Friday, April 22, 2005

Why I Prefer Emeril to Anthony Bourdain

We all have guilty pleasures. My wife reads People. Some of my friends watch "professional" wrestling. I just finished watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour." Mine is the worst of the three.

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain's first work about Anthony Bourdain, he creates for his readers the character of Anthony Bourdain: leather-jacketed ne'er do well, self-loathing drug addict, Lou Reed with a ladle, and finally, zen motorcyclist chef who could still go off the rails at the drop of a toque. Bourdain does this pretty well. When I saw him on his book tour for Cook's Tour, I had never seen him in person, or even on television, but I knew exactly what to expect in terms of mannerisms, phrases, even his answers to my questions--and I was not disappointed (or rather, I got what I expected).

The problem is this: Bourdain's Bourdain does not exist. Much like Bourdain's New York does not exist. For a good cross-reference on the latter, listen to George Carlin's standup sometime--the newer stuff, where he talks about New York in his bogusly New York accent, as a place where cab drivers mug tourists for fun, and where no one is shocked by anything. Both men need to visit New York sometime soon. Listening to them talk about "the streets" is like listening to a new Rolling Stones album. (Here's a secret that I'm making up but I bet is true: the episode in Kitchen Confidential where the newlywed woman still in her dress leaves her wedding table to fuck the cook behind the restaurant did not happen.) But I digress. The problem with Bourdain is that he has himself convinced that, under the media chef that is now Bourdain, is still the sneering rock-n-roller who would as soon spit at you as know you. Here's the truth: that person no longer exists, if he ever did. Bourdain's true colors are shown by his petty pot-shots at other media chefs, and especially by those he takes at Emeril Lagasse. This bears a new paragraph.

Emeril. We all know Emeril. And if you're reading this, you don't like Emeril. Despite the title of this piece, I don't either. What's to like? He's flashy, he makes what looks like good airline food, and his audience is made up of frustrated housewives. Watching an episode of "Emeril Live!," you expect to see some poor thing swoon and faint every time the bloated man yells "BAM!" and throws such a pudgy fistful of rosemary into a pan of chops that some poor intern spent the entire night butterflying just right. But look at Bourdain on Emeril:

Emeril is a "fuzzy little" "ewok-like" "schlockmeister with . . . catchphrases like 'Bam!' and 'Let's kick it up a notch!'" and "his own line of prepared seasonings" but "who manages to hold American television audiences enthralled."

"His show is unbearable. . . . He's so sloppy and unattractive, and he's never lost the Mass accent" (this comes from an interview Bourdain gave to Gregory Cartier of (?!) and was actually meant as a compliment).

True enough, non? We watch Emeril, and we think those same things, don't we? Well guess what? Emeril doesn't care. Emeril knows what we think. Emeril wants us to think that. Emeril is just fine with Emeril. I have no doubt that he goes home satisfied with what he's done each day, thinking each "BAM!" neither brilliant nor worthy of ritual suicide. Not Bourdain. No, way, man. Bourdain goes home every day thinking both of the things Emeril does not. Bourdain thinks he's both brilliant and tragic, and more so of both for being each. And so he has to lash out at Emeril and Wolfgang Puck and whoever else seems satisfied with his or her lot as celebrity chef. This smacks of the concept-of-scarcity mentality that defines the truly insecure: if anyone else does what he does, it's insult-worthy (see him on any other celebrity chef); if anyone else considers doing it, a scary story gets trotted out (see his "reason(s) not to do network t.v." in A Cook's Tour).

Does it make a bit of difference that the others have their names or initials monogrammed on their whites? It does to Bourdain. It doesn't to me. Do Bourdain's winks-and-a-scowls make me feel like he and I get it, while the other suckers don't? Yeah, sure, for a few pages or minutes--I'm easy like that. But to pretend that that isn't the same cheap hucksterism as "BAM!" is ridiculous. In fact, let's call it "GRR!" Next time you watch Bourdain on t.v., I want you to imagine that every time he says something BadAss, he looks right into the camera and yells "GRR!" and throws a handful of, I don't know, fleur de sel into a pot-a-feu. I promise there will be more of these moments than you expect, and definitely more than there are "BAM!"s on an average episode of "Emeril Live!"

When I saw Bourdain read on tour, he started out by trying to defuse the bomb. The first thing he said--without any prompting from the audience--was "I know, I know. I sold out. I work for the devil. I know." He said it with a half-smile. He had to. But this was more of the same--the same bogus self-deprecation that I had come to expect from him having read Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain doesn't believe the jabs he makes at himself. Or he does, but he doesn't. Or he does just enough to convince himself that they're wrong. Whatever. At a certain point, it's just too boring. Kitchen Confidential, about halfway through, started to feel exactly like Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl, plus food. Reading both, I kind of wanted the writers to just die already, so I could stop hearing them whinge. Both Stahl and Bourdain are still alive, as of this writing. And, okay, I didn't want either to really die, but I was pretty exasperated.

Remember, though, that I said Bourdain was my guilty pleasure. Which means that in spite of all this, I have read two of his books and enjoyed them both, and watch him on t.v. when I have the chance. But a lot of this is true, too. I would think, not thinking about it, that I would rather have a beer with Anthony Bourdain than with Emeril Lagasse. But is that right? It looks right, but what are the two men really like? They're probably closer to the same than Bourdain would care to think. And I know this: after the second or third beer, I'd much rather be around a happy man than a self-loathing caricature. I prefer honest "BAM!" to fabricated "GRR!" any day of the week.


Blogger The Dancing Kids said...

they are making a Television show called "Kitchen Confidential" loosely based on his book you know...

12:36 PM  
Blogger The Dancing Kids said...

okay so i am waiting for the post about rachael ray... :)

12:38 PM  
Anonymous MAGOO said...

Nice opinions, however it it obvious you have never worked in a professional kitchen. If you have and I hjave somehow missed it, I doubt you do anymore and were not very good or were miserable while doing it. What does it matter if Bourdain's New York doesn't exisit. It a STORY, a PERCEPTION, whether real, exaggerated or a flat out lie, makes those of us who DO work in the restaurant business laugh our fucking asses off. Every one of us can recall a similar story from almost every page.

Fact is it is not all glamour and glory like so many wanna believe, though I too take full advantage of as many free drinks as I can. It is hard rewardless wotk that I wouldnt trade for anything.

1:01 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

I've been asking myself for the last few minutes: should I respond to this guy? Of course I will. Here goes: I'm glad you like Anthony Bourdain. He's talented and funny, and you sound like exactly who he writes for.

Surprised at that response? Why? The title of the post is why I prefer something to something else--not why YOU should. "What does it matter if Bourdain's New York doesn't exisit [sic]?" It matters to me, because his hard-bitten seen-it-all tone bores me to death. It doesn't matter in a moral or ethical sense--just a stylistic one, and to me, that's one thing that a writer ought to concern himself with, and I think Bourdain doesn't. As a result, I find him a lazy writer.

And what in the world makes you think I'm not very good at working in a professional kitchen? I can understand you thinking I never have (I have, but not for long), and even that I was miserable while doing it (I was), but that I wasn't very good? Well, blind-boy, it turns out I WAS very good. I was DAMNED good. In fact, it is no stretch to say that I was the best goddamned dishwasher that place ever saw. Goes to show you just how wrong your assumptions can be, doesn't it?

3:09 PM  

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