The Cult of Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN)
His tough-guy attitude and sense of cool made him a demigod of the food world.   

Two slices of Anthony Bourdain. Here he is in a famous passage about well-done steaks:

In many kitchens, there’s a time-honored practice called “save for well-done.” When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steak — tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from age — he’ll dangle it in the air and say, “Hey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?” What he’s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: “Save for well-done.” The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.

Yet here he is on beer:

The angriest critiques I get are . . . when I’m drinking whatever convenient cold beer is available in a particular place, and not drinking the best beer out there. You know, I haven’t made the effort to walk down the street 10 blocks to the microbrewery where they’re making some f***ing Mumford and Sons IPA. I like cold beer. And I like to have a good time. I don’t like to talk about beer, honestly. I don’t like to talk about wine. I like to drink beer. If you bring me a really good one, a good craft beer, I will enjoy it, and say so. But I’m not gonna analyze it.

I was in San Francisco, and I was desperate for beer, and I walked into this place. I thought it was an old bar. And I sat down, and I looked up, and I noticed there was a wide selection of beers I’d never heard of. Which is fine. . . . But I looked around: the entire place was filled with people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes. This is not a bar. This is f***ing Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is wrong. This is not what a bar is about. A bar is to go to get a little bit buzzed, and pleasantly derange the senses.

To summarize: The taste of steak matters a lot. If you are so undiscerning about the taste of steak as to like it well-done, you’re a barbarian and should be punished by being served garbage. The taste of beer, however, does not matter at all. It just needs to be icy cold (which numbs the tongue) and give you a buzz. If you pause to savor the varying taste sensations you’re a pod person from outer space. Taste is either everything or nothing, depending on the setting.

The only real common denominator of Bourdainism was the attitude, the personality, the arrogance, the pose. There’s no question that Bourdain, who took his own life last week at age 61, was one of the most influential cultural figures of his age. It is down to him, and just a few others, that our image of a chef changed from a plump, vaguely comical figure (Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse) to Keith Richards with a ladle.

After Bourdain’s 1999 New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” subsequently developed into the bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, we began to think of chefs as cocky, swaggering, irreverent, intemperate, profane, macho, preferably with tattoos and a history of heroin addiction. Bourdain had a beguilingly democratic spirit, guiding us to fantastic meals served for a few bucks at a hole in the wall or even a humble food truck (previously derided as a “roach coach”). He made food exciting, adventurous, cool, sexy. On his CNN show Parts Unknown, he brought a sitting president (Barack Obama) to a noodle shop in Hanoi where the pair sat on plastic stools and enjoyed a $6 meal of pork noodles, fried spring rolls, and bottled beer.

The table where they ate, though, is today a shrine, encased in glass, set apart like a priceless work of art. This raises a question: Is the appeal of these two based on their being two ordinary guys like the rest of us, or are they gods who so sanctified objects with their touch that their empty beer bottles must be as jealously guarded as the Shroud of Turin?

Next door to National Review’s office is an outpost of Xi’an Famous Foods, a Chinese noodle shop. Xi’an’s food wasn’t always famous; in 2007 the outfit was just a basement food stall in Flushing, Queens. Then the pope of foodies stopped by to bestow his blessing, for his Travel Channel show No Reservations. Now Xi’an is a chain. The dishes have very Bourdain-ish names that make eating noodles seem a bit dangerous and aggressive, like joining the Navy SEALs. Offerings are “hand-ripped” or “smashed.” There’s a line out the door to the midtown location. Instead of kinetic immigrants, the people working there are laid-back native-born American hipsters. The noodles are clearly fresh, and they’re spicy. They’re also on the expensive side; twelve bucks strikes me as a lot to pay for a plate of starch plus five mouthfuls of beef. I don’t go there very often. I would go there never if it weren’t right next to my office. I feel sorry for anyone who spent an hour and a half on a train piously retracing Bourdain’s sacred foodie path — the Via Deliciosa.

In a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, of course, the greatest food in human history is found at McDonald’s. The Cult of Bourdain disapproves of going there. McDonald’s isn’t very dangerous. It isn’t very much like being a Navy SEAL.

Three blocks away is an Indian joint, Minar, which serves a chicken tikka masala of such surpassing genius that I’ve had it for lunch just about every week for 13 years. I call that meal 70 percent better and also 30 percent cheaper than the dishes I’ve had at Xi’an. Such cost-benefit analysis is unknown to the cult of Bourdain, which is forever urging us to travel hours out of our way (such as to Flushing, Queens) to scrounge for something a bit better than what’s in the neighborhood. To me, paying with time is not much different from paying with money, and food is only worth so much to me in the first place. Extravagant expenditure of either time or money is something I’ll do only occasionally. It’s not democratic at all to assume profligacy with these finite resources. In a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, of course, the greatest food in human history is found at McDonald’s. The Cult of Bourdain disapproves of going there. McDonald’s isn’t very dangerous. It isn’t very much like being a Navy SEAL.

Bourdain was a wickedly funny writer well-served by his Hunter S. Thompson–like flair for hyperbole and gratuitous venom: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn,” he wrote, calling them “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for.” I salute him for exhorting his followers to go forth and revel in the delicious (except beer or wine, I suppose, which are just for getting buzzed). But for all of his Thompson-like stylings, he was more like the Anna Wintour of food. If he told everyone to wear cerulean, they’d wear cerulean. It was his personality that made his judgments stick, not the other way around. The judgments were beside the point; if he’d told people organ meat was vile and veganism was edgy, they would have happily switched sides and chided the tasteless losers who disagreed. Hey, he’s got arm tattoos, he must be right!

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