I'm an Anthony Bourdain fan. (I've written about him before here.) Bourdain's unique blend of intelligence and devil-may-care attitude leads to searing, funny commentary on everything from poverty to Cinnabons. Bay Area residents were treated to a 45 minute Bourdain speech--an extended rant, really--on May 28, 2009.
Wearing jeans and a sports jacket, Bourdain showed up on stage to wild cheers. He stayed near the podium in the middle of the stage, but never behind it. He didn't have an outline--he spoke from the gut until he ran out of things to say, and then took questions from the audience.
Bourdain started off by saying he's a good example of what not to do or say, but his two saving graces are his curiosity and his willingness to concede when he's wrong. After that disclaimer, we were off to the races. Bourdain began lambasting Alice Waters and Berkeley residents, both of whom are known for favoring organic food. His point was that Alice Waters and affluent Berkeley residents can afford to buy organic and local food, which is more expensive than non-organic food. He suggested that real organic food is homegrown, and if Alice Waters wanted to promote organic food for the masses, she should show people how to grow food in backyard gardens. At one point, he asked, "Do you think that the people lining up around Popeye's Chicken for 99 cent day are there because the stuff tastes good? No! They're there because it's cheap!"
Bourdain then talked about how we're fetishizing our food by focusing on ingredients rather than the actual process of cooking. At one point, he joked that by the time a waiter gets done explaining the food on his plate and where it comes from, he's already finished eating the "damn thing." He compared our focus on ingredients to exotic Japanese porn, by which he probably meant that the actors aren't participating in the spirit of the moment, but are behaving in a detached, grotesque manner.
Although Bourdain admitted to shopping at Whole Foods, he said that these days, organic generally means luxury, and that's not a good development for cooking. After all, real culinary innovation happens when someone takes the table scraps and makes something good out of it. Bourdain said that "cooking" was really the slaves' way of making something good from their masters' table scraps. He had many examples of poverty leading to innovation, mentioning famous chefs and their background. At one point, he asked, "Do you think a rich person looked at a slimy snail on the ground and thought, 'That looks really good to eat?' Of course not! Some poor person was hungry and probably thought, 'If I put enough butter and garlic on that thing, maybe I can manage to choke it down.'"
This is one reason I love Bourdain--he keeps his audience grounded. He believes that innovation comes from starvation, and he reminds us that more often than not, a poor, unknown person is responsible for the food on our plates. (Bourdain believes "The engine of gastronomy is poverty.") You might even say Bourdain's motif is bringing cooking back to the barrio, which explains why he hates celebrity chefs (he's famous for ranting against Rachel Ray). Bourdain did have kind words for Julia Child, though. He said she became famous by demystifying French food and showing people that with some effort, they, too, could make French food.
Basically, to get on Bourdain's good side, you have to recognize the hard-working, innovative people who are responsible for much of our food. That's not to say that Bourdain praises poverty. He reminded us that poverty might look fun when we go on short vacations, but the people in those "bucolic" places want an SUV and satellite TV just like the rest of us. Bourdain didn't talk talk much about fixing poverty, but he wants us to remember who makes the food that goes on our tables. After all, it's not rich people who pick the tomatoes and slaughter the animals we end up eating. One of Bourdain's themes is to remind people that our food has a cost, and the cost is keeping lots of poor people in poverty so they can continue doing the dirty work for us.
Bourdain then ranted against poor food choices, asking, "What the f*ck is a Cinnabon? It's got, like, a pound of sugar on it, and every time I'm in the airport, I have to deal with the smell overpowering all the other food choices." On a more serious note, Bourdain said we need to be more careful about what we're feeding our children. He said studies have shown if you put vegetables in a McDonald's wrapper, kids will eat it and say it tastes better than ordinary vegetables served on a plate. (Whoa.) He said he uses reverse psychology on his daughter, Ariane, bashing McDonald's every time he can, and telling his daughter that Ronald McDonald may be mentally-impaired (Bourdain, being Bourdain, used different words).
Bourdain also called vegetarians "rude." He said that food is the "purest expression of who we are," and when someone offers you something to eat, you shouldn't tell them, "That looks good, but can I have a spinach salad instead?"
Someone asked Bourdain to name his favorite food. Bourdain said his favorite comfort food is a Vietnamese pho bowl. (I agree!)
Another person asked which countries had the best culinary cultures. Bourdain mentioned Spain and had many kind words for the Spaniards. He also said if you were looking for a cheap, diverse selection of food, Singapore is where you want to be. (I agree! Singapore's food scene was one reason I fell in love with the country.)
Bourdain said he married into a North Italian family, and at home, his wife does much of the cooking. He said he married into the kind of family he always wanted--loud, boisterous, and open.
Bourdain says when he's at home, he's a stay-at-home dad; however, he travels 10 out of 12 months of the year.
Someone asked him about his worst travel experiences. Bourdain named Romania and Uzbekistan. He pilloried Romania's handling of his show, saying that the government did not allow him to go to the backroads to meet with the average residents. He started doing robot-like impersonations of the Romanian government officials on the trip while narrating, "Here is our version of classic Romanian culture..." Bourdain said that after he left, the Romanian papers started calling him a "KGB/Mossad" spy. (I can't wait to see that episode--Bourdain is hilarious when he's snarky.)
Speaking of bad experiences, Bourdain said that he knows his audience likes to see him miserable, but when he travels, he wants to have a good time. He doesn't want to speak badly of anyplace, so when he does become snarky, it's not something that's planned.
If you haven't seen Bourdain's show, "No Reservations" (on the Travel Channel), I highly recommend it. I still haven't read his book, Kitchen Confidential, but I hope to pick it up soon. (A friend loaned me McCarthy's Blood Meridian, but I'm not liking it, so I will probably dump it for Kitchen Confidential.)
All in all, I had a great time hearing Bourdain speak. His genuineness gives Bourdain many loyal fans. One of them even got up on stage to show Bourdain a large tattoo of what appeared to be Bourdain on his leg. Bourdain signed it and hugged him. Not too many celebrities inspire that kind of emotion. Bourdain is an original in a world full of copycats and sycophants. God bless him for being himself.
Note: I did the best I could to write down Bourdain's words verbatim, but Bourdain speaks quickly and the auditorium was dark, so some of his quotes may be paraphrased.