Great White Shark
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.
I’m coming round to thinking the same way about Anthony Bourdain. It hasn’t been an instant process, though the avalanche started with a single snowflake, Patrick Radden Keefe’s lengthy New Yorker feature back in February. In that piece – as in my process of reappraisal more generally – there was no smoking gun, like Hergé’s caricature of clueless hapless natives; look at things in a certain light and 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 after thinking a bit more about it, I’m not sure I can endorse that reading. Instead I’d argue that – yes – 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. In the New Yorker, we read about 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.
It is 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 fucking 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. Bourdain’s approach presents multiple ironies: if he’s an anthropologist, for example, he’s a bad one, his every intrusion modifying his area of study; every endorsement of a hidden gem draws thousands of people to it, leaching it of authenticity – it is, he chuckles, “a doomed enterprise”; he’s “in the business of finding great places, and then we fuck them up”. Better Bourdain and his cronies fuck them up than allow them to change of their own accord; better the white American come to an underdeveloped country and strip-mine it for delicacies; 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 the New Yorker profile – ‘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 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.”
If that feels a little phony, a little studied, a little Rebel Without A Causa, you’re not the only one – it’s weird how a guy so widely associated with exposing the “real” delicacies of a given food culture also comes across as minimum 75% full of shit. Dig around long enough, and it’s not hard to uncover 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, falsehood. Or take this passage from Medium Raw, in which a fucked-up Bourdain, barely recovering from a breakup, takes drunken night-time drives on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin:
I would follow the road until it began to twist alongside the cliffs' edges approaching the French side. Here, I'd really step on the gas... depending entirely on what song came on the radio next, I'd decide to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward—or simply straighten the fucker out and shoot over the edge and into the sea.
This is pure novelistic artistic licence: there was no song bad enough to make Bourdain kill himself, and that much is obvious, since he is alive to write the book. It’s also probably a total lie, since a similar scene appears in a novel published many years before his divorce. It’s a fun game you can play with a lot of Bourdain’s work, trying to parse what is tell-all and truthful from what is there for dramatic effect. It’s not a distinction that bothers Bourdain, either way: in an interview with Eater he flat-out rejects the label of “journalist”, preferring instead “essayist” or “storyteller”. And that figures. Bourdain is not going to let something as mundane as facts happen to him, and then write about the experience: he is going to fashion a narrative, force it into existence, make events do his bidding.
His greatest success in this regard is himself, or at least his other self. The act of self-fashioning and self-promotion and self-mythology that has turned “Anthony Bourdain” into 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 get to choose how much you want to buy into it. You can watch his shows and take notes on the places he visits (no shame: I have done this); you can follow in his precise footsteps, track his itinerary round Rome or Penang or Beirut. Implied within that, of course, is that you’re living that sweet #Bourdainlife: you’re not just travelling, you’re taking a walk on the wild side, doing the fucked up stuff he’s done. The fascination of the abomination: it’s pure Heart of Darkness.
Or, more correctly, pure Apocalypse Now. Bourdain was born in 1956, the year the Vietnam War started, and the amateur psychologist in me wants to invent a story about a wide-eyed kid in New Jersey sitting in front of the TV, trying to process such foreign, unfamiliar beauty along with such horror. It might help explain how 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: Bourdain writes of taking “casualties”, “battlefield conditions”, cooks “in the trenches”. It has spread out from there into the culture at large, from Eater editor Helen Rosner describing banging out 500 chicken-or-salmon main courses as “going to war” to Radden Keefe noting how Bourdain’s voice hardens “with the steely conviction of a combat veteran” when describing mass-catered brunch (brunch!). Writers writing about Bourdain slip into his register, find themselves using phrases like “from the beginning he had a talent for badassery”; marvelling at how Bourdain would walk around “with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter”; recounting with straight faces 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 foundational anecdote, and its prurient, heady cocktail of sex and immorality with just a dash of misogynistic bitters, is the locus of everything bad about Anthony Bourdain. You can’t forge a persona out of the marketable bits of 60s and 70s counterculture – the dalliance with smack, The Sex Pistols and The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, the fealty to Hunter S Thompson – and leave everything less savoury outside of it. A sense of entitlement and me-first reluctance to take “no” for an answer. An insensitivity to the perspectives and desires of others (Bourdain, in interview with Eater: “I’m a guy who’d like to blow up every safe space, every trigger warning”). A gonzo death-drive to escape the boring life prescribed by The Man and find yourself Over There – Hanoi, Beirut, Las Vegas, wherever – in the midst of a playground where you can get a different, sometimes illicit, set of kicks, all without fear of repercussion. A refusal to learn any sort of lessons from history that is probably ongoing, might in fact explain how the New Yorker feature can centre on Bourdain having dinner with Obama in Vietnam – a country the President is visiting in part to atone for American foreign policy at its most excessive and intrusive – and can also foreground this pull-quote: “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck 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 fuck I want is always done to something, or someone. Inevitably, that something and someone is gendered as female. What others have diagnosed as Bourdain’s “fetish of authenticity” is really a fetishisation of The Other – of everything the white sinewy globe-trotting jujitsu-jujitsuing American male Bourdain is not: soft, fleshy, sensuous, pleasurable, free of agency. When Maria Bustillos describes Bourdain’s novels as a cross between “Harlequin novels for boys”, “fantasy-fulfilment”, and “a first-person shooter game”, she is bang on the money, but she could throw her net even wider. 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, in his sights: 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 home 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 shrugs off the “rock star” label for himself, threatens to raise an interesting question about primacy and originality when he says that the “true rockstars are the ones like no one before them”, but concludes “there were no chefs that anyone wanted to fuck before Jeremiah [Tower] and Marco [Pierre White]”, reducing the issue literally and figuratively to a question of who came first. 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. Guys like Bourdain bang out brunches like they bang waitresses; they work semi-nude in huddled proximity but overcompensate with a fragile swaggering masculinity laced with gay panic: “Don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife”.
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.