Last week, Andy Greenwald wrote a piece for Grantland about the sorry state of food-related television programming, and particularly singled out what’s become of outspoken Kitchen Confidential author/chef Anthony Bourdain, who’s spent the better part of a decade publicly railing against blandly chipper and unsophisticated TV foodies, but is now the executive producer and host/judge on ABC’s thoroughly generic cooking competition The Taste. Greenwald writes:
“Bourdain’s entire post-Kitchen Confidential career—embodying his bedrock belief that food cannot and should not be separated from the richness of experience that surrounds it—has been an eloquently stated and vibrantly lived refutation of everything The Taste stands for. Now he sits on a garishly lit soundstage, defanged like an aging circus lion, ginning up halfway constructive things to say to deluded Capoeira instructors who make ‘food for awesomeness’ when the only reasonable response would be laughter.”
I agree with Greenwald that The Taste is pretty dire. In concept, the idea of a Voice-like cook-off—with professional and amateur chefs preparing single spectacular bites in order to survive in the game each week—is a reasonably novel variation on the well-worn formula of shows like Top Chef and Chopped. In execution, The Taste looks and feels like every other reality competition show on network TV, with its “bridge of the starship Enterprise” set design and its phony conflict between the contestants and judges. (Someday, some visionary TV producer is going to come up with a look for primetime game shows that breaks away from the stifling Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? model, and then maybe the genre will start to feel fresh again.) To his credit, Bourdain mostly avoids the camera-hogging faux-trash-talk of his fellow judges Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey. Instead, he mostly seems disengaged, depressed, and at times numbed by the wine he swills during mentoring sessions with his “team.” It’s as though he’s fully aware that his very presence on this show has shredded any future credibility when he calls a TV chef a sellout.
I disagree with Greenwald’s claim that Bourdain’s “entire” career—from his best-selling 2000 memoir to The Taste—has been ideologically pure. On the contrary, it’s been fascinating to watch how Bourdain has evolved from punky brat to merely surly over the past decade. He’s made some cash-in moves, such as allowing Kitchen Confidential to be adapted into a not-bad-but-not-all-that-authentic Fox sitcom. He’s softened on some of the targets of his righteous scorn, such as former Food Network superstar Emeril Lagasse. Even Bourdain’s excellent travelogue series A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations have amounted to 10 years of Bourdain qualifying his past rants with a series of “except”s. The plain, the processed, the kitschy, and the conservative have all gotten passes from Bourdain when he’s actually been face-to-face with the regular folks and well-meaning restauranteurs who’ve prepared him a plate.
The final No Reservations episode, “Brooklyn,” is a case in point. During one segment, Bourdain visits Randazzo’s Clam Bar in Sheepshead Bay with Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, two “red-sauce revivalists” who’ve dedicated themselves to celebrating the homey slop of old-school Italian-American restaurants. I don’t begrudge Bourdain for joining Carbone and Torrisi in urging foodies to lighten up and enjoy an oversized plate of overcooked chicken parmesan. I just don’t see how that message fits with an earlier segment at the Columbia Waterfront Thai restaurant Pok Pok, in which Bourdain admits he wishes Pok Pok’s non-Asian American chef/owner Andy Ricker were terrible at Thai, but concedes that Ricker gets a pass because his food is both delicious and—here’s the key word—authentic. Bourdain has always seemed to prize “the real stuff” above all, but the longer No Reservations ran, the more Bourdain allowed that a crock pot of chili made with canned beans and canned tomatoes by some Midwestern housewife could be “the real stuff” too. His definition seemed to broaden to include “whatever I’m enjoying at this exact moment.” Which, again, is fine, except that it takes some of the sting out of all the criticism he’s levied over the years at mediocre restaurants and the saps who champion them.
Bourdain recently signed on with CNN for another travel/food show, Parts Unknown, which should begin airing later this year, and which stands a good chance of being as insightful and even beautiful as No Reservations so often was, given that it’ll feature Bourdain venturing into remote places. That premise has always suited him well as a TV host, since he tends to leave his smug preconceptions behind when he’s hiking through jungles or eating under a desert sky. But for a more revealing look at where Bourdain is at this point in his arc as a celebrity foodie, it’s worth seeking out the PBS series The Mind Of A Chef, which ran late last year. Produced and narrated by Bourdain, the series stars likeable Momofuku chef-owner David Chang as he travels the world and talks about the food and colleagues that have inspired him. It’s an entertaining series, but sloppily organized. Some episodes lack a unifying idea, or use footage that seems to have been originally shot for other episodes, and it’s all devoid of a point beyond “here are some awesome things, enjoyed by an awesome dude.” The show is genially and haphazardly approving of just about everything. That’s the space Bourdain appears to be occupying right now: He’s mellowed to the point of innocuousness.
This was inevitable, and even somewhat welcome. As Greenwald points out, Bourdain is in his mid-50s, and just five years ago, he had his first child with his second wife. A certain amount of laurel-resting is to be expected. Besides, the fire-breathing Bourdain of old could be distressingly short-sighted and nettlesome. It’s no wonder he made peace with Emeril Lagasse: After spending some time in the television business himself, Bourdain surely understood better how a talented, camera-friendly chef could allow himself to become a commodity. (“Let he who is without sin,” and whatnot.)
While I’m happy to see Bourdain gain some perspective on his fellow TV personalities, I don’t want to see him become one of those legacy talking heads, on television strictly because he has a knack for it, and because people recognize him. Being good on TV isn’t a minor skill, granted. From watching so many years of Top Chef, I’ve come to admire the guest judges and contestants who are naturals in front of the camera. (It’s been fun, for example, to see how quickly Hugh Acheson has gone from being a prickly Top Chef Masters contestant to being one of the franchise’s most incisive and amusing judges.) But just being telegenic shouldn’t be the lone reason why the same people keep getting hired.
Maybe I’m overly sensitive on this subject because I’m dismayed at the state of political coverage and sports analysis on TV. When Showtime hired Jim Rome last year to host a new show, I tuned in to see if Rome had anything new to offer to the genre he helped pioneer—what 30 Rock once aptly dubbed “sports shouting”—but alas, no. Rome claimed to be doing something new by inviting non-sports people to talk sports with him, but the heart of Jim Rome On Showtime was still the same unsupported “from the gut” opinion-slinging, in the same shrill tone. Naturally, Showtime renewed the program for a second season, for the same reason news programs keep bringing on the likes of Dick Morris and David Brooks, even after these guys have shown on multiple occasions that they don’t have anything credible or substantive to offer. What’s more important to TV producers is that their viewers know who these guys are, and what they’re going to say.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for Parts Unknown, because I don’t want this to become Bourdain’s fate: yet another empty windbag, reliably gobbling up airtime. As Bourdain himself has proven in his books and on his shows, brand-name products and chain restaurants can still have soul. But there’s a difference between an Utz Crab Chip and an Applebee’s Double Barrel Whiskey Sirloin. Please, Tony: Don’t get all your sizzle from a warmed-over skillet.