In the wake of shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, even the most elitist of reality TV haters appear to have dropped their guards for Bravo. And surrounded by some 2,000 folks at the Arlington on Friday night for Anthony Bourdain‘s lecture, it seems like the Travel Channel ain’t that far behind. To a theater of fans and foodies, the author, television personality, and proud Ramones fanatic spent nearly two hours talking shop and fielding questions from the sold-out crowd, all the while maintaining his signature brazen and sarcastic culinary rock-star style.
“I have, I believe we can all agree, the best job in the world,” Bourdain deadpanned early on in the night. As host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations - a show that allows Bourdain to travel wherever he wants, eat all the food he can, and capture at least part of it on tape - he found few dissenters. But before the 52-year-old could delve into detail about chowing down on warthog rectum in the Kalahari and rotting shark in Iceland, he took his audience on a short-but-sweet trip down memory lane.
He glossed over his childhood (“I fucked up in every way possible”), his years working in some of New York City’s innumerable eateries (“I’ve closed a lot of restaurants”), and his unlikely foray into journalistic writing-for starters, recalling his initial struggle with New York’s publishing biz.
After finishing the op ed that would later inspire Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain remembered aloud how he sold his first piece to the New York Press. “Week after week after week, I kept getting bumped,” he recalled. “And in some moment of drunken hubris I called up [The Press] and was like, “Fuck you man! I’m pulling the article. I’m going to the New Yorker.’” For reasons still unbeknownst to him, the New Yorker snagged the article and ran it soon after. From there, it was a quick hop to best seller list status and worldwide fame.
“Being involved in television is like being a little bit pregnant or a little bit of a ho,” Bourdain joked about his short-lived run on the Food Network. “You think you’re going to show a little ankle, then you’re on a floor with a shag carpet somewhere in the Valley.” Bourdain has publicly expressed his distaste for the channel over the years, and Friday night’s lecture was certainly no different as he took unabashed hits at Sandra Lee, Bobby Flay, and Paula Deen. “Thank god for the Travel Channel,” he continued, “whose previous hit was a bunch of meth heads sitting around playing poker.”
The evening’s meat and potatoes came when Bourdain took on the subject of world travel - specifically, all the weird, painful, embarrassing, enriching, enlightening, and inspiring stuff he’s covered on Reservations. He grimaced through a discussion of the unintentionally homoerotic Uzbekistan show, where he was straddled and massaged by a “Ron Jeremy look-alike” in a “closed, steamy something right out of Midnight Express.” He put forth the idea for a “Fucked Up Cities Tour,” where he would visit East Baltimore, Detroit, and Buffalo in one fell, half-hour-long swoop. And he talked about the not-so-fine line he’s drawn between “food” and “pet.”
In Q & A form, Bourdain graciously doled out travel advice, granted a young male fan permission to ogle Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis, gave a verbal smackdown to one Misfits devotee, and awarded some truly gloat-worthy praise on his dinner providers at S.B.’s own Julienne in what was possibly the best restaurant endorsement I’ve ever witnessed in person.
With a crowd as large and rapt as Friday’s, it’s hard to imagine where the culinary celeb tipping point lies; how we separate the Emerils from the Rachael Rays and the Top Chefs from the Man vs. Foods. Then again, with a voice as strong and an appetite as voracious as Bourdain’s, there seems to be little doubt he’ll cross that dreaded line anytime soon.