You could call Anthony Bourdain a hypocrite if you wanted to. The celebrated writer, chef and TV personality is famous for criticizing the superficiality of celebrity chefs, yet he rose to prominence in part because of his own carefully crafted image – a gastronomic bad boy antihero who tells it like it is, his cigarette dangling precariously, the ashes falling on a faded Ramones tee.
But over the course of nine seasons of his show “No Reservations” – his new CNN program “Parts Unknown” premiered last week – that image was rarely the point. As Bourdain guided viewers to parts of the world they’d have trouble locating on a map, he exhibited an uncanny ability to gain the trust of the people who live there, as well as a passion for the food they eat at their family table. Underneath the faux punk exterior was a man who thought deeply about what food means and an insecure geek whose desperate desire to be cool came off as endearing.
Monday night in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the 56-year-old gave a two-hour talk that was full of the blunt honesty, self-loathing storytelling and irreverent humor that make his TV shows so watchable. He started by getting the snarky stuff out of the way, launching into a diatribe about Paula Deen that included an unnecessary projection of an unflattering photo.
While his criticisms about Deen’s diabetes medicine endorsement deal were spot-on, she’s about as easy as a target can get, and the ensuing jokes about a Bourdain-approved junkie doll felt labored because of it.
Once our host moved on to discussions of how his shows are produced, things got interesting. “Food is fundamentally important in ways we are still coming to grips with,” he shared before telling a story about how the Egyptian government didn’t want his crew filming the people of Cairo eating a common dish called ful, because it would shed light on the depths of their poverty.
A rant about vegetarians led to some of Bourdain’s most impassioned and profound statements of the night. After showing a clip of himself eating warthog in Namibia, he explained the painstaking process of how an animal was tracked and killed, and how the leader of this tribe of hunter-gatherers presented the food to him with solemnity. For him to turn it down would have been the deepest insult.
This wasn’t gross-out humor; it was a commentary about how food can be a universal common denominator.
“Live with an open mind,” Bourdain told us. It was as close as he came to an encapsulation of his philosophy, and it was proof that his old “better to burn out than to fade away” persona has been mothballed along with his leather jackets.
During the closing Q&A session with the audience, someone asked him about how he responds to criticisms of selling out.
And we got a typically honest, unfiltered perspective: “I’ve been selling out since I agreed to do a brunch shift.”
So go ahead; call him a hypocrite. He’d probably just agree with you, curse himself and move on.