It won’t be surprising if cultural historians look back on the first two decades of this century as The Era of Crazed Oral Gratification. I’m speaking of the fetishization of food, of cooking and eating, of watching other people cooking and eating, that has become omnipresent across all platforms, all media, all screens and all palates in our great nation.
“Top Chef,” “MasterChef,” “Cake Boss,” the entire Food Network. Travel shows that are mainly about watching foreign people eat foreign food. Barbecue madness. Raw and locavore. The taco truck as the new gourmet temple, Artisanal Whole Foodism, fonio as the next quinoa (don’t tell me you didn’t know about fonio!).
Along with all of this has been the transformation in the status of the chef from behind-the-scenes pot-stirrer to culinary rock star. And in this particular cultural revolution the original rock star, the Elvis of bad boy chefs, is Anthony Bourdain. He achieved his breakthrough with a sensational book called Kitchen Confidential, a surprise worldwide best seller about the frenzied, obscenity-laced, sex-and-drug-fueled back-burner ballet of tattooed pirates who brandish spatulas like swords. He went on to be a fixture on the Food Network, on “Top Chef,” paired with domestic goddess Nigella Lawson on “The Taste,” while somehow maintaining a globe-trotting food and travel show on CNN called “Parts Unknown.”
When he arrives for our lunch at Ristorante Morini, a stylish but understated Manhattan restaurant run by a chef friend of his, Bourdain looks a lot less funky and downtown than in his youth. He’s a large, husky man with the suave, silvery look of a KGB hit man. Perhaps the KGB vibe is not accidental. Before our appetizers arrive we’re deep into a conversation about our mutual interest in espionage lore and he’s telling me about the time he slept with the daughter of one of the most notorious KGB defectors in cold war history, Anatoliy Golitsyn. “Golitsyn’s daughter....Lesbian....Beautiful, incredibly beautiful. Object of just insane, obsessive love by many women at Vassar,” he claims. “She died of an OD.”
It’s this kind of acquaintance with the dark side that gives Bourdain, a former heroin addict himself, his bad boy reputation.
His post-Vassar career included a stint at the CIA—not the one in Langley but the prestigious Culinary Institute of America—and then some wild summers at Cape Cod lobster trap restaurants, a dive into the downtown depravity of SoHo kitchens, addiction, recovery and the launch of the restaurant he’s most associated with, Les Halles, an old-fashioned French workingman’s place that grew to be a worldwide chain and still serves a great cassoulet in its original location on Park Avenue in New York City.
And then the book. This is the other side of Bourdain: the serious writer. And the other side of his signature gonzo literary style is something that has been less recognized: Kitchen Confidential is one of the few books in recent American literature to capture the communal ecstasy of Work. American writers rarely write about work anymore. Not tech work, quant work, digital work, but real work, manual work, crew work, often skilled but sweaty. Bourdain’s depiction of the kitchen crews he worked on, their mad camaraderie and the kind of inspired improvisational feats of high-heat athleticism they performed are tours de force. They reminded me of the early sequence of Theodore Dreiser’s great novel An American Tragedy, where a naive kid gets his first job as a hotel bellboy and Dreiser captures the adrenaline-fueled world of the backstairs hotel hierarchy.
I try out my theory about writing and work on him. “Look,” he replies, “I didn’t mean to do it, but in some way I think the book gave voice to a certain strata of working cooks who were not ever going to be stars, they weren’t going to end up on TV. But over the years I’ve seen a rise in their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. There’s a pirate camaraderie that I think was always there, but now maybe I helped put a name to. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. A lot of people like the book for the wrong reasons.”
“What are the wrong reasons?”
“A lot of people think it’s OK to get f--ked up and work. Kitchen Confidential was not a story about a particularly good or commendable career. It was my life; I wrote it in a way that made it sound like a lot of fun, but obviously it wasn’t. I think a lot of people tend to overlook that. It validates a lot of bad behavior.”
“People responded to the joyousness, don’t you think?”
Cooking, he says, can “develop this glorious culture that values certain things. Firemen have that same sort of thing—there’s us and f--k everyone else. Cop culture, people who are doing difficult things who are used to being under-appreciated....You develop a unit pride that allows you to transcend the overwhelming likelihood that the mission is doomed, OK?”
OK! But how does he explain the massive audience for these shows, the desire to watch and salivate over others making food. He has an interesting theory: homesickness.
“There are huge populations of people who move from the country to the city who, for them, I guess the Food Network is nesting. It’s evoking a family life, a kitchen table that they probably never had, or maybe only had briefly. I think that’s an international thing. But now I don’t know because people don’t really cook on TV anymore. There’re very few shows where they actually dump and stir. Now it’s doing stuff like having contests and...even the ones where they’re actually cooking, it’s more about interpersonal drama, like a reality show.
Look, it’s a mystery to me.
“I mean, I like watching really good food porn,” he continues. “Beautiful food that I know what it is, I know what they’re making, or I’m curious about the culture it’s coming from. I could watch that all day. I like watching food porn, I like making food porn for people who are really all about the food and learning about food or imagining about food.”
But not Instagramming food. He has strong feelings about the craze of Instagramming dishes that has taken over social media.
“Chefs bitch about it when it’s going on in their restaurants,” Bourdain says, “yet when they go out to dinner, they’re taking pictures of everything. And any notion that that’s sharing? It’s bullshit. It’s about making other people feel bad about what they’re eating. And a certain knowledge that what you’re eating is more interesting.”
He has a theory about this I hadn’t considered. That the whole seismic food culture shift isn’t American superficiality but the New World learning what the Old World has known for centuries. “We’re just catching on,” he says. “We are changing societally, and our values are changing, so that we are becoming more like Italians and Chinese and Thais and Spaniards, where we actually think about what we’re eating, what we ate last night, and what we’re considering eating tomorrow. When I grew up in the ’60s, we’d go to see a movie, then we would go to a restaurant. And we would talk about the movie we just saw. Now, you go right to dinner and you talk about the dinner you had last week and the dinner you’re going to have next week, while you’re taking pictures of the dinner you’re having now. That’s a very Italian thing. A lot of the sort of hypocrisy and silliness and affectation of current American food culture is just fits and starts, awkwardly and foolishly growing into a place where a lot of older cultures have been for quite some time.”