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.