Thursday, August 09, 2007

Anthony Bourdain has the best job in the world

When it comes to Anthony Bourdain, I’m torn between hero worship and mad, murderous jealousy.

Bourdain joined, unwittingly perhaps, the ever-growing population of celebrity chefs with the publication in 2000 of “Kitchen Confidential,” a darkly brilliant work that is half memoir and half guided tour of New York City’s seedy culinary scene.

Of course, based on my experience with chefs, placing the word “seedy” before the words “culinary scene” is redundant. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Since then, Bourdain has ensured his reputation as the bad boy of food, both on TV and in print. Last year saw the publication of “The Nasty Bits,” a collection of Bourdain’s essays, which are to food and travel writing what Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism was to politics. The new season of Bourdain’s Travel Channel series “No Reservations” began two weeks ago, and the first season was released on DVD in March.

Formerly the executive chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, Bourdain is now the restaurant’s “chef at large,” which apparently means he never has to show up for work. This leaves the increasingly restless Bourdain with plenty of time to travel the world, “No Reservations” production crew in tow.

As Bourdain says at the beginning of every “No Reservations” episode, he writes, eats and travels, and he’s hungry for more. He is the only chef on TV who never has to cook for himself. No doubt, it’s great work if you can get it.

I only get to write and eat, and I don’t eat nearly as well as Bourdain does because I don’t travel. Let’s just say I have a running feud with the Transportation Security Administration. So, I live vicariously through Bourdain, who goes to wonderful places and eats unforgettable meals.

Mind you, some of the meals are unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Bourdain has described the warthog anus he was served in Namibia as the worst meal he has ever had. I’ll take his word for it. Better him than me, after all. But still, you have to admire his fortitude.

For Bourdain, food is a social, even cultural experience. Snubbing the local cuisine isn’t just rude, it’s antisocial. That’s one reason Bourdain hates militant vegetarians and, as he puts it, “their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans.” If you don’t eat meat, you’re turning your back on the vast majority of the world’s cultures.

Bourdain dislikes all of the right people. His attacks on Food Network chef/talk show host Rachael Ray — he calls her a “bobblehead” — are a joy forever. He also has unloaded both barrels on actor/raw food evangelist Woody Harrelson.

But the main reason I admire Bourdain is he is a champion of freedom. He stands up to activists who want to ban foie gras, as Chicago has already done, and government busybodies who outlaw food that is commonplace in the rest of the world, like unpasteurized cheese.

Yes, my fellow Americans, unless you leave the U.S., you’ll never (legally) know what truly wonderful, stinky, delicious cheese is like. But, hey, at least you’ll still have Velveeta.

During an episode of “No Reservations” set in Paris, Bourdain observed that almost everything done in one French restaurant he visited would be illegal if done in a kitchen in New York. Yet you don’t see Parisians dropping dead of food poisoning. And they’re not as fat as we are, either.

Irascible, profane, irreverent and an unrepentant chain smoker and hedonist, Bourdain has become one of my heroes. If I were a woman, I’d want to have his children.

He also has the best job in the world, the lucky (expletive deleted).

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