Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The pre-show soundtrack featured punk rock with a smattering of the Stones. When Bourdain strode on stage, as tall and lean as he appears on TV - in jeans, trademark cowboy boots, well-worn sport jacket, and an open collared shirt (he insists he no longer wears his Ramones T-shirt, let alone an earring, since the birth of his daughter) - the audience applauded, roared, and gave him a standing ovation fit for a rock legend.
He nearly filled the 2700-seat theater at the Aronoff Center, which typically offers touring company productions of Broadway shows at a similar price rather than one guy talking quasi-extemporaneously in front of a lectern for an hour, then answering audience questions. When the house lights came up for the Q/A and he could actually see the crowd, Bourdain quipped that these looked like Guy Fieri numbers.
Most of his stories would be familiar to Bourdain readers and watchers, especially if you've read Medium Raw (I haven't yet), excerpts from it or some of the 60+ interviews he's given in connection with this promotional tour (of which I've read a number), his blog for No Reservations on the Travel Channel, or other press. The guy certainly knows how to get press. Still, it was compelling to see his schtick in person, especially surrounded by 2699 other (wildly responsive) Bourdainophiles. Clearly, many of his stories were ones he's told, retold, embellished many times, and tailors to the audience at hand. I've always had the impression Bourdain is someone who writes the way he talks, and talks the way he writes, although sometimes his narration on No Reservations can come across as cloyingly glib and sound as though he's reading off the page. Sunday night, using that lectern only as a place to rest a single beer bottle and hold notes he referred to rarely, he was glib, yes. Cloyingly so, not so much. And things got a little edgier during the Q/A.
So just how much kindler and gentler is Bourdain these days, ten years after publishing Kitchen Confidential, three years after becoming a father, and with much more media savvy than he started out with?
He began the evening by refusing to to diss Rachael Ray, citing not only that famous fruit basket she sent him but also her participation in the South x Southwest festival, which he found discordantly cool. Then she hired one of his favorite bands, the New York Dolls, for a party at same, which he found even more discordantly cool. (Existential questions about whether or not to shoot a puppy were also involved.)
Bourdain also refuses to quit dissing Sandra Lee, even though her boyfriend (current attorney general and potential next governor of the State of New York Andrew Cuomo) may well "audit me back 20 years." Expanding on this blog post about his encounter with Lee at a premiere of "Julie and Julia" (which he called "half a good film"), Bourdain isn't backing down from describing Sandra (whose name he pronounces as "Sondra") as a force of such "pure evil" that even his current wife - an avid practitioner of mixed martial arts whom he claims has no "truck," shall we say, with his ardent female fans - was rendered immobile by Sandra's dead doll eyes as she touched him "inappropriately." Surely, no embellishment here. And easy to woo the audience with every self-respecting foodie's favorite target at the Food Network.
Nonetheless, Bourdain was charitable toward several other Food TV personalities he believes can actually cook "properly" (I always sit up a little straighter in my chair when I hear trained chefs use that term), including Giada De Laurentiis (undercut by his reference to her "freakishly large head") and Ina Garten (although he put a sinister spin on her oft-repeated "when Jeffrey comes home" mantra). Bourdain also expressed regret for beating up on Emeril in the past, saying Emeril looks like a genius compared to current network hosts and wondering aloud, "Where has Emeril gone?"
In answer to that question, Bourdain continued to beat up on the Food Network, positing that after reviewing focus group research, network honchos decided they really didn't need to pay real money to real chefs, who have their own restaurants, showed real cooking, and used "big words." In Bourdain's telling: So they said to Emeril, "Thanks for everything, Emeril. We got you a new car out back. Come see." Bourdain mimes gunshot. And then they said to Mario, "Want to see Emeril's new car out back?" Bourdain mimes another gunshot.
Then Bourdain moved on to Bobby Flay, who in this scenario is probably getting nervous, because he's a real chef; he's got restaurants. But, as Bourdain spins this tale, the network offers Bobby a deal that will keep him on the network for years. "Our audience research tells us that 98% of viewers think you're an arrogant pr**k." So they offer Flay Throwdown in order to satisfy viewers who want to see Bobby be put in his place by "regular cooks" at podunk local cooking competitions across the country. That magical mystery tour brought big audience response at the Aronoff. Although when Bourdain said Bobby could probably best anyone in a local chili cookoff - especially here (the home of Cincinnati chili, an entirely different food group) - he received an even wilder response. I'm not sure whether Bourdain was taken aback by the many boo's or genuinely tickled to have provoked such a response.
When addressing another Food TV mainstay, Iron Chef, Bourdain's first remark was that he loved the original from Japan (big applause at the Aronoff). Who didn't, including its incomparably camp dubbing? Bourdain said he often wants to like the Food TV U.S. version, especially given the guest chefs, saying things to his wife like, "Hey, Babe, come watch - Wylie Dufresne is on!" Then you look at the caliber of clueless judges and, well, sigh.
Regarding other shows in the food competition TV genre, Bourdain brought up Hell's Kitchen, saying that while he likes Ramsay personally and many of Ramsay's other (Brit-based) shows, Hell's Kitchen is horrible, a show where no one could possibly believe any of the contestants has the skills to be worthy of the prize: winning an executive chef spot in one of Ramsay's restaurants. "Where's the suspense?" asked Bourdain. "Whether the morbidly obese guy who had a heart attack last week can make it across the kitchen to the Fry-o-later this episode without passing out?"
In comparison, when it came to Top Chef, Bourdain had nothing but good things to say, glossing over his absence since Season 4, which aired in 2008. He insisted he's always loved the show, watches it avidly, and reminded us he's been on the show many times. Per Season 7 promos, Bourdain is finally back - perhaps willing to return to the fold thanks to the presence of his friend, Eric Ripert, as part-time TC judge? In any case, Bourdain's TC appearance is likely to help sell copies of Medium Raw. (I just hope the prize for the episode on which he appears is more substantial than an autographed copy.)
Bourdain asserted his respect for the caliber of TC contestants (at least those who make it past the first few weeks) and stressed what they're up against, and what he himself couldn't do. "Make a souffle? Without a recipe? No recipes, cookbooks, internet, phone, contact with friends? These are tough challenges." Bourdain staunchly stood by the shiny beacon of Collichio's bald-headed leadership when it comes to making decisions about who stays and who goes, even when he knows producers are probably freaking out that a favorite is going home ("Oh, no, not Tre!" was one example he cited). Bourdain is clearly in Tom's corner that TC should be judged on a "what have you done for me lately" aka "any given Sunday" basis.
Bourdain also tread lightly on Alice Waters, for whom he has had incendiarily harsh words (did I mention the guy knows how to get press?), then backed off, saying elsewhere that he disagrees less with her goals than with the elitism with which she tends to present them. Emphasizing the economic realities of busy families with strapped budgets, he pointed to people who flock to Popeye's on $1.99 night. "It's not that they think they're looking for delicious chicken from Popeye's, or worried about eating locally. It's that they can get three pieces for $1.99."
Without further disparaging Waters, or missing a beat, Bourdain moved on. "But being a hypocrite . . . and a dad . . . my daughter eats organic." He transitioned into reflections about how he's changed since being a working cook. Back then, he viewed himself as simply being "in the pleasure business," not caring where, say, a tomato, came from or whether it was local, healthy, or organic. Just whether it tasted good, looked good on the plate, and had a cost-effective price point. Being a dad, however, he says he's become much more attentive to issues of where food comes from.
Citing one recent story that got his attention, about ammonia being used on outer cuts of subprime beef for fast-food grade hamburgers, he said that when the government gets too involved in regulating "healthiness," "cleanliness," etc. in the food industry, the sound of jackboots may soon follow. However, he believes we're all entitled to burgers that do not have cleaning products among their ingredients. After a much more passionate and amusing discussion than I will attempt to recap (and which received tremendous applause), he then said, "But when it comes to hot dogs, you're on your own. That's a case of implied consent."
Bourdain went back into provacateur mode talking about how he attempts to discourage his daughter from wanting McDonald's, a theme he returned to when an audience member asked him for his thoughts on school lunch programs. Bourdain said he admires Jamie Oliver's work and thinks Jamie is taking the high road, although it may be too late for that to succeed, and suggesting that sometimes the "low road" is what's needed. Bourdain's ostensible low road: To combat the pervasive advertising power of fast food chains aimed at children, turn messages on their head and scare the crap out of kids. "How hard can it be to scare the crap out of a three-year-old?" Following Bourdain's line of thinking, what puts fear into kids is being marginalized. So . . . he claims he plants ideas in his daughter's head like this: "There are cooties in McDonald's food. I heard on the schoolyard from the other parents that your friend Hunter got cooties from eating there, and then it spread to another kid on the schoolyard." Bourdain talked about a schoolyard rumor back in his own days that Chunky (I'm presuming the peanut butter) had rat hair in it, which went viral long before the internet, resulting in plummeting sales for said product. Bourdain had many more deterrent suggestions to offer: eating at that fast-food joint will result in penile shrinkage, etc. Bourdain is all about tailoring the message to the target audience: whatever age, sex, gender, geography, or other demographic.
He also talked about travel and No Reservations before asking for those house lights to be turned up for the question-and-answer portion of the evening, when it became clear many audience members were drawn to Bourdain for his travel expertise, some of them with extensive travel background, some just starting out. One young man got up in front of the microphone, proclaimed his desire to travel the world, and asked Bourdain for advice on where to start. "How are you going to support yourself while you travel around the world?" was Bourdain's initial response. Then he offered Viet Nam as a suggested first great travel destination. "Your expense will be in getting there. Once you're there, it's relatively cheap." In answer to this and other questions, Bourdain talked about his attraction to the scenery, food, and people of Viet Nam without any semblance of irony. He says he plans to live in Viet Nam for a year and write a book about it, although he doesn't know when that will be. Probably not until No Reservations gets canceled. He is decidedly not giving up The.Best.Job.In.The.World. At least willingly.
Another questioner was a young woman who said she's leaving for London next week to go to some sort of travel writing school and aspires to the be the female version of Bourdain, although her mother is not happy about that. "Your mom is probably right," quipped Bourdain, who then mentioned that London is the second most expensive city in the world. Nonetheless, he recommended that while she's there, she check out Fergus Henderson's restaurant, St. John. A great meal for a great price, he said.
An impish-looking white-haired man came up to the microphone, identifying himself as "Raisin, from Kentucky," and said, "I just talked to my bookie, and the over/under on how many times you'll drop the F-bomb is 110. You're already up to 94." Bourdain clearly got a kick out of that one, announcing after another skatelogical tirade, "I think we're up to 110" and later, "I've put money on 140."
Re: the upcoming season of No Reservations, Bourdain promises an even more dysfunctional Thanksgiving show, and talked up his recent visit to Paris with his family and Eric Ripert, wherein his daughter ate oysters of her own volition and purportedly grabbed a Sebastian-looking lobster (a la Little Mermaid) from the top of a towering seafood display, tearing into it with gusto that did her daddy proud. Nonetheless, he insists he's not trying to raise a foodie kid. "After all, she eats her boogers too."
Bourdain also spoke avidly about his determination to "confound and confuse" both the Travel network and his fans by changing up episodes on NR. The freedom he has doing The.Best.Job.In.The.World includes unleashing the craziness, passion, and creativity of himself and his team, and one example he is obviously jazzed about is the black-and-white food porn episode shot in Italy, shown in letterbox format, "with everyone being dubbed - even me," said the provacateur, full of pride, "although there may be only 8 people still watching by the end of that episode." OK, Tony, you foster aspiration, curiosity, and skepticism in all of us. Not necessarily a bad thing.
Winding things down on the Q/A, Bourdain accepted a few more questions, teasing that he wanted to end on a "d*ck" joke." A young woman stepped up to the to microphone, saying she travels frequently to France, where she's involved in culinary research. She wanted to share an anecdote, a situation she wasn't sure how to respond to. She said she was asked to explain the project to a group of Americans, including legendary culinary curmudgeon Jeffrey Steingarten. When Steingarten asked her what she was doing next, she said she was returning home to Cincinnati, to which he replied, "Why? What is there to eat?"
In response to this question, Bourdain had zero kindness or gentleness. No Dora the Explorer references or sugar coating. He lashed out at established food critics who view the world of food through a lens of entitlement, describing them as being driven from restaurant to restaurant in black Towne cars, never touching street food, and lacking culinary curiosity. Tony's big finish: "They hate food, they hate themselves, they hate their lives."
Iconoclast, trying to leave the audience with a bombastic finish? Or just a guy who misses his wife and kid, wants to collect his share of the box office, and move on to the next city?