The Man Who Embodied The Zeitgeist

Anthony Bourdain, R.I.P.

Bourdain “culturally appropriating” ushanka like it’s nobody’s business. Well, he was, after all, a depressive ex-punk rocker, which makes me think I can expect him to do a better job on Russia

As much as I’m not a fan of reality TV, I enjoy reality cooking contests. To watch people who are already masters of their trade to push themselves to another level, and excel even more, is uplifting.

I always tell my husband that there is no way to know if the competitions are fixed because the viewer doesn’t get to taste any of the meals. Yet somehow these missing pieces don’t ruin the experience. They enhance it.

I learn quite a bit even if my taste buds are not engaged. Who knew, for instance, that there is such thing as “delicately balanced acidity”? Now I do, and I have to somehow strive for it. And once I figured on my own what that acidity thing is, I can imagine balancing it. Interesting blind challenge.

Anthony Bourdain’s shows were different: his shtick went beyond performing a recipe; he traveled the world breaking bread with the locals in quest for inspiration. How very zeitgeisty! Who among us, the upper middle class and self-styled bohemians, doesn’t long for that experience?

Anthony Bourdain didn’t bring a camera on his journey to partake in stinky touristy activities, like taking photographs of famous landmarks. (Okay, he brought a whole tv crew, but he was never filmed snapping a picture himself, and that’s what matters). He modeled the authentic way to travel, and he knew just the right places to patronize. A former heroin addict (hello, street cred!), a chef, and a writer, both (does it get any cooler?), he went from one culinary adventure to another.

I discovered Bourdain’s first TV show, No Reservations, shortly after it came out. A badass like Bourdain, a chef and a writer both, doesn’t need your bourgeois reservations: he’s a star, and all doors open for him. He went everywhere from Sub Saharan Africa to Iceland, sampling exotic cuisines and learning from the locals. That was a multicultural wet dream.

Born in another land, I kind of hate food and dress multiculturalism. I try to avoid international nights at kids’ school because representing my culture with food and costume to aging hipsters is not my idea of a good time. First of all, you people are not going to appreciate the mayo-based potato salads of my childhood, even if we’ve developed them to glorious perfection. Second, the cultures I can legitimately claim as mine — American, Russian, Jewish — are more important for our scientists, writers, and composers than foodways. Thirdly, my experience is of no use around here; I have nothing to say to further my neighbors’ agendas.

So, no, I’m not going to labor for half a day in the kitchen to concoct something authentic-but-not-too-terribly-meaningful, which no deep blue state American will enjoy eating. Actually, none of that would be so annoying if not for the patronizing attitudes surrounding such sacramental events as multicultural nights. I’m not against sharing your regional cuisine, by the way, I am simply discouraged by the implication that there is little else to my culture, and by the fact that this is done to show that all cultures are equally interesting.

I find it suspicious that we, contemporary Californians, are so fixated on food. Don’t get me wrong, I like my $13 gourmet sandwiches, and I find meaning in cooking for my family. God knows, I enjoy living next to the Wine Country! But it’s hard not to notice that the cultural life in the Bay Area is otherwise only so-so.

Out of everything that can possibly titilate the senses, restaurants (and one world-class symphony, plus one opera house, both inaccessible) are pretty much all we got. Is it all there is to life?

Bourdain didn’t get tangled in all that. He didn’t try too hard to pretend all cuisines are equal. He wasn’t too enthralled by the food of Sub Saharan Africa or Iceland, for instance, preferring the flavors of Asia, Latin America, and the Mediterranean. Strong cocktails served on a beach by his hot Brazilian chef friend were much more to his liking than a sparse sampling of salty Nordic fish. Back when I watched the show, I found that refreshing.

A reality TV pioneer, Bourdain to show that there is more to life than food, and, that food has deeper meaning. He was a restless soul, after all, always wanting more out of life. He got into food production, tried to convey the atmosphere, and then, unfortunately, he got political.

Fascination with politics is the curse of our age.

“The political is personal” has a lot to answer for. I find it pathetic that our culture is so engrossed in politics, and that people, especially on the left, seek redemption in it. Bourdain was a committed left winger, albeit a bit less annoying than most. Talking politics doesn’t make one smarter or more virtuous, especially when the biases are so obvious, and historical depth is lacking. Try arts and literature instead. Food and drink, albeit of lesser importance than art, are more interesting than politics. Food is eternal; politics are ephemeral. Bourdain ended up chasing the ephemera.

We stopped watching No Reservations after the 2008 episode filmed in Saudi Arabia. In it, Bourdain was accompanied by a hijab-covered tour guide who managed to snow him completely. She told him that Saudi women delight in being segregated, and don’t object to their second class citizen status. Bourdain didn’t press her too hard on it. Nor did he ask her why they made an exception for him, a son of Jewess, when Jews are not allowed in the Magic Kingdom. Also, can we please visit Mecca?

In his final year Bourdain emerged as a champion of #MeToo movement. I don’t doubt his sincerity in this or any other of his causes. Yet how could the chef support #MeToo and remain proud of the work he did in Saudi Arabia? I think we all know the answer: Intersectionality.

I’m sure the food was delicious, and, of course, Arabs are a hospitable people, but the episode made me cringe. I suppose The Travel Channel A-lister wanted to be the first to go to KSA, and to get them to open up. But in the process he allowed himself to be turned into propaganda tool for one of the most repressive regimes on Earth. I could never trust him again, and stopped watching.

The fusion of politics and food went on as Bourdain moved on to CNN. The reality traveler filmed a show in Russia shortly after the annexation of Crimea. The Daily Beast obit gushed that the chef said something negative about Putin while there. I suppose he did better than your average anchor covering Sochi Olympics, but Bourdain’s act took no particular courage either — he’s not Russian — just a bit of cuing in.

I don’t disagree with the spirit of what Bourdain had to say about the Russian people in the video above. I generally believe that every nation gets the government it deserves. I can’t help to note, though, that he never, for instance, blamed Palestinians for electing HAMAS and FATAH to lead them. The current head of the West Bank is a Holocaust-denying financier of the Munich Olympics massacre, but all Bourdain has to say about his Palestinian hosts during a visit to the region is that Palestinians are just ordinary people.

Then there is the superficiality of interpreting events in Russia in American terms (and misattributing the our sob’s quote). No, Giuliani is not like Putin; the former mayor doesn’t murder political opponents. And no, the 80’s in the US were not at all like the 90’s in Russia. The 80’s economic boom was driven by free markets, Russia in the 90’s was a hub of mafia cronies (still is).

Bourdain had lost some of his travel savvy too. He visited fancy avant garde restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but somehow missed the folkways of Russia. True, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, restaurants became a bigger part of Russian life. But in the Soviet days especially, people met at each other’s houses for feasts served in living rooms — for those of us who actually had living rooms — or, for the informal meals, in the kitchens.

Kitchens, run by women, were the hearts and souls of Soviet apartments. They were the places where the deepest secrets and most forbidden thoughts were shared. Yet Bourdain was never invited into the kitchens of Russian intelligentsia to have heart-to-heart discussions, drink vodka, laugh at jokes, and eat the potato salad executed to its god-awful perfection.

I would very much like to watch gastro-travalogs with an anthropological or a historic twist. Unfortunately, at least in Russia’s case, Bourdain’s anthropological detail was geared more towards tourist novelties than authentic experiences of the Russian people. His understanding of history was provisional. Given that, his insistence on doing politics was always a bit out of place.

Not unlike other celebs, the chef found it necessary to insert himself into domestic affairs. He treated Barack Obama to a meal at a restaurant in Vietnam where the two millionaires amused themselves sitting on too small plastic chairs. That is not cool. It is decadent hipsterism.

When the Donald was elected, Bourdain proclaimed that he’d poison him (ha-ha! So funny!) if he’s ever invited to cook at the Trump White House. I suspect that a few years prior, he’d gladly serve the Donald the best well done steak that can be possibly made — even though he warned in Kitchen Confidential that chefs save their worst cuts for well done.

Bourdain interviewed the dissident politician Boris Nemtsov, who, within months, was assassinated in the heart of Moscow, by Putin, presumably. Since the show is about politics, Parts Unknown made a good call to include a talk with him. There is a lot of conformity in Russia, but also lots of brave dissenting voices.

How come he was unable to do the same for Saudi Arabia? Perhaps Bourdain and his producers didn’t know any Saudi dissidents. In which case he probably should have never filmed in that country. And if they weren’t able to find freethinking Arabs, that should probably make them question the kind of connections they have in that part of the world. Also, question their own motives.

Anthony Bourdain did not make history as a chef. Very few chefs have such honor (Lucien Olivier, of the Russian potato salad fame, is one). I’m not sure he’s that important of a writer either. Kitchen Confidential was the right book, at the right place, at the right time, nothing more, nothing less. Anthony Bourdain will be remembered as an early twenty first century TV novelty, fusing exotic cuisines with political ephemera, much of which he got wrong anyway, and only occasionally getting to the eternal.