Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain premiered his Emmy-winning program, “No Reservations,” with a philosophy, a cheeky medium between Julia Child-style cooking segment and (gushing) Samantha Brown travel guide.
Narrating the 2007 Osaka episode, he says, “Most Westerners think they understand Japan better than any other Asian nation. But do they? And do I? If you took away the common reference points of samurai and Japanese pop culture, what’s left? I wanted to see a Japan that had nothing to do with Tokyo, anime, geishas, school girls, giant reptiles or Hello Kitty. I’ve been here to see the face of Japan before; this time, I’d like to take a look at its heart.”
This curiosity, coupled with a journalist’s attention to detail and yearning to understand the honest Osaka-native, made him a tonic to the puffed-up PR pieces on five-star tourist destinations—I thought so, anyway.
But like a kid lured into smoking, Bourdain has decidedly let his vices (and his mouth) unabashedly rule the day. In a recent interview with “TV Guide,” Bourdain took jabs at Food Network’s Paula Deen, Guy Fieri and Rachael Ray.
It is the Deen comments—better described as sucker punches calling her character into question—that have particularly roiled her loyal fans. Dubbed the “Georgia Peach,” Deen has made traditional Southern cooking accessible to the everywomen—to the suburban Target shopper, the Cuisinart cook, the connoisseur of pork loin roasts and jalapeño corned breads.
Bourdain popped off, “The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you.”
This mincing of not only Deen’s cooking style—which, really, is the only matter that Bourdain, a veteran chef of 28 years, has any authority to insult—goes beyond the competitive, perhaps inappropriate banter among celebrities of equal status.
No, Bordain’s rant to “Guide’s” Ingela Ratlegde was an easy swipe. Like a bully cackling and waiting behind a row of lockers or computer keyboard, Bourdain seized his opportunity to trash a woman who caters to a class of people he doesn’t know anything about.
That alone makes his comments all the more disingenuous. For a multi-faceted man with plenty of talent, this is particularly disappointing.
New York Times’ Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni notes Bourdain’s inconvenient truths, citing his and his celebrity pals’ propensity for food soaked in butter, creams, sugar and lard.
“Some of Deen’s fans have the means for mesclun (a mix of tender lettuces and other greens),” he writes. “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.”
The point about Deen’s food being bad for you is, as Bruni pointed out, simply moot. So when you de-bone Bourdain’s words, the crux of his argument is colored by class-based elitism: What people can or can’t afford to eat, and the difference between what he and chefs like David Chang consider good food and bad.
Bourdain enjoys sucking fatty bone marrow and ruby-colored, premium cuts of ham—meal items that cost a pretty penny in U.S. restaurants. It is highly doubtful, however, that he would ever be found in the likes of a Golden Corral or Outback Steakhouse, chain restaurants that serve the kind of folks who watch Deen’s show and buy “Cooking with Paula” magazine.
But to Bourdain’s credit, he will eat as the average Osakan eats: Fried octopus balls, meat on a stick, oniony omelets—the Japanese counterpart to Potbelly and Five Guys. And he enjoys it, revels in the locality and unassuming nature of it all. Bourdain devoted an episode of “No Reservations” to street food globally, to pho, buns and spreads of Vienna sausage and cheese; he called a bowl of made-in-the-backyard crawfish bisque, hand-stuffed with salt, cayenne, garlic and onion, to be among the best food he’s recently eaten.
Then, why is he so critical of the Deen equivalent?
Bourdain continued, “If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.”
Swathing his point with the America is Fat, and Getting Fatter argument is filament-thin; I don’t think Bourdain was too concerned about our obesity problem while plowing through a rich 52-course meal at Spain’s elBulli. And unlike Deen, he isn’t donating time or treasure to his chosen cause. When it comes to her charity work on behalf of Bethesda Home for Boys and America’s Second Harvest, Deen walks the walk.
Bourdain is instead condemning a significant group of people—some of whom watch him weekly on the Travel Channel—who don’t eat what he eats. Because at the end of the day, those of us who cook with Deen-brand pots and pans, shop at Meijer and pour Franzia out of the fridge by the spout aren’t quite as exotic as Osakan sushi chefs or even Treme neighborhood fried chicken joints.
Deen’s recipe for cinnamon rolls (which definitely qualify as “dirt-cheap” street food) wouldn’t likely make Bourdain’s avant garde cut; because the man of the people abroad—a reporter who humbly dines on couscous in a chemically-mowed Kurdistan desert—lives by double standards.
To Bourdain, Middle-American taste is largely a letdown. His is an attitude that says something about the contemporary culinary climate—in his world, “rubes” like us who order steak well can’t quite appreciate the complexities of duck confit or pit-fired Cajun roast pig. Meanwhile, fly-over America’s Georgia Peach forges on, butter and noodles ready for the casserole pan.