Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel
Good thing Anthony Bourdain is keeping his day job. A raconteur (of the stage variety) he is not.
That’s not to say that the man isn’t charming or that he didn’t get any laughs in Guts & Glory: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain.* His self-deprecation and seemingly genuine appreciation for the strange and wonderful trajectory of his career was endearing. I like a man whose cynicism doesn’t stop where his ego begins.
However, if I wanted to watch a Bourdain show, I would have been much more comfortable watching it on TV in my pajamas from the comfort of my couch instead of sitting upright in seats that give me Nutcracker flashbacks. Given how similar the live show is to an episode of any other iteration of Bourdain’s many appearances on TV, I wondered what I was doing there.
He began with his well-known assault on Paula Deen. I happen to agree with him that Deen’s promotion of outrageously unhealthy food when she knew for five years that she had diabetes is egregious, but I’ve heard it all before. He flashed a heavy-handed (and poorly made) graphic showing his thoughts about cashing in himself — a Smokin’ Tony action figure with track marks and a cigarette.
I think his condemnation of the food served at Olive Garden and Chili’s is absolutely on target. He’s an eloquent and expletive-laden crusader of real food and cooking at home. But we knew that, too, right?
He then launched into another familiar attack against vegetarians and vegans. I’m not either, but I felt like his argument had enormous holes in it. He gave a long, circuitous monologue about traveling overseas that could be summed up neatly in this way: Eat what the host puts in front of you. Be respectful, for %$#*’s sake, even if that dish might be the undercooked anus of a wild boar.
However, I wasn’t sure how that applied to this country and this culture. We aren’t offending village elders when we choose to eat something other than meat. If we ask our friends to accommodate us, surely we’re asking the people who know and care about us, correct? And there are, in fact, people who don’t eat meat because they don’t like the taste of it. Not every single vegetarian chooses to eat that way for political reasons, and others may be avoiding meat for health reasons. (Hello, Paula Deen? If you throw out the meat and up the fruits and vegetables, it’s crazy how much healthier you can become.)
Even more damning, according to Bourdain, is a vegetarian’s lack of curiosity. I’m not sure how Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan, who recently “came out” as a vegetarian, would feel about being labeled as incurious. Or New York Times writer Mark Bittman, who vigorously promotes veganism before 6 p.m.
And Tony? You didn’t even address the fact that there are large swaths of Asia where people are vegetarian for religious reasons. I doubt anyone in Tibet would offer Bourdain a pig’s anus. Would he slam them as incurious ideologues? Or would he politely eat what was offered?
All of the ranting against vegetarians seemed to undercut his argument for real, presumably healthier-than-Paula-Deen’s food. And his militant refusal to entertain different culinary choices seemed, well, as rigid and inflexible as the very views he was claiming were rigid and inflexible. And that poisoned most of his show for me.
As he began wrapping things up, he also made an impassioned plea for the need to sit down with those who disagree with us, showing scenes from No Reservations to back up his point. He ate barbecue and shot guns with Ted Nugent in one clip, and I think Bourdain's attempt to find common ground with someone so different from himself isn’t such a bad idea. Can Nugent be convinced how wrongheaded he is, Bourdain asked? Probably not, but a conversation over barbecue can help to soften (hopefully) and add nuance to his view of things, even though Bourdain might never (ever) agree with him. (And it's worth noting that Nugent likely feels the same way about Bourdain's politics.)
Bourdain also showed a clip of an old man in a cap from an episode that took place in Russia. As he gave us an overview of the man's background, I became confused. I think I might draw the line at breaking bread with Victor Cherkashin, the KGB head who ran spies like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, American moles who cost American lives during the Cold War. I’m sure Cherkashin is a nice guy when you meet him one on one, and his wife makes a mean dish of wild mushrooms; he just did some really, really bad, unforgivable things. I didn't really understand why Bourdain was eating with him.
The show turned painful when the lights came up and the Q & A session began. This was not Bourdain’s fault. If anything, it made me admire the man’s enormous good manners.
Apparently, whoever held the microphone didn’t realize that they needed to control it. That they, in fact, were supposed to step up and moderate the discussion in some way. One audience member got a hold of the microphone and had a rambling back-and-forth with Bourdain about omelets that was so painful, I had to get up from my seat and leave. Plenty of other people felt the same way apparently, and we all streamed out of the theater.
I wasn’t invited to the VIP party held afterward, but then, most of the audience wasn’t either, so none of us know if Bourdain is more compelling in a smaller environment. He's clearly compelling on the small screen, however, and although the road show is no doubt lining Tony's pockets nicely, the rest of us should have stayed home in our pajamas and watched a few reruns of No Reservations on the Travel Channel instead.
*The name of the show was added after the review originally published.