Anthony Bourdain Is Still the Best Critic We Got

Food Features Anthony Bourdain
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“Everyone’s a critic.”

You’ve heard this before. It’s a phrase proud craftsmen use as their first line of defense. As a way of licking their wounds, it is shorthand for the artisans telling themselves the naysayers are wrong, that not everyone is right in their criticism. And, as ingrained into such quick-wit lexicons as these three words are, they’re right: most critics—even the professionals—deserve a liberal application of duct tape on the lips. Between the ad hoc or straw man commentary, unnecessarily harsh brutality, and even confusing communicative skills (a requisite for any writer, we’d assume), most commentators should really quit their day jobs as critics. Anthony Bourdain, however, better goddamn well keep his.

It’s undeniable that Bourdain—whose Emmy-winning series Parts Unknown will return for a sixth season later this month—has come a long way in his career since first donning (and eventually hanging up) his chef jacket at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles. For almost two decades now, the leather-clad culinary rock star has lent the public his sharpened opinions of the culinary world beyond the restaurant through an array of mediums: magazine articles, newspaper columns, memoirs, and television. At the age of 44, a number well beyond the prime of most prodigious figures, the now-renowned chef leapt into the critical fray with his universally acclaimed novel Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

Having worked in the adrenaline charged arena of the restaurant kitchen since the age of 17, and additionally proving his intellectual worth as an avid reader and writer of alternative-veering literature , Bourdain has always had an extra two or three pounds-worth of flavorful experience compared to his fellow critics. He knew his way in, around, and out of the kitchen, leaving no critical scrap unused—even the low-grade chuck commentary. And when the competition proved equal in terms of experiences, Bourdain knew how to spice his work in ways the rest of the pack could only dream of.

It’s also undeniable that this culinary bad boy’s tendency towards brutal honesty has always been the main draw for many readers and listeners. Having developed a snarky “no-fucks-given” personality somewhat comparable to Jonathan Swift or Hunter S. Thompson during his college and culinary educational years, furthered by the mystically harrowing debauchery of social practices within the kitchen, it goes without saying that his apathy towards PC-ness was fated to spill over into writing. This created a contract with his readers such that he would not stoop to deception or white lies when dishing out his opinions—no tale of drug indulgence or restaurant cocksureness-turned-hubris went unmentioned for being too graphic.

Yet this same honesty also brought along a myriad of imagery—some so dark in both its comedy and brutal fact that, while it could be perceived as funny, it could also be just as easily disgusting and cause you to upchuck that steak tartare you had at dinner (seriously, how the hell is this guy best friends with Eric Ripert?). In what has now become his familiar deadpan-fashion, “young” Bourdain bluntly disclosed rules and regularities, some trite and pretty much universally understood—you will only need “ONE good chef’s knife” — and those, much to the chagrin of A-list chefs and restaurateurs in the industry, that went unspoken outside those swinging, circle-windowed doors (fish on Monday night, anyone?)

And alongside the more in-depth kitchen and restaurant analysis of the system’s innards, Bourdain has even stretched his diabolically forked tongue to discuss the culture of fine dining and food (of course in his usually dastardly comical and derelict ways). In Food and Loathing in Las Vegas, Bourdain, accompanied by fellow food writer Michael Ruhlman for a Las Vegas episode of No Reservations, lives out his fantasy circa 2005 of going all-out gonzo-like and full-metal Hunter S. Thompson—although sans an alphabet’s worth of hedonisms—by traversing the desert to the ultimate American destination of theoretically crappy food that most chefs and food snobs would turn their noses against: the Vegas strip.

Getting dirty with his lips grease-covered and a stomach expanded beyond even uncomfortably possible with a varietal of haute cuisine’s fatty, deep-fried goodness, Bourdain did us all a favor: he gave his whole hearted opinions on these “final frontier”-esque culinary outposts. Something many food writers wouldn’t give the time of day lest they might violate their oh-so-refined palettes, he managed to get down and explore, and when doing so, he did it in a way that even the uncultured food laymen would find entertaining and likely to understand.

But while many from the earlier years of this millennium recognize Bourdain for his print work, it’s through television that Bourdain has truly earned his keep and his place as a household name. For over a decade now, this “celebrity chef”—a term he so despises—has broadened several television viewers’ understanding of different global cultures predominantly as the host of television shows. Beginning with Food Network’s experimental half-baked attempt of A Cook’s Tour and subsequently the Travel Channel’s more comprehensive No Reservations (there’s also the Travel Channel’s, more commercial, tourism-oriented program The Layover, but let’s leave that as the largely unnoticed footnote that it is), each of the shows was simple in premise: have a camera crew follow this snarky elder statesman of cuisine as he traveled to various locations to enjoy local food with the natives while capturing as many wanderlust-inducing and food porn-worthy shots as possible.

For the most part, such programs functioned first-and-foremost as food-related travel shows—a no-brainer considering the stations that were broadcasting them. Sure, there was a large amount of cultural activities, and occasionally Bourdain would enlighten us with a bit on the socio-political backstory of such mythically distant lands that influenced the food. But for the most part, the majority of the show was structured around obtaining gluttonous amount of foreign foods that most of us were unable to see stateside. If you had given the audience a podcast with a slideshow of photos to go along with the photos, they probably would’ve been just as satisfied (just look at the pair of Food Porn episodes).

Fortunately, in 2012, Bourdain took his largely uncensored opinions elsewhere, elsewhere being CNN, with his current travel program Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Having spent years on entertainment cable TV, a stint that somewhat stifled the flexing of his poignant criticism muscles that actually drew his original fans and got him his start, we’re finally seeing Bourdain proving why, despite being one of the world’s most polarizing critics, he’s possibly the best one we’ve got.

When Parts Unknown debuted, it seemed that the program would be wide-open to the criticism that it would fall into the routine of his previous television ventures. Somehow, neither of these proved to be case. The reason that millions continue to follow the opinionated, unforgivingly honest drunken uncle of a critic, and Parts Unknown’s rasion d’être is that culture, especially a culture’s food, is best understood and experienced in its original context. Thanks to his awareness of what he eats, Bourdain seamlessly interweaves aspects of the cultural environments into his experiences with the local fare, rather than focusing this narratives almost solely on the food in-and-of-itself, as the majority of food and dining critics do by definition.

When Bourdain munches on his Chelow kebab or rice with sour cherries when he travels to Tehran, he is consciously aware that there is something to be said about being able to see first-hand the everyday contrast of orthodox and secular ideologies in Iran: women being allowed to vote and drive but not watch football at the stadium, Western apparel matched with conservative accessories, etc. Given the superfluous amounts of contradictions that permeate the country, one can begin to unravel how these cultural nuances influence traditional dishes with the pervading contrasting sweet and salty flavors.

Some may point to Bourdain’s access to CNN’s massive budget as the chief explanation for his current success as a critic. Admittedly, the news channel is largely responsible for dropping enabling Bourdain access into politically unfriendly, and typically forbidden, areas such as Congo or Iran. This often comes along with the means and finances for hooking up the former chef with translators and several other locales that allow further insight into the unfamiliar cultural landscapes.

But while this concedes that he’s reliant on CNN for streamlining the bureaucracy of the television show, that doesn’t knock his critic abilities. When Bourdain was running with the Food Network or sitting down at 4 A.M. to write Kitchen Confidential, there were no supped up budgets or high-brow connections; just a food-loving guy who’s knack for understanding a meal in all its minutiae and complexities will forever tower over our own understandings.

Even if you’re eating the most authentic Persian dish of tender Chelow kebab and fluffy, saffron-loaded Persian rice, whether made dutifully in its native land or in New York or Los Angeles, across the street from street signs and highways, surrounded by the familiarity of fellow American citizens wolfing down this foreign dish by immigrants from Tehran—with family recipes that have been passed down through the generations—we most likely wouldn’t be able to realize these intimate features of Persian culture that are as much a part of the meal as they are a part of the culture itself.

Essentially, we aren’t conscious of our food in and of itself. For most of us, it provides utility via its role as a social bonder and basic life preserver; we probably won’t take the time to deconstruct and analyze the constituents. Even the self-proclaimed foodies of the Instagram world might exclaim at the deliciousness of the meal and its interesting textures or flavors, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll take it one step further and wonder why there are sour cherries in the rice, or why the Iranians use this particular rice.

Or, as Bourdain pointed out, how a culture’s socio-economic dynamics oftentimes bleed into the food itself. But even more so, it’s highly unlikely that we’d be so pressed (or even enjoy the opportunity) to try and talk to the restaurant owner to confirm these suspicions. With this in mind, it’s starting to look like Bourdain is actually giving us some of the most in-depth and precise commentary that we could possibly obtain in almost any media. The more I read, the more it seems like Bourdain’s an anomaly.

In addition to Bourdain, Francis Lam and Jeffrey Steingarten are two notable writers adept at pulling from a food’s cultural backdrop to add further dimensions to his narratives. A prime cut example would be the poignant opening comment of Steingarten’s profile on Sean Brock bridging Brock’s tattoo of a pig and intricate heirloom tomatoes with the farm-to-table chef’s dedication to the thriving Southern American culture-revival, or Lam’s interview with Robb Walsh on Tex-Mex. Even with that being the case, both writers’ styles are blatantly missing that satirical yet non-cheesy tone so artfully perfected by Bourdain that draws the masses. And putting the lauded food writers aside, critics and chefs-turned-critics on gimmicky food host television programs such as BBC’s A Cook Abroad and Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern: Bizarre Foods might have been seen as “competition” to Bourdain’s program at one point in time.

On each program, the host would venture to locations relatively unfamiliar or unpopular to the public and discuss the food. But there seems to be a huge disparity in the viewers’ “there-ness” and the natural feel between these programs and Parts Unknown. With the former, you continue to retain your awareness of your current situation as a viewer rather than an active participant. When Zimmern visits a city or country, they’re usually talking at the camera, updating viewers on each and every move, and treating the locals almost like props to fill in minor details, serving more as a credibility factor than actually adding much significance to the program.

On the other hand, Bourdain infrequently speaks directly to the camera; instead, he often has the insiders do almost all of the talking, a trick that mitigates Bourdain’s status as travel host to that of travel companion. When we learn about the Israeli settlements or how the culture affects children growing up, Bourdain is merely a well-educated friend, and there’s very little that’s different between you the one asking questions and Bourdain asking them. It feels like we’re really there with him when the locals describe the situation; we’re there next to him walking along the ancient streets of Israel and Palestine; and most importantly with Bourdain, we feel we’re there alongside him as he chows down on every one of those mouth-watering meals.

But camera parlor tricks and all, what is it that enables this “there-ness?” Frankly, it’s the one thing that no other long-form journalism critic or host has mastered. It’s what was Bourdain’s spice since his first writing days: his ability to construct a narrative. As with any sort of art, the crux underlying each work is “what’s the story”? This concept of something that keeps you guessing what’s going on, the idea of a rise and fall, that’s what separates Bourdain from the crowd. In criticism, the narrative is a difficult feature to sustain. Analysis usually dominates, and with so much information, tongue-and-cheek commentary or outlandish statements can distort our understanding of the thesis. Yet, somehow, Bourdain avoids all this. Part of it lies in his tone: His ability to say something so candid and TV show host-like—and then turn around and talk about being a washed-up German expat.

Through this candor, compelling narratives—even those that are theoretically banal and uneventful—make you come back for more, anxiously awaiting who or what Bourdain will turn to next. And it is in these moments where you suspend belief and forget that you’re following Bourdain through the text or the tube and think you’re actually next to him in reality, learning about Congo’s history of violence that you missed because slept in during lecture. This time, you’re hooked. You’re paying attention. You’re aware. And that’s all thank to this bastard (former) chef who, for now, isn’t quitting his day job.

Matthew Sedacca is a graduate student at the Columbia University Journalism School. He currently subsists on a steady diet of hip-hop, coffee, and repeats of Parts Unknown. Follow him on Twitter.

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