To be perfectly upfront, I know next to nothing about Anthony Bourdain. Other than the (exhaustive! professional!) research I did before interviewing him for a feature debuting this week–and the resultant, excessively fun hour and a half I spent chatting with him–my only exposure to the popular "bad boy" of cuisine has been via his guest judge spots on Top Chef, a show I enjoy mostly for its fast pacing and the schadenfreude that comes from watching egos clash (and occasionally crash and burn), not for anything related to cooking itself. I'm not a "foodie." I've never read Bourdain's career-making autobiography, Kitchen Confidential, or even so much as a recipe online. In short, I'm probably the last person who should be commenting on what is ostensibly a show for gourmands hosted by one of the world's most visible chefs and food connoisseurs.
With that confession out of the way and my conscience duly lightened, I feel more comfortable admitting to you what you've probably already guessed: This was my first full-length episode of No Reservations. Sure, I've caught snatches of it before thanks to my wife, who often turns it on whenever I'm busy with something else. Unlike me, she is a foodie and amateur chef (much to my own gastronomic delight), and so she's fascinated by exotic recipes, occasionally even finding inspiration for her own experiments. But she also watches for less educational reasons: She finds Bourdain incredibly hot, in a salt-and-peppered, whiskey-and-cigarettes kind of way, and I have a sneaking suspicion–supported by conversations I've had with some of our platonic female friends–that women like her make up a lot of No Reservations' audience.
Indeed, No Reservations is pretty much just a celebration of Bourdain himself: His laidback approach to both traveling and eating amounts to a cult of personality, and were he not so likeably arch about everything, there would be little to recommend his show beyond the dozens of other fish-out-of-water travelogues helmed by more serious, less charismatic folks. Certainly there are more educational, aesthetically pleasing programs out there. But despite the patina of punk rock grit, Bourdain's willingness to throw himself into potentially dangerous situations goes beyond stomach-churning, Fear Factor-like stunts (such as chowing down on a warthog anus, as he memorably did last year) and approaches an intoxicating, Zen-like sagacity. His philosophy is adequately summed up in his intro over the opening credits: "I write, I travel, I eat, and I'm hungry for more." In short, there's no bullshit here, no lengthy history lectures, no patronizing gushing over "ancient traditions." Instead we get an hour of Bourdain making his way through various street cafes, seeking out the kind of food real, modern people eat, and then washing it all down with endless beers and cigarettes. You may not learn as much as you would with, say, David Attenborough at the helm, but there's no question which one most of us would rather travel with. (Hell, I'd probably even give the loveable rogue a free pass on my wife. Hope she's not reading this.)
Tonight found Bourdain in Singapore, about which he declares, "If you love food, this might be the best place on Earth." With its collision of Western and Eastern influences, and dishes that are a fusion of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian cuisines, it's a convincing argument–especially given the particular food that Bourdain eats, which for once actually looks genuinely appetizing. No dirt-caked rectums or still-beating hearts of cobras this time out: Other than the "bone soup"–a Fangoria-ready, bloody bath of broken mutton limbs that Bourdain greedily sucks the marrow from with a straw ("like a Slurpee")–"Singapore" was easy on the queasy, mostly sticking to simple things like "chicken rice." (In an amusing flashback, Bourdain shows himself receiving a round of public boos after admitting he's never tried this signature dish before). Much of it, too, takes place in unassuming food courts or in the homes of friends, whom Bourdain seems to have dozens of in every port. In between, we see the show's first successful fishing trip (after which he dines on a scary-looking horseshoe crab) and a visit to a reflexologist (who discerns Bourdain's cholesterol level just from pressing on his feet), and watch as he drops in on a photographer pal who tries to help him realize his dream of securing an endorsement deal. But mostly Bourdain just walks (or lies) around looking world-weary and cool, and dropping pithy comments like, "Simple food in another casual setting. Just another day at the office." Lucky bastard.
Of course, those casual settings are what make No Reservations different, which is why it's unusual when Bourdain abandons the laissez-faire milieu of the food centers for Aurum, a stuffy, bizarre restaurant tricked out in "hospital chic": Here, diners eat off of sterile operating tables while sitting in gold-plated wheelchairs. The food–tiny, compressed units of foam-covered "molecular gastronomy" that should be familiar to anyone who witnessed Marcel's run on Top Chef–is appropriately, surgically precise, spooned up by waiters who squirt condiments out of syringes. To Bourdain's credit, he's brutally honest about everything, hating on the unappetizing presentation while giving credit where credit's due on the dishes he enjoys, all while saying he "feels guilty sneering at the place because of the talented chefs." Whereas this side trip to a snooty, foodie mecca might have been the centerpiece of a more traditional "gourmet" show, Bourdain has no trouble cutting through the pretension, riffing on the off-putting accoutrements while chasing his snide remarks with glass after glass of gin.
By show's end, Bourdain is back in more familiar territory, sitting in another unremarkable food court and eagerly dining on shark's head and a mess of gigantic chili crabs (whose size can be partially attributed to their constant diet of corpses floating down the Ganges River). He then shares some laughs and a beer with grizzled old men who advise him on the secret to a long and happy life: "Lots of alcohol, plenty of pork, and no exercise." As it would anyone, that makes Bourdain extremely happy–particularly since most of this episode finds Bourdain in a reflective, "golden years" kind of mood. While wondering aloud what makes Singapore so special, he unwittingly stumbles on a bit of universal truth, saying, "I'm still no closer to an answer, but who cares when the food is this good?" It's an apt description–for No Reservations, and for life itself. And as with everything he does, it pours out of him with magnificent, off-handed aplomb. The charming son of a bitch.
- While the fact that Singapore is apparently "Asia 101" for Westerners makes it look inviting enough, I'm not crazy about the idea of random strangers wandering over and telling me how to eat, as so many did to Bourdain this episode. (Although I'm sure the cameras had a lot to do with that.)
- I liked Bourdain's Lost In Translation moment while posing with glasses of scotch, particularly his proposed catchphrase: "It doesn't suck!" As you'll see, we talked a lot about endorsements during our interview; my guess is by year's end he'll be shilling for somebody. (If I were a betting man, I'd put a C-note on American Express.)
- Forget food, music, or love; tonight we learned about the true universal language: Simpsons quotes.