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 And regardless of it’s outdated nature (Kitchen Confidential was first published in 2001 and Anthony has since published his follow up: Medium Raw), it is by far the most entertaining and eye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.