I’ve been thinking about Anthony Bourdain a lot lately. While the new season of his seven year-old show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, has certainly hijacked my Monday nights, my love affair started when I had the opportunity to see him speak at the American Dietetics Association’s annual meeting.
I know, seems weird that he would be addressing dietitians, given that he celebrates all things pork. I was curious if he’d be booed off the stage.
My sister, a nutrition expert (see http://www.chicagonow/eatright), was in town for the ADA Food and Nutrition Conference this past November. Anthony was offering the conference’s closing speech in a talk entitled “How to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Globalization.” This was a terrifying title to me—I studied Environmental Studies, Food and Environmental Justice—and was wary of a shortsighted viewpoint of the issue. I was compelled to hear his arguments. At that point, he had not yet won my heart. I hadn’t read his books, rarely watched his show (mostly because this lucky jerk had my dream job!), and anyone who is going to advocate for globalization surely doesn’t understand the entire scope of the issue. I went in a skeptic . . . and obviously came out a groupie.
He was humble and endearing to a surprising degree. He was both aware—and appreciative—of the tremendous professional good fortune he has experienced. He also was articulate, knowledgeable, and conscientious. And, most importantly, his view of globalization was not as pessimistic as mine. He reveled in the transportation of food culture and traditions to all corners of the globe. He offers the tip: wherever you have the highest concentration of a particular population in a community is where you will find the most authentic foods from their respective countries. Why would that, from a culinary perspective, ever be anything but a boon to a region? This is a way to travel internationally without leaving your home. Noting Korean food for its complete lack of Americanization, he says that the food they serve stateside could easily be the food you’d get in a Seoul street market. Whenever he travels, he eats what the locals eat, not the food presented for tourists. This, he claims, allows him to know what food offered at home is most similar to the real thing. Being in America, a true cultural amalgam, Bourdain argues that we should embrace our myriad backgrounds and relish in one another’s offerings.
Bourdain credits sushi’s rise in popularity in the US as a tipping point for foreign food acceptance. This, he believes, created an atmosphere more welcoming and desiring of ethnic foods. Before sushi, Americans were wary of raw fish, chopsticks, wasabi. But its introduction created a place where foreign food was not only available, but less intimidating, even sexy. Once Americans wrapped their heads around such an entirely different form of meal, the door was opened for all other food traditions to be introduced. Suddenly, Indian, Vietnamese and Brazilian were more palatable and available. It was as if a memo went out that Americans were suddenly willing to spend money on crazy foods, so the response was to expose us to more of them. Sushi created a pivot point where Americans not only began desiring foods unlike their own, but sometimes preferred them. This in turn, made the US a more likely place for immigration to occur, since one could rely on the sale of their ancestral foods as an assured income. Our country is now a place where foods from all cultures are represented, a true international food court.
Beyond these completely logical arguments advocating the worldwide spread of delicious food, Anthony impressed me as a man who has grown up a lot since his television debut. He even pokes fun of himself, having been such a cocky young chef, swearing, smoking and boozing his way around the world for us all to watch in wonder. I always wondered if he even appreciated how lucky he was to be there–if he appreciated his position as the one in a million lottery ticket win it was. I am convinced now that he did, as he certainly has said it again and again recently. In the past few years he has gotten married, had a child, and wised-up quite a bit. This season’s shows put him in places that ask a lot more a traveler and he has been visibly moved a few times. The shows in Haiti and Nicaragua in particular showed a Tony that is aware of his role and his effect on the places he visits. His point of view is pragmatic, his respect for foreign places and people significant. This, and his humble stage demeanor, won me over. His extensive travels have provided him with a unique perspective one can only realize after a life doing just that–traveling. I dare say that the entire convention of dietitians were so charmed by him that they forgave him all his unhealthy habits. We left completely enamored of this straight talking, food obsessed man.
I have seen him again since, on his tour with chef and restaurateur Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin fame. They spar back and forth about one another’s reputations and qualifications, beliefs on farming, fishing and vegetarianism. They also just sat and chatted about food: their favorite snacks, restaurants most desired to have time to visit, the greatest chefs, and so on. Bourdain’s perspective on vegetarianism reveals his intentions best; that when you are invited into another’s home that you eat anything they serve with a smile on your face. He refers to it as the Grandma’s House Rule- that you never complain and always ask for more, sometimes having to take one for the team. This is the outcome of a life spent meeting new people in places with unfamiliar customs and growing wiser as a result of it. If the rest of us are not so fortunate as to be able to be food and travel writers trotting around the globe, at least we know that he, as the luckiest of the long-careered ambassadors in the spotlight, has grown into a proper representative of the spirited stuck at home.
Watch Anthony’s show Monday Nights at 9pm on the Travel Channel
Follow his blog on http://blog.travelchannel.com/anthony-bourdain/
Follow him on Twitter (@NoReservations) and Facebook
Read his books (I may even read them now!): Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, A Cook’s Tour, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, The Nasty Bits, Bone in the Throat, The Bobby Gold Stories, and No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach (book list credit of http://www.travelchannel.com/TV_Shows/Anthony_Bourdain/About_The_Show/Meet_Anthony_Bourdain).