On Anthony and Alice

January 2, 2011 § 4 Comments

I recently read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.  For those of you who have not heard of him, he is the host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations where he travels across the world, exposing people to the culinary delights of the common man.  Once in a while he will indulge in an extravagent spread at a four star restaurant but he usually shows it in a non-intimidating way.  For example, he will eat in the back while chatting with the chef or at the bar, going straight for the food and not pandering to those who prefer ambiance over substance.

Before the book, I knew very little about him.  I liked his show because he was living my dream of traveling and eating, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear such eloquent prose on a food show targeted to the same audience as Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods.  However, when I purchased a copy of Kitchen Confidential (on a whim while perusing Google Books on my phone), I had no idea of the expletive filled tale of drugs, kitchen politics, and food history that I was about to embark on.  And regardless of it’s outdated nature (Kitchen Confidential was first published in 2001 and Anthony has since published his follow up: Medium Raw), it is by far the most entertaining and eye opening memoir I have read in a long time.

But although I can recommend the book wholeheartedly to those interested in fine dining and salacious gossip (oh come on, who isn’t), I don’t know if I can praise the man himself without feeling a bit conflicted.  Anthony Bourdain is a walking contradiction. An openly admirable hypocrite of sorts,  he somehow manages to simultaneously be misogynistic yet chivalrous, boastful yet self deprecating, and a benevolent dictator, both in the kitchen and in your thoughts as you read his book.  However, as bad ass as he seems, one still cannot turn a blind eye to those wasted years lost to binging on alcohol and drugs.

This brings to mind a quote from him when describing Rachael Ray’s endorsement of Dunkin’ Donuts where he said that “it’s like endorsing crack for kids.”  Well, Mr. Bourdain, at least it’s better than actually endorsing crack.  And cocaine and heroine and meth…the list goes on and on. To be fair, he doesn’t actually endorse drugs but the feeling you get by the end of the book is that it’s cool.  That Anthony Bourdain did it and had no regrets, so why can’t you?  He tells of a few cautionary tales and how he knew he had to eventually get clean but not nearly enough to erase the subliminal message of drugs equals fun.

Which leads to me to talk about another very different chef: Alice Waters.  To me, Alice and Anthony are both pseudo celebrities.  They don’t have their own mainstream television show but they both have very avid followings, cultivated by their talent and love of food.

But before I go on, I should give a little background on who I am and my prior knowledge of food.  I am not a foodie.  I am way too practical to spend $500 at a restaurant just because it has stars from people I’ve never heard of.  I love eating and am eager to try new things but I don’t like the idea of people spending thousands on food and wine when people across the world are surviving on American corn surplus and the occasional local produce.  Fortuitous opportunities have allowed me to experience a few fine dining experiences as well as amazing local fare from street vendors in other countries.  But before working as an intern at the Chez Panisse Foundation, I had no idea who Alice Waters was (or Anthony Bourdain for that matter), and had never really thought about what goes on behind the scenes of a nationally acclaimed restaurant.

So on to Alice Waters.  A little background on this subject.  Anthony Bourdain does not like Alice Waters.  I was mildly surprised when I read this online but then again, there are many people Anthony doesn’t like.  He is very straightforward with his preferences and his honesty gives the media countless quotes to sensationalize.  We have here two very different people with very different value systems and no amount of criticism is going to ever make them suddenly a believer in the others’ school of thought.  Anthony Bourdain is very clear about his perception of food.  Food is intended to pleasure people, regardless of where it came from or the consequences on your body.  Alice Waters focuses on health and how good food can also be good for your body.  She also is a proponent of eating local and in a sustainable manner.

I started this post entitled “On Anthony and Alice” with the intention of highlighting actions versus words.  Anthony talks a lot.  He rambles on and on about everything from the mundane to the esoteric.  Alice does a lot.  While interning at the Chez Panisse Foundation I found her to be a stern, forthright type of person who did not like to waste time.  Both of them are Type-A personalities at work but while Anthony has focused on writing books and his show since ending his time as a chef, Alice has focused on pouring an inordinate amount of time and resources into revolutionizing food for American school children.   At the end of the day, Alice is trying to do something good in a very public way while Anthony is not.  I’m sure he donates to causes that he supports but to put yourself out there as a leader of a movement is an invitation for constantly having to defend yourself and the values you preach.  It’s an exhausting lifestyle, I’m sure.

Personally, I find myself in the middle of these two very different people.  As much as I try to educate myself of where my food comes from and eating organic, I find myself leaning more toward’s Anthony’s viewpoint in that food is for pleasure.  And although I admire Alice’s work immensely, I’m the first to admit that she has blown up to a proportion where people around her glorify her every action, leading to a perception of almost saintliness.   Anthony seems approachable, even reasonable while Alice (and I can speak from personal experience), is not.  She does not yield.

But at the end of the day, I feel like the shoe fits.  All movements need an unyielding leader with clear goals and metrics while entertainers should be well, entertaining.  Alice is not a TV personality for good reason.  And Anthony does not pretend to care about things that he doesn’t.  And that is how it should be.

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§ 4 Responses to On Anthony and Alice

  • caroline says:

    I’m more of an Alice fan. I’ve seen almost all of No Reservation and I love it. I don’t really like Anthony because he’s very hypocritical and one-sided to the point where it’s annoying. I love food and everything related to food. I like Alice Waters (and I read her cookbook, yes read it) because her cooking is all about simplicity. I think I like simple flavors more than heavy flavors which I associate with Bourdain. And I like the idea of sustainability and garden living which I associate with Waters. But Bourdain is great entertainment and I didn’t read the entire book of his, but I did glance through it. And yeah, he’s pretty egotistical and the chef world is full of narcissists.

    You should check out http://orangette.blogspot.com
    I like her simple, yummy style of cooking. She also road a memoir/cookbook/nonfiction type of book that I really really liked.

  • you-know-who says:

    I consider Alice Waters to be retarded at best and quite damaging to society at worst. Those yummy mangoes which arguably originally brought us together as friends, were from Ecuador. It is dishonest of Alice to claim that spending an additional 18 hours on a 747 caused those mangoes to become any less healthy or less delicious. She would rather have Ecuadorians not trade their excess mangoes for modern medicine. Her anti-global-trade philosophy would push the planet back many decades, to the point where much of the planet would go back to third-world conditions, and the rest of us would not be able to afford simple things such as international phone calls, or laptops.

    And her sorry little restaurant — after having been served a bowl of unpeeled fruit for dessert, served an ultra-simple Indian spiced yogurt recipe under a fancy name, and several insipid entrees, all for top dollar, the only reason I step in there any more is to impress some girl. Or, rather, to enlighten her how sorry a place it is relative to the price and sales pitch. And, to remind myself every so months when I start doubting myself.

    Sure, some people may prefer their food uncooked, but I believe in the French tradition that you eat whole fruit when you are rushing to work, and when you eat out you eat food that is cooked and complemented with adequate ingredients/sauces so that the end result is something more amazing than its individual components.

    I have never heard of Anthony other than your blog. I can’t respect anybody who needs drugs or does them. He sounds like a salesperson, and I guess anybody who writes a book for commercial success is and if drug stories help him sell his book, all power to him.

    I do agree with his claim that the best food is on the street or at simple restaurants. Every single meal of mine that I have eaten alone on my trip has been on the street. And just one or two were in a down-to-earth restaurant just because the person I was with wanted to eat there.

    However, most importantly, I generally feel distant from the food fad that has been sweeping the country for the last few years. In my opinion food deserves roughly a tenth of the share of our collective mind that the current fad gives it.

    • jokidoki says:

      I really dislike how people use the blanket of anonymity the Internet provides them to say things they would never say in person. Your comment is so disrespectful on so many levels to so many different parties. You are entitled to your opinion but you really don’t have to be so spiteful.

      I read this comment in the morning through my email and I thought about how I wanted to respond to it all day. My feelings ran the gamut from anger, annoyance, disbelief, and worst of all, disappointment. It made you look so ignorant, so petty, so…ugly, not at all the way I view my friends.

      Your arguments are not completely without merit. But you paint a much more extreme picture of Alice than I have ever seen. And considering I actually worked with her and the foundation, I know that whatever source you got your information from was completely one-sided. Part of me wants to rebut your comment point by point, but the more reasonable part of me knows that it is not worth it.

      I think in the end, it makes me sad that a movement with such good intentions could be viewed so perversely. But to be fair, every person who tried to do something for the good of the world had his or her detractors, everyone from Gandhi to MLK to …me. Even though comments like yours are expected, it still hurts and it sure as hell doesn’t help anyone.

  • you-know-who says:

    I was thinking on the same lines too. That what I wrote was in bad taste, spiteful and not at all friend-worthy. And that I become a different person when I am not communicating one-on-one.

    I apologize unconditionally for my comment.

    Please don’t hesitate to delete it if you have the slightest desire to — since I have made it difficult for anybody to sanely rebut it. (or keep it if you prefer)

    Sorry also for ruining your day. I am glad that at the end you decided to let me know how you felt. It is a strong motivator for me to improve.

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