There’s not a single word here about wanting him to come to any harm. Your comment is totally off the mark.

  • Manuel Hung

    Successful = sellout? That is moronic teenager angst crap there. If you make money at something or more than 10 people are into it its not a sellout and anyone about the age of 13 should realize that. Who wouldn’t drop whatever they are doing to travel around the world eating great food and meeting new cultures? He doesn’t paint everything as rosy and perfect. He hasnt lost his edge and cynicism. Selling out would be traveling america visiting “the best BBQ joints”. It would be pairing up with hacks like Guy Fieri.

    You also mention he was a chef and “not a particularly distinguished one at that”. Wouldn’t being “distinguished” mean he is a sellout? Thomas Keller has mulstiple locations, including one in Vegas, and consults on movies. Is he a sellout?

    On one hand you say hes a sellout on the other you say he isn’t distinguished. Sorry he is not Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagassee. They and their mass market crap seem to have that distinguished atmosphere you are looking for.

  • Keith

    I now you’re a fan of Tony and you are not attacking him as some of the other commenters didn’t seem to grasp. But a few of your observations are off. It’s impossible not to sell-out a little bit when the world is thrown at you. We live in a culture where one small success can lead to a dream life in the snap of a finger. You’d sell out in a heart beat should some “big” offer come your way. Tony’s opportunity can lead to jealousy…big and small. Your “sell out” comment I know what you mean but in my opinion it is of the small jealously type (not the angry/bitter kind). As someone who cooked in a good restaurant for 5 years, I’d question anyone’s sanity if they returned to it after getting the gig he’s gotten. And his wiki bio shows a prodigious amount of writing since he got the full-time gig of his tv show (which he obviously also writes the dialogue for). Tony is a guy I worked with (I’m not saying I worked with him but you know what I mean). He’s the real thing in the restaurant world and it’s rare to see one of those people make it to mainstream media. Many, not all, restaurant people are these tragic figures with immense talents where you say “why are you working here?”. Tony is one of those. He wrote “that” book that was waiting for it to be written…and it’s a book many people could have written from the same perspective …so he gets the credit for taking the step. It’s not his fault that we live in a culture that throws all opportunities to one hot person. I’d say he’s done a good job of picking something that isn’t completely obnoxious. He’s lucky to have a gift with words. He makes it look easy but to write or paint a picture with words as he does is not at all easy. He just naturally has a mind-dialogue going that is refreshingly unique while at the same time seems like some classic voice of some old noted author or poet. He’s lucky to have that. With all due respect, you don’t. I don’t. He is perfect for tv and rare in an age where low and no talents make it huge and become financial kings and queens. The hardest part is writing. They just provide the budget and electricity. He takes care of the rest. They are very lucky to have stumbled upon a guy like that rather than just some actor given a travel show called No Reservations. I don’t think it’s talent more than some random thing he just happened to have and when he puts it forth, lots of people relate to it from many different angles. He now enjoys the spoils of his famous book that started it all, since this society works in a way were minority get a lot, and the majority pick up the scraps. I think your sell-out comment is more about your bitterness to society that allows a random person with one success (Tony’s book) to become so rich and famous they are no longer “one of us”. And given that you are an author, there may also be some jealously on your part (it’s natural and not suggesting bitter jealousy). I’d like to see him become even more famous than he is. I’d like to see a country where Tony gets the 8 p.m. Wednesday night slot on ABC. That would mean the country has a bigger mind that the usual junk thrown at them. I wouldn’t want a country where he then became worth $100 million simply because he got that slot. Tony does not have an exceptional talent but in my opinion he is well above average for television. Tony gives a very opposite view from bubbly, ever smiling, Samantha Brown where every where she goes and every thing she does is Disney perfect. People like him NEVER are allowed on tv and I think that explains his unique popularity. There was a hunger for someone like that (no pun intended). I use Samantha Brown as an example of lots of tv types and not just picking on her. But on that channel she is the exact opposite of him. She is perfect for that audience that likes to watch American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, go to Disney or Vegas, eat at Applebees, while never having much curiosity beyond those types of things. She fits right into a mold already created. She just needs to speak into the camera and smile the chipmunk cute smile and who could not like her. They are the same audience that watches Rachel Ray teach them how to make a grilled cheese, then send her $50 bucks for the privilege. It’s fine to watch Idol, DWTS, Ray, but there are A LOT of people in this country who watch (and eat) A LOT of crap and NEVER try any other mental or culinary delights. Tony makes fun of them with unique humor that pulls no punches. He is accurate to point out their fake status even though at the same time he continues to garner more fame and money himself. It’s a necessary dialogue completely missing from American tv. It’s not selling out when you have your own authentic “art” and people buy it. Those other shows are sell outs. Rachel Ray, Mr “Bam!”, Samantha Brown are corporate created sell-outs (and they probably are all really nice people so not suggesting they are conniving individuals). They are used to sell corporate products and thus are given things that don’t match their talent levels. $$$$ and their careers are the fuel for their never ending fake smiles and gimmicks. Samantha Brown will shill for the corporate team and smile all the way to the bank. She used to do tv commercials and infomercials. She tried to be an actress. Her agent likely sent her resume to apply for the job. She earned the spot but it’s honestly like watching Disney or Expedia travel infomercials. Travel Channel is them sending her out to do things she never even thought of. She’s a robot host for Middle America, completely non-threatening to the mind process of viewers, always agreeable, never sad/depressed/angry no matter what travel sight, hotel, restaurant she goes to. She’d smile a mile wide in the camera for Travel Channel if someone served her mud soup if that’s what they told her to do. Yet I enjoy some of her shows and I’m sure she’s a hard working, nice person. But it’s quite fake is the truth. It’s a production to get you to think a certain way when the reality of it is much different. At least Tony tries to get some different scenes in that most tv shows never attempt. He does say when something sucks. He does meet characters in countries that no other show will showcase. 90% of his travel most Americans could actual do. He goes to inexpensive places, and it’s the food the people there eat. I went to Seoul and saw the very same cheap, awesome food stalls he had on his show. I stayed in a neighborhood that was fine but most Americans would be too scared and put-off by. Samantha Brown would have stayed in an expensive place. Tony would have fit right in where I was. There is a cred to what he is and doing and it’s rare to see him eat and visit places that are too pricey for most. And I am not comparing his level of talent to that famous authors or poets that had an edge during an American era now gone, but at least he gives America tv a dose of that…and that has been completely wiped out of modern American culture. Rachel Ray, Mr. “Bam!”, Kardashians, will earn 100 million for what? Doing something anyone honestly can do while then having every door open to them. But that’s how society operates. Tony kind of slipped in there from a completely different angle. Blame society for “sell outs”. We need to start blaming American people for their low standards. Too many vote for the lowest kind, eat the lowest kind of thing, and watch the lowest of lows, and listen to hypnotic pop or psychotic metal and rap music. I would never consider him a sell-out for what he is doing with his show when I look around and see so many no or low talents making 10 times the money he is. It’s not as though he has reached Julia Child fame by using network tv coverage. Rachel Ray is worth about $100 million because she teaches people how to make grill cheese sandwiches using processed cheese. How stupid do you have to be to learn from her what to cook? How moronic are you if you buy anything she sells? That’s Tony’s point (if I may speak for him!). At least Tony does not insult your intelligence or hawk a thousand pieces of crap products just to milk the system for every dollar they can take from America public. It is refreshing to have someone with some intellectual curiosities beyond Middle America while at the same time having someone who was “one of us” for most of his life. There’s nothing better than someone with a working class background with the literary prowess of any professor, any where. America seems to be proud they are not well-read or intellectually curious. Tony is a reminder of how much a certain dialogue is completely missing from mainstream media. He made it and in this country if you make it, you become king or queen powerful and rich. It really doesn’t matter how you make it. The system rewards all types the same rate no matter how they get there. At least Tony says “no” to a lot of offers that could make him a lot more rich and famous. If it happens to you, you will not turn it down and return to your current gig.

  • http://thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly A Hughes

    I agree with you 100% about those other people being the real sell-outs — and about society being far more at fault than the individual who’s offered something too good to pass up.

    To quote my article (which seems to have been misinterpreted over and over), “I can’t blame Tony Bourdain for selling out.” I stand by that. I fully admit that I’d do it too, and so would you. Anyone who reads this remark as a castigation of this talented guy has some other axe to grind.

    As I believe I made clear, Tony Bourdain was always less of a chef than a great writer just waiting to find an audience. Stumbling into the TV thing was just a very pleasant and lucrative surprise that he nimbly took advantage of.

    Since I first wrote this article (THREE years ago), there has been so much more flimsy crap produced — most of the shows you mention in your comment hadn’t yet come into their own when I wrote this — that Bourdain’s work looks more and more erudite in comparison. It’s a sad trend. At last the Food Channel has had to start another channel, The Cooking Channel, because they realized that viewers actually wanted real hands-on cooking instead of gastro-tainment. I take some heart from this development, but I’m reserving judgement….

  • ushajek

    Anthony could never sell out. He’s genuine to the point of instilling fear in those who don’t “get” him. Let’s face it, when you first see him it takes the brain a few minutes to re-program from the usual saccharin sweet food gods and godesses that grace our televisions.
    I watched in terror as so many of my music heros from the 60s and 70s began to slowly march to the sell-out tune.
    If Tony sells out, there is nothing we can do about it; it’s just a progression into some vague and foggy future dissolving into shear nothingness.
    Something tells me he won’t. He’s ballsy.

  • JeremyinDC

    For a period of time, he can be entertaining. But his cynicism morphs into insults too easily. In the episode when he visited Tuscany and he cooked for two locals, he met his comeuppance. He made spaghetti carbonara with meatballs, which the locals hated. Why? He disrespected tradition – carbonara does not come with meatballs. He was hurt, I think, by their disgust. It’s one thing to call a spade a spade and eschew Samantha Brown’s perkiness, it’s another to dilute the travel experience with acid disdain ekeing in between nicotine-stained smirks. Besides, locals usually have a pride in their surroundings and their culture – I see no point in the project of disabuse. And yes, let us not forget the mediocrity of his career at Les Halles as a corrective to the bad boy hauteur.

  • http://thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly A Hughes

    Since I first published this article — five years ago! — it wouldn’t be surprising if Tony Bourdain’s probably soured a bit. And his “sell-out” has been trumped by so many much more egregious sell-outs, that in retrospect it doesn’t look so bad. Clearly the guy still strikes a chord or I wouldn’t still be getting comments 5 years later!