Bourdain has ‘No Reservations’ about expressing his ideals


There is a reason why celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain calls his show “No Reservations.” In fact there are several reasons. The main theme is that he just shows up to these locations, with a film crew, without the usual pomp and circumstance of ordering a table. Most of the time there isn’t even a table in the place to being with and he has few misgivings on screen about wandering in unfamiliar territory. I personally love the show as a slice of my anthropologic inquisitiveness in the form of revealing, yet darkly humorous television show. However, Bourdain’s point of view is sharper than a whole set of santoku knives which bodes well for his hosts, but often puts his culinary colleagues on the chopping block. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni dishes on the clashes between the food classes.

Unsavory Culinary Elitism

Anthony Bourdain, the part-time chef and full-time celebrity, has a tongue on him. It’s the sharpest knife in his set. He has used it to carve up vegans, whom he called the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” of vegetarians, and the culinary moralist Alice Waters, whose rigidity is “very Khmer Rouge.”

The latest to be slashed: Paula Deen. For the uninitiated, she’s the deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking. And Bourdain, in aninterview with TV Guide published last week, branded her an outright menace to America, scolding her for “telling an already obese nation that it’s O.K. to eat food that is killing us.”

Frank Bruni staff photo (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

To this he added a gratuitous schoolyard-crass putdown of Deen cuisine.

Which certainly isn’t my cup of lard. But it bothers me no more than his ill-timed elitism, which Deen nailed in her response.

“Not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine,” she told The New York Post. “My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills.”

Put aside her one-with-the-masses pose, ludicrous in light of the millions she has made from television shows, cookbooks, cookware, mattresses and more. She’s otherwise 100 percent justified in assailing the culinary aristocracy, to which even a self-styled bad boy like Bourdain belongs, for an often selective, judgmental and unforgiving worldview.

And her retort exposes class tensions in the food world that sadly mirror those in society at large. You can almost imagine Bourdain and Deen as political candidates, a blue-state paternalist squaring off against a red-state populist over correct living versus liberty in all its artery-clogging, self-destructive glory.

To give him his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times.

On some level, Bourdain gets this, or used to. When he denigrated Waters, he did so — rightly — because of what he deemed her fantasy that recession-era Americans would “start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market.”

Tony tries the ribs on tonight's airing of the show on the Travel Chanel. (Behind the scenes of 'No Reservations')

Some of Deen’s fans have the means for mesclun. They’re not consigned to overloads of animal fat; they elect it. But then so do plenty of New York gourmands who favor pâté and duck confit, both on the menu at Bourdain’s Brasserie Les Halles restaurant in Manhattan.

When Deen fries a chicken, many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all. Her strips of bacon, skirting pancakes, represent heedless gluttony. Chang’s dominoes of pork belly, swaddled in an Asian bun, signify high art.

There’s some class-inflected hypocrisy in the food world, where the center seems to be ceding territory to two wings: the self-appointed sophisticates and the supposed rubes. And the latter — represented by Deen and other objects of Bourdain’s ire, including Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee — have come on strong over the last few years.

They’re champions of downscale cooking that’s usually more affordable and easier to master, and they’re the most luminous stars of the expanding Food Network, whose 3-year-old publishing offshoot, the Food Network Magazine, recently announced a projected circulation increase to 1.4 million copies. That would put it just 100,000 copies behind the more establishment-approved Bon Appetit.

The establishment’s former darling, Gourmet, died in 2009. What just recently sprouted in its place is an even more rarefied journal, Lucky Peach, a literary quarterly that costs $10 an issue. Its first one showcased an interview with Bourdain about culinary mediocrity.

I prefer it to Food Network Magazine. And I prefer his TV show, “No Reservations,” a summons to eat adventurously around the world, to any of Deen’s.

But these preferences reflect privileges and don’t entitle me, Bourdain or anyone else who trots the globe and visits ambitious restaurants — the most casual of which can cost $50 a person and entail hourlong waits — to look down on food lovers without the resources, opportunity or inclination for that.

Besides, treating Deen, Lee & Co. with anything that smacks of moralizing and snobbery isn’t likely to move them or their audience toward healthier eating. It’s apt to cook up resentment. And we’ve got enough ill will and polarization in our politics. Let’s not set a place for them at the table.

via Unsavory Culinary Elitism – NYTimes.com.

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  1. […] on the Travel Channel (once owned by Discovery) While I love “No Reservations” (click here for my many reasons why) it is very unlikely I will be visiting Thailand or Poland anytime soon. Philadelphia, however, is […]

  2. […] on the Travel Channel (once owned by Discovery) While I love “No Reservations” (click here for my many reasons why) it is very unlikely I will be visiting Thailand or Poland anytime soon. Philadelphia, however, is […]



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