An Evening with Anthony Bourdain

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As most of my Facebook fans & friends know (because I couldn’t stop incessantly babbling about it), I recently had the opportunity to check out the rock star of the foodie world, Anthony Bourdain, live.  I brought Ms. Munchie along with me, and after a fun belated birthday meal of appetizers & desserts at Grange Restaurant, we headed over to the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium to wait for the show to begin.

Now, I’ll have to admit I wasn’t quite sure exactly what to expect as far as the format of the show.  I knew it would just be Bourdain on stage, but I didn’t think he was going to stand there behind the lone little podium they’d placed in the middle of the stage, lecturing woodenly like an old college professor.  Comedy show, perhaps?  If you know Anthony Bourdain’s work either in print or television form, you know the man is pretty damned funny.  But… I couldn’t really see him doing some loud, crazy, overdone, Dane Cook-style routine either (sorry, Cook fans… I’m just more of a Greg Proops lover).  What we were treated to instead was a totally entertaining combination lecture/comedy show/snark-fest, complete with plenty of travel advice and reminders that there is a ton of amazing food to experience in this world, if you can keep your mind open enough.

He started off by apologizing for the lack of Rachael Ray jokes he was expected to tell that evening, then proceeded to launch into a hilarious rant about Ray and an even scarier foe in his eyes: Sandra Lee.  From the two popular food show hostesses to Guy Fieri, hardly any major Food Network star remained unscathed as Bourdain carried on about the “dumbing down” of the popular TV channel’s content.  “I miss Emeril,” he said at one point, stating that even if the veteran TV chef was annoying in his eyes, at least he was a real chef.  Bourdain said he didn’t know why unknowns with no real training were acting as experts and teaching cooking skills when the real chefs like Emeril and Tyler Florence were left to do the shows that were full of fluff.  Case in point: Bobby Flay, whom Bourdain feels deserves “something better than Throwdown“.  In his eyes (and the audience seemed to agree), FN isn’t really into “thinking shows”.

But he went on to say that it was not all awful on FN.  Good Eats is a “good show” and he’s happy that Alton Brown  “uses big words and you can learn stuff” (and I wholeheartedly agree).  He likes Giada di Laurentis, even if he does think her head is a bit on the generous side in terms of size (okay, I believe the term he used was “freakishly large”), and loves Ina Garten.  He even admitted that if it weren’t for the Food Network he probably wouldn’t have a job right now, since FN bought the Travel Channel (which airs Bourdain’s hit show,  No Reservations) in late 2009.  It was an awfully amusing rant, but eventually he switched gears.

“So after trashing everything about the Food Network, how do I keep it real?” asked Bourdain after his spiel.  “What have I learned?”

Besides the fact that he pretty much has the best job on the planet (getting paid to travel to different places and eat their food?  Sign me up!), he’s learned a few key things that really struck a chord with me, both on a personal level and as an unofficial anthropologist:

  • Be grateful that you can travel: After traveling more than 750,000 miles since 2005, one would think he’d be tired of traveling.  On the contrary – Bourdain couldn’t be happier to visit the most exotic or most humble, unknown places on the planet.  Not just because of the food, although that obviously has its appeal for him.  From the stories he told of visiting families in Vietnam or hanging out with tribal chiefs in Africa, it was plainly evident that Bourdain truly loves learning about people of all kinds.  Sharing in other cultures’ traditional meals allows him to discover the different customs and ideas that are important to people around the world, something for which he truly seems grateful.
  • Be polite: Bourdain strongly advised against keeping with the traditional American mentality of “anything goes” fashion and suggests that one pays attention to each country’s customs when visiting, particularly when it comes to attire.  “You wouldn’t wear a Speedo to the Vatican,” he said, after giving another horrifying example of a young gal wearing a tiny little tank top and daisy dukes at a similar holy place.  Being conscious about other countries’ cultures is respectful & polite, and will probably guarantee a more pleasant experience with the natives.  It doesn’t just apply to attire, either.  Paying attention to details such as how to eat things a certain way or the proper etiquette to display at a small village restaurant will please your hosts and let them know that you are not just some random tourist.  
  • Eat everything: “We have the history of the world on a plate,” said Bourdain.  “How can you not eat anything?”  I’m with Tony on this one, too.  Coming from a typical Latin family where you’re not only fed constantly and expected to eat everything no matter how full you are because it’s rude if you don’t but fed really random things like chicken brains or other interesting animal innards, I was brought up to think this way about food.  Though I didn’t really think much of the flavor, I fell for the whole chicken brain bit at the age of 6 because my grandma told me I had to, and she said that eating them would make me smarter.  As I grew older, I tried other strange (to me) foods, not because I was under the same kind of pressure (I mean, really… who says no to grandma?), but because it’s just what you do.  And the best part is that I’ve discovered a lot of my favorite “strange” delicacies this way.  Keeping an open mind and being respectful of other cultures and customs can bring a world of discovery to your plate.  Even if that does mean “taking one for the team”, as Bourdain has often done in the past.  

He had other tips for us before he opened the platform up for questions, such as drinking the local beverage (“You get the best restaurant recommendations from drunk people.”) and remaining as curious as possible about everything, especially food.  He had other opinions for us, too: Bourdain takes issue with vegetarians during travel because he feels it’s rude to put certain restrictions on one’s diet if it’s not for medical purposes.  He doesn’t think that publishing calorie information isn’t doing a thing for the obesity epidemic and finds it “unpatriotic” that some major American fast-food chains’ burger meat contains ammonia (that’s just five ways wrong).  

Afterward, he opened things up for questions from the audience, which I personally found both amusing and slightly eye-roll inducing.  Though some people asked questions that were interesting and relevant, other folks seemed to step up to the mic just to say “hi” and tell Bourdain that they were his biggest fan ever.  Which is all fine and dandy when you’re hanging outside the tour bus after a concert or something, but it would have been nicer to hear more compelling questions for Bourdain to address (and I would have asked him something myself if I could have come up with something decent enough to ask; as it was, I was content just listening to him speak).  Alas, anything that man addresses is always going to have some entertainment value, and we were treated to such quotable gems like, “I compare bacon to The Rolling Stones or doggie-style; it’s always going to be good,” which was his answer to what food trends were starting to get passé and what he could see trending in the future (btw, he’s over “cupcake mania” and thinks food trucks are awesome).  From what people should know about themselves before going into culinary school (“Be insane before you go; know what you’re getting yourself into.”) to travel recommendations for first-time travelers seeking the best foodie experiences (“Singapore – it’s like Asia 101.”), he took every question and answered them with his usual candor and wit.  

Overall, it was a wonderfully entertaining experience to finally hear the “bad boy” of the food world speak in his own words, completely uncensored by TV constraints.  I found him to be quite the snarky food snob but a snob of the best kind – the kind who can back up his opinions with decent arguments rather than just assume he’s better than everyone else because he knows the proper pronunciation of bruschetta.  But I also found him to be real & passionate about everything he does, with a respect for people, cultures, and food that made me remember why I fell in love with food and food writing, to begin with:  Whether one is appreciating simple foods to their fullest, or sharing that perfect bowl of pho with a gracious family while traipsing through Vietnam, food is that common denominator, that tie that binds us all as humans, no matter how we happen to share and experience it.

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