Moveable colonial feast anyone? What do we talk about when we talk about Anthony Bourdain in 2017?
There is one volume in my complete collection of The Adventures of Tintin that’s different. It’s a paperback; it isn’t in English; I brought it back from a trip to France when I was 18. Its original title is Tintin au Congo, and to read it is in a way to be reassured. In this era of microaggressions and triggering and inadvertently causing offence, there is something wonderfully uncomplicated about holding something undeniably racist in your hands. It has a galvanising effect. Once you are confronted with something inarguable like Tintin au Congo, it becomes harder to excuse other things in the work of a beloved writer – the similarly troubling characterisations of other non-white races, say – that you might otherwise have written off as a product of their time.
Anthony Bourdain is a transitive verb. He happens to places and people and things, and then leaves once he has what he came for
I’m coming round to thinking the same way about Anthony Bourdain in the wake of a lengthy New Yorker feature by Patrick Radden Keefe. There is no smoking gun in the piece like Hergé’s caricature of clueless hapless natives; there is, however, an accumulation of detail that ends up feeling monolithic, undeniable in its own way. For example: as a child, Bourdain loved The Adventures of Tintin, too. He and his brother would spend hours poring over them, taking in Hergé’s wonderfully detailed depictions of Shanghai, Cairo, the Andes – places he never thought he’d get to see. Of course, he did get to see them, and the uncritical reading is to be happy that he grew up to be like his childhood hero: a writer, travelling the world, seeing amazing places. But reading Radden Keefe’s piece was like flicking a switch, reversing polarities: everything looks the exactly the same, just the other way round. The young Belgian is still the perfect avatar, but he’s not (just) a writer, travelling the world, seeing amazing places: he’s an implausibly fortunate white male who gets to travel the world on somebody else’s dollar, its furthest-flung locales and locals a cartoonish canvas on which he gets to paint his adventures.
Anthony Bourdain is a transitive verb. He happens to places and people and things, and then leaves once he has what he came for. His shows are fundamentally acquisitive in nature, not anthropological. After a full-on military conflict has derailed a trip to Beirut, Bourdain narrates “This is not the show we went to Lebanon to get”, and the choice of verb is telling. Radden Keefe recounts Bourdain’s first trip to Tokyo, how he would walk into the most uninviting, foreign-seeming, crowded restaurant he could find, pointing at a diner who appeared to have ordered something good, and saying, “Gimme that!”
This is the premise of pretty much every Bourdain production in a nutshell, couched for good measure in an imperative as imperialist as it is imperious. The promise that by giving yourself over to “communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous” you can find something “rare”, something “earthy, fresh, free of pretense”, something authentic. Take this story told by Barack Obama in discussion with Bourdain over bun cha in Hanoi, about a roadside restaurant in the hills above Jakarta:
“There’d be a river running through the restaurant itself, and there’d be these fish, these carp, that would be running through. You’d pick the fish. They’d grab it for you and fry it up, and the skin would be real crispy. They just served it with a bed of rice.”
This is a story elemental in its simplicity. It is astonishing in its myopia, its one-sidedness in spite of the repetition of “they”. It completely overlooks the agency of the Indonesians, how PYOCarp isn’t a fashion choice in a cool-gritty new part of town, how that bed of rice is not a minimalist-soigné choice but possibly proffered out of scarcity of alternative. How, finally, rather than being a source of delight and a dope anecdote for a visiting tourist, they might perhaps like to change places with a successful American dude who flies First class all over the globe and makes the otherwise prohibitively expensive reality as if by fiat (“I don’t know who’s paying for it”, Bourdain says at one point of a James Brown song he wants in a specific episode, “But somebody’s f––king paying for it.”)
The day after his dinner with Obama in Hanoi, Bourdain tweeted a photo, with the caption “Total cost of Bun cha dinner with the President: $6.00. I picked up the check.” The joke is that it’s cheap. Radden Keefe presents what he thinks to be a central irony – that if he’s an anthropologist, Bourdain is a bad one, his every intrusion modifying his area of study: whenever he “discovers a hole-in-the-wall culinary gem, he places it on the tourist map, thereby leaching it of the authenticity that drew him to it in the first place”. But how about this: it’s pretty fucking rich for a white American to come to an underdeveloped country and strip-mine it for delicacies; to bring with him promise of untold tourist food-dollars, but only on the condition that the country swears not to get too developed in the meantime, or too expensive. The title of Radden Keefe’s article – ‘Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast’ – places him at the centre of all eating; places and people are only reified through their exposure to him. Anthony Bourdain moves, the feast stays where it is, obediently waiting for his advent, promising it hasn’t changed, got richer, got better.
It’s an imbalance that Radden Keefe suggests Bourdain is at pains to (sort of) redress, in his demands for “less footage of him eating and more B-roll of daily life in the countries he visits”. But as detailed and perceptive as the New Yorker piece is, it overlooks why getting “’More ‘B’, less me” might not be a straightforward exercise: the Anthony Bourdain it presents is a colossal narcissist. Moreover, he seems to delight in it, rejoice in his self-centredness: “I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you.” At a couple of points in his article, Radden Keefe uncovers testimony that suggests Bourdain’s “braggadocio” might stray into outright fiction – even that account in Kitchen Confidential of a Proustian first oyster on the coast of Normandy might be played up, dramatized, total bullshit. This is behaviour in keeping with a man who has fashioned his own personal mythology, made it a brand, a way of life: not just a frequent flier who’s never around long enough to form meaningful connections, but a free-wheeling soldier of fortune, a traveller in alien lands, an old man – too old, dammit – who’s seen things you wouldn’t believe.
Of course, that’s part of the appeal – you can watch his shows and take notes (no shame: I have done this); you can follow in his footsteps, take a walk on the wild side, do the fucked up stuff he’s done. The fascination of the abomination: it’s pure Heart of Darkness.
In Bourdain’s writing the kitchen is reconfigured as a twentieth-century battlefield, the violent, bloody domain of the chef-soldier, the prototypical Difficult Man who loves the smell of Napa cabbage in the morning
Or, more correctly, pure Apocalypse Now. At one point, Radden Keefe is on an extended jag about the discipline required to work in a kitchen; Tony describing the hell of Sunday morning service: “Three hundred brunches, nothing came back”. Radden Keefe notes how in relating this Bourdain’s voice hardens “with the steely conviction of a combat veteran”. Metaphors are not innocent; in Bourdain’s writing the kitchen is reconfigured as a twentieth-century battlefield, the violent, bloody domain of the chef-soldier, the prototypical Difficult Man who loves the smell of Napa cabbage in the morning. It’s rife in Kitchen Confidential, it crops up throughout Radden Keefe’s piece, not least his starry-eyed observation “from the beginning he had a talent for badassery”; his account of how Bourdain would walk around “with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter”; how “it was the outlaw machismo of the kitchen that attracted him”, like that time he when he was catering a wedding and saw the bride sneak out to fuck the cook: “I knew then, dear reader, for the first time: I wanted to be a chef”.
This story, and its prurient, heady cocktail of sex and immorality, is the locus of everything bad about Anthony Bourdain. At his worst, this semi-fictionalised “Anthony Bourdain” is a toxic hotel pan of Vietnam War-era signifiers and politics: the smack, the Sex Pistols, the sense that Over There – Hanoi, Beirut, wherever – is just a playground where you can get a different, sometimes illicit, set of kicks: “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the f––k I want”.
Like a gender-flipped girl with the curl, when Bourdain is bad like this, he’s a prick. I mean that literally, biologically. The do in that do whatever the f––k I want is always done to something, or someone. Inevitably, that something and someone is gendered as female. “Filth is good”, he says at one point, on the subject of fermentation. “That funk. That corruption of the flesh.” What Radden Keefe diagnoses as Bourdain’s “fetish of authenticity” is really a fetishisation of The Other – of everything the white sinewy globe-trotting jujitsu-jujitsuing American Bourdain is not: soft, fleshy, sensuous, pleasurable, free of agency. From the humid, sticky-sultry pleasures of Vietnam – all “lugubrious banyan trees” and monsoon clouds that Bourdain “savours without apology” – to the relationship that broke down because “she pursued her other interests in the same headlong manner in which he pursued his”, it all comes back to an object that is passive, ready, waiting: there to be savoured, consumed, jettisoned.
This is a guy who tells an interviewer: “To me, The Quiet American was a happy book, because Fowler ends up in Vietnam, smoking opium with a beautiful Vietnamese girl who may not have loved him”. This is a guy who called his first cookbook Appetites, underlining his gonzo desire to commit any and every sin of the flesh with all the subtlety of a Baron of Beef to the groin. This is a guy who “married Sophia Loren” but left when she “turned into Jean-Claude Van Damme” (the line is, apparently, a joke; we don’t hear from the punchline). This is, in the final analysis, a guy. The chef as rock-star rock-hard cock, the flesh he consumes inert, submissive, corruptible – filth the currency of their union.
One of Bourdain’s public enemies has claimed that despite his travels around the world he “has basically learned nothing.” This is a transparently shitty burn – I much preferred the same guy’s “glorified line cook” – which wilfully overlooks the increasingly humanist tone of Bourdain’s output, such as the immigrant-focused Houston episode of Parts Unknown (increasingly essential viewing for America in 2017). But learn is an interesting verb. You can learn something specific, like a fact; or you learn more generally, from observation. Flip the question on its head; consider how much of the current food landscape would be inconceivable without Bourdain: the ranked listicles permitting blitzkrieg raids on foreign cities in search of culinary orgasm; the enduring adolescent obsession with “dirty”, “filthy” food; the pointless, meaningless hunt for The Authentic; the widespread cultural association between “ethnic” food and “cheap” food; the sustained hegemony in the kitchen of a proudly phallic masculinity Freudianly fixated on offal, chefs up to their nuts in guts.
The conclusion is not “Anthony Bourdain has learned nothing”. It is that we have learned from him, and too much. C