I hate reality television with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I think it’s lazy programming and it can become exploitative and propagate negative stereotypes and behaviors (see, for example, the post Honey Boo Boo/Duck Dynasty rise in white trash pride). So it should come as no surprise that I can’t stand this whole celebrity chef thing. First, it should be said, I can’t cook. This is in no way an admission of jealousy or anything resembling jealousy, I’m just saying that watching people cook and listening to them talk about cooking is less than entertaining for me. Just a personal preference. Secondly, I am not a foodie. Largely because it’s an expensive hobby. Also because I’m a smoker so some subtleties of flavor are lost on me. Mostly, though, if I’m being honest, it’s because I have a healthy aversion to douchebag-level overuse of particular adjectives. Telling me something is “artisanal” isn’t going to make it taste any better if it’s a thing I don’t like. Sorry.
Having said all of that, I’ve been watching Anthony Bourdain’s shows on Netflix lately. I’m so conflicted. Where’s the line between reality tv and documentary tv? Is it still a cooking show if it’s about a chef who doesn’t cook? Are travel shows exploitative or, at least, disruptive? Damaging in some way?
I don’t know the answers to any of these. I do know that I dig Bourdain. The thing I think I like the most about him is that he recognizes the universally communal nature of eating. When he talks about food, he’s talking about people. When he sits down to eat with someone, he asks them questions about their lives and their culture and if he talks about the food at all it’s in the context of what it means, not what it tastes like. He doesn’t set out to find the best food in a place, but the food that’s representative of that place. I like that he appreciates the awful meals as much as the amazing ones. We could all do with a little more of that in our mindsets, I think. The accumulation of experience should be the goal, not ticking restaurants and chefs off of our to-do lists just so we can say we did.
I wish I could just travel and eat the way Bourdain does, but some of those situations are downright scary. I can’t eat things without knowing what’s in them. I might die. But I do know how to say “shellfish allergy” in about ten languages (including Klingon, in case I’m ever stranded and hungry in some backwater part of ComicCon). My real problem is that I simply don’t like a lot of foods, and they’re often the sorts of things that people put on the plate to be fancy. Fucking foodies. Balsamic vinegar, truffle oil, stanky cheese, kale, sprouts – the stuff of nightmares. I’m no Philistine. I do like good food and fine dining. But I just prefer my meal to be recognizable, you know? When I eat a burger, dammit, it should taste like a burger.
I’m from the South, and have barbeque running through my veins. For years I’ve been saying that I want to travel the back roads along the Gulf and find the very best hole-in-the-wall bbq shack. Because you know the good shit’s tucked away somewhere in a tiny four-table hovel on a dirt road fifty miles outside a town no one’s ever heard of. It’s there, waiting for me. I shall eat its face and write a book about my adventures and try to keep the location of this little piece of Heaven a secret.
That’s another thing worth noting about Bourdain. He’s aware that he may be ruining these places by calling attention to them. I think it was the Rome episode of No Reservations when some locals took him to their favorite restaurant. He refused to say the name of the place and told his camera guy to keep the signs out of the shot because he didn’t want to come back in a year and find the place overrun with tourists. I respect that so much. Having lived in Asheville for years, I learned that I could only eat at certain places during the off season, or I would go to out of the way joints that the tourists could never find (or wouldn’t want to – I frequented a lot of dives). This is one of the biggest things I dislike about celebrity chefs. Their opinions have the power to make or break a restaurant or another chef’s career. And while I respect that their palettes are highly trained, certainly much more than my own, I’m not going to run out to try the thing Gordon Ramsay said was tasty just because he said it.
I like Ramsay, don’t get me wrong. I think the thing that people forget about him, though, is that he’s as much a businessman as a chef. Possibly even more so. One needs that savvy to be successful in high-end food. Especially when the foodie zombies are making everything so competitive. That’s the real rub here. We’ve created a culture where we’re going looking for the best of the best all the time, based largely on opinions of people we don’t know. Why shouldn’t I try the thing just because some hipster on Yelp said it wasn’t good? Maybe that guy’s favorite food is goat cheese soaked in balsamic. There’s no way to know, but we’re still reluctant to go to a place with a bad review, or even to a place we’ve never heard of. It makes me sad. Good food is everywhere. So are good experiences predicated on bad food. Don’t let people tell you what to do or how to eat. Try that sketchy street taco. Pay a hundred bucks for some hand-crafted cocktail. Whatever. But try things. New things, weird things, things that will make good stories. That’s the point. Otherwise we’d all stay home and eat mac and cheese every day. I know I would.