“(Bourdain’s) attention to the prosaic, something other hosts gloss over in their desire to focus, simply, cheaply and shallowly, on the weird or wonderful attributes of their destinations, is part of Mr. Bourdain’s larger television persona: smart, profane and sarcastic but, most important, real. Authenticity is the holy grail of reality TV, and he seems to project it effortlessly. Is it really real? Who knows.”
I’ll answer Mr. Hale’s question with another: Shouldn’t we care?
We shouldn’t settle for that.
Luckily, Bourdain’s latest effort captures what is real. Unlike recent seasons of his Emmy-winning program, “No Reservations,” where we find our snarky, vulgar host fawning over his chef pals and their gastronomic miracles, “Layover” lands Tony back on earth, literally and figuratively.
The program’s style is familiar—straddling a scooter, stuffed in the back of a death cab, Bourdain takes viewers on frenetic 24- to 48-hour tours of global megacities home to airport hubs. He does not shy away from the “Layover’s” adherence to travel show formula; in a recent blog post, he wrote, “The crew and I got drunk one night and said, ‘Hey, let’s make Samantha Brown’s (a former Travel Channel host) show! Only….different…and good!'”
Ouch. So far, what we see is different…and mostly good. The entire hour sprints to the stress-inducing ticks of a split-flap clock which can make the viewing experience a bit jumpy. Bourdain also sticks to two things: His curmudgeonliness and his love of food. Whereas Samantha Brown’s signature was saccharine perkiness, it was enough to question her depth. In one memorable episode of “Passport to China,” Brown gleefully sashayed through Tiananmen Square, an unfortunate juxtaposition beneath the austere glare of Chairman Mao.
If you’re looking for something meatier to jam your tenterhooks into, Bourdain’s material is a comparatively more substantial.
He has written that food has power, that it can inspire, shock, delight and impress. Bourdain even describes his first oyster as Julia Child did about her first plate of sole in beurre blanc, as transformative, as significant, as a means of measure for all future, tasty things. Nowhere is it better to have such a seminal experience, he says, than in Singapore, which fittingly is the city he visits in “Layover’s” first episode.
In a 2006 interview, Bourdain said, “(Singaporeans) like their food and take it very seriously. You can always find a good argument on where to get the best food in Singapore and Malaysia, and those kinds of strong opinions are always a good sign. Where people are opinionated about food, they tend to cook well.”
Accordingly, where people are opinionated about food, they too tend to eat well. Like a feverish dream, Bourdain raced from iconic hawker centers (immaculate outdoor food stalls regulated by running water and refrigeration) to a swank rooftop bar to a Turkish tea cafe in the name of good eats on the clock.
Upon finishing a quick breakfast of steamed rice cakes covered in preserved pickles and fried lard, a combination that reputedly tastes like chocolate, he shrugged. His enthusiasm was plain, giddy, and yes—authentic. “Awesome,” he said.
“Layover’s” second episode found Bourdain in New York: His home, his rules, his food.
“Date night at the Bourdain’s is here; Takashi on Hudson Street in the West Village is my favorite new restaurant in New York,” he says impishly. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing more romantic than sitting over a hot grill, looking longingly into each other’s eyes and grilling little slivers of meat.”
The reason behind Bourdain’s success on the Travel Channel is simple—his programs embody a quality overlooked and underestimated by producers of oxymoronic “reality TV.” Authenticity is infectious; his characters and the stories told aren’t prefabricated, scripted or prompted.
No, Bourdain’s effusiveness is genuine. In a world constantly moving, tweeting and flexing, honesty in media is invaluable and, like Bourdain once said about Yakiniku beef noodles, it’s something we could use a little more of in our lives.