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“Curiosity is a virtue.” That little gem from Anthony Bourdain, author and host of the Travel Channel television show No Reservations, nicely sums up the open, adventurous approach to both food and life that drives the former chef’s popularity. Bourdain’s Broadway Series South appearance in front of a packed Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, a late stop on the tour promoting his new book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, was a sharp, self-deprecating and at times hilarious one-man show that left the crowd fully sated.
Bourdain is loved by millions of fans for a reason: his public persona is a blast.
His history is by now familiar to food readers: the 1999 New Yorker article that became the edgy bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential; the resulting show on the Food Network, the move to the Travel Channel and the frequently brilliant No Reservations series, the 2007 blog post attacking some of the biggest names in U.S. food television, the new book designed in part to correct some of his previous assessments of the restaurant biz – it all adds up to one of the most deservedly famous stars this country has seen in recent memory, a star more than able to hold the attention of a few thousand for over an hour just by being himself – and he does offer some serious ideas buried under that thick layer of party guy nonchalance – without coming off at least partly as a stick-in-the-mud. But Bourdain’s intuitive grasp of the larger-than-life-nonfiction gray area in which he’s working makes his various personas (e.g., the foul-mouthed bad boy, the new father, the optimistic world traveler, and the utterly romantic foodie) such enjoyable company it’s easy to forgive the few flaws in his presentation....
Bourdain began with a delicious, savage attack on the inanity of the Food Channel and much other celebrity food entertainment. His recent change of heart about a previous target, the popular host Rachel Ray, just served to make his takedown of other stars that much more biting. The most pointed was his thought experiment placing the audience in the position of a poor farmer on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, watching American television on his satellite dish as Adam Richman shovels food in his face in one of the obscene gorging contests featured in each episode of the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food. Quite a powerful moment.
It didn’t seem to lessen the fun that a good percentage of the pronouncements Bourdain made were ones many of his fans had almost certainly read or heard from him before. He’s been ranting about the clueless celebrity judges on Iron Chef America and raising the alarm about Sandra Lee’s astonishingly awful Kwanzaa cake for years now, but the riffs still got laughs from the crowd. Like favorite pop tunes, they’re fun to listen to no matter how often you’ve heard them, so long as they’re well played. A companion who’d recently finished Medium Raw estimated that about two-thirds of the stories Bourdain told were from the book, but added she’d still had a great time. A brief sampling:
“If you go to Tokyo and spend five minutes in Planet Hollywood, what the f--k is wrong with you?”
“How do you keep your daughter out of the clutches of the King, the Clown and the Colonel? One might suggest Ronald McDonald has cooties. Or that Ronald has been implicated in the disappearance of several small children.”
“Cooking throughout history has been driven by poor folks’ need to turn s--t into shinola.”
The question session at the end of the talk showed Bourdain at his best: friendly, open, honest and smart even when being fawned over. His brand of truth delivery is so sharp and funny it’s almost shocking when he stumbles. For example, he made a point of telling the crowd “I’m not going all Schlosser on you” after talking about fast food, obviously trying to distance himself from Eric Schlosser, the author of the sharply critical Fast Food Nation. He then made sure to say, “I’m not turning into Michael Pollan,” a reference to the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, another detailed critique of the modern food industry. Coming from someone who cultivates such a “who gives a damn” image, the hesitance here was striking. It’s more than a bit odd to note that fast food is “all too easy and convenient and affordable” and mention the surge in juvenile diabetes but then go out of your way with the next breath to casually push to the side the folks who’ve taken time to explain the specific reasons – corn subsidies, e.g. – for both the affordable convenience and the increase in disease.
The later appearance of Bourdain’s patented “F--k vegetarians” shtick, while it got a big laugh, also stood out as unusually simplistic, although his main point is a fair one: it’s impossible to be a good guest if you insist on not eating meat in homes where eating meat is the norm. But the particular delight Bourdain seems to take in baiting vegetarians, while completely avoiding discussion of issues like the cruelty of factory farming, the political dominance of the beef and pork industries in many states, and the health costs of meat consumption in wealthy Western countries, will stick in the craw of many folks who’d otherwise be among his biggest fans.
Still, the man knows how to put on a good show. Any fan of food should see him at least once.