There are three constants that define the process of being alive and living: survival, reproduction and nourishment. The first two are not possible without the last, the method by which living organisms obtain the energy that fuels the machinery of existence from the biosphere. This energy is extracted from the light of the sun, from the mineral substance of the planet and from the gaseous chemicals of the atmosphere and passed about between species in a vast cycle that feeds billions in a bewildering variety of ways and means.
In the human species, energy extraction is an impulse that has transcended the base process of survival and has morphed into an art so profound and fundamental to the human experience that we cannot be properly examined without reference to the food we grow, prepare and eat, which perhaps explains the popularity of television food shows.
This genre offers a bewildering variety of options but of them all, one shines like no other. The host is Anthony Bourdain and the show is called Parts Unknown.
Anthony Bourdain (born 1956) is acerbic, ironic, informed and opinionated, and he has a unique take on food and its centrality to the human experience. A former professional chef and author of the groundbreaking expose Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly (2000), Bourdain has progressed into television and has made four shows: A Cooks Tour (2002-3), No Reservations (2005-12), The Layover (2011-13) and Parts Unknown (2013-).
Music, art, politics and history are all part of the Bourdain formula, and as for the food, he says little more than “mmm, that’s good” as he tackles everything from ‘baby beaver in blood gravy’ to balut (fetal duck). He loves mystery meat. “If it does not have the potential to give you the shits it isn’t worth it,” he explains to the camera.
In an age when American has turned inward and closed itself to new experience, Bourdain (refreshingly) is an unrepentant American Socialist and his cause is equality and inclusivity. He has seen too much of Britain, the EU and Scandinavia to be taken in by the self-serving economic truths espoused by Conservative America, and while he acknowledges America’s faults he never forgets that America is more than shouty Christian Republications with guns. Mostly, this is a people of good countenance seeking the best from life and each other. He also loves American food – street food, fast food, fine dining, BBQ… all of it and the rest.
In Season 5, Episode 5 on Madagascar, he explores that mysterious island off the lower East Coast of Africa with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and finds the unique biosphere teetering. Bourdain never says much when doing the face-to-face, leaving that for his voiceovers. Mostly he just prompts people along and they talk and tales of corruption, exploitation, poverty and lawlessness spill out, explaining the conditions that have led to the environmental shambles that is modern Madagascar. Regardless, he finds many people of good heart who hope for a better future.
The thing that sets Bourdain apart from all his peers is his unwavering dedication to reality. An unapologetic carnivore, he never flinches from the hard truth of meat and watching critters getting their throats cut is part and parcel of the Bourdain experience. He does not get vegetarians, and has no time at all for hipster foodies. Opinionated yes, fanatical about it… no. He mocks others, he mocks himself. In the Bronx a guy on the street says, “Hey, ain’t you that Anthony Bourdain?” Bourdain: “Nah, I wish I had his money!” Guy: “Yeah, that prick – fuck him.”
He is honest and straightforward and he is not afraid to reflect on his years as a heroin addict. He knocks back the booze like he’s on a mission and one time in Amsterdam he gets high as fuck and raves up a storm. Most would edit stuff like this out. In Season 4, Episode 7 on Massachusetts, he explains his proclivities while reflecting on that nation’s pharmaceutical opioid crisis. This is a ‘hard’ episode that still manages to serve up some pretty tasty looking local food. Go figure.
In Season 9, Episode 7 on Oman, he reveals it to be a moderately liberal Muslim society governed by an enlightened Sheik. The people practice a mild form of Islam, which prompts Bourdain to remind us that like Christianity, “Islam is not a monolith.” Women have broad rights and are championed by a progressive leader, but later out on the edge of the desert while eating and dancing with Bedouin men we are given a surreptitious glimpse of a heavily veiled woman standing far in the background and off to the side. Bourdain can sometimes be as subtle as he can be cynical and opinionated.
Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan (QOTSA) wrote and recorded the show’s raucous opening anthem. As artfully grunge as the man himself, it sets an appropriate tone. This is a sharp production with a decent budget and there is emphasis on lighting and composition, editing and research… stuff like that. In one episode, he is not in a good mood and gets drunk while waiting out the interminable time between setting a scene and filming it. “Those fucking lighting guys and sound guys and camera guys… it goes fucking on and on.” But he is way too well mannered to take it too far.
In Season 3, Episode 6 on Russia, Bourdain shares tasty looking food and alcohol with some interesting locals who are not as jaded as you imagine Russians might be. It’s his outright disdain for Putin that makes this episode so compelling. And in Season 9, Episode 2 on Los Angeles, Trump is now president and Bourdain talks to Latino Americans about food and not being white. Acknowledging that undocumented workers “do the work most of us don’t want to do,” Bourdain is unforgiving in his disdain for Trump. He finishes up with this: “Dear Mr President, Muslim Americans pay more taxes than you do.”
He has another go at Trump while in Antarctica, in Season 9, Episode 6. What he finds at McMurdo is a community dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and co-operative egalitarianism. In an age where science is being undermined and money counts more than community, this is all a big beautiful breath of bullshit- free air.
They eat a lot of meat in Argentina and the people of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (the birthplace of wine) are fighting to sustain a modern progressive democratic culture. Nashville was a musical eye opener and Quebec came across as odd. Sichuan, Ethiopia and Borneo were among the most compelling episodes … oh, and his chef/guide in Sicily, he who goes out to catch the seafood for the meal he is about to cook. Well, it goes that Bourdain’s crew catch the guy surreptitiously dropping market-bought fish and octopus into the sea and then diving in and retrieving it while proclaiming to one and all the natural abundance of his wonderful country (these waters are long fished out). Bourdain rolls his eyes and spends the rest of the episode avoiding him as much as possible.
Bourdain’s dogma is thus: “To eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice. Over a meal they open up to you in ways that somebody who is driven by a story may not get.” More than a chef and foodie, Bourdain is a social anthropologist and astute commentator. His show rocks.
Rick Stein’s Long Weekends
English celebrity chef and mega-wealthy restaurant mogul Rick Stein is in many ways Bourdain’s opposite. While they both travel and eat, Stein is all about the food. He avoids political commentary and has little of interest to say outside of a few pedestrian observations. Long Weekends is all about easily reached but slightly ‘off the radar’ European weekend destinations. Bugger about Brexit.
Everything in Nigella’s world is sensuous and sexy and eating seems to be her fetish. She can be informative, occasionally entertaining but mostly she is just strangely fascinating (for the reasons I have noted). She is not a chef, “just someone who cooks and eats for pleasure.” Lately, she has been doing a lot of reality TV, cooking contests, that kind of thing. Sometimes she sounds like a character Enid Blyton might have written.
If Anthony Bourdain is rock & roll and Rick Stein is AOR pop then Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage) is Morris dancing. Gentle, rural and resourceful, Hugh is a Jamie Oliver-like figure for the allotment set. A bit dull but okay.
Food writer and philosopher Michael Pollan examines food from the most primal perspective in his Netflix series Cooked. This 4-part series explores in order: Fire, Water, Air and Earth and the relationship of these elements to food.
The broad conclusion of the series is that the evolution of our energy-hungry brain has been aided by ever more efficient methods of extracting nutrients from the environment. So far so good, but in the end Pollan is like his conclusions: ordinary. Still worth a look but…
Chef’s Table is documentary series that explores the lives of notable chefs. It tackles muse and philosophical motivation as well as ingredients and technique. This series is challenging and perhaps a little overblown – this last statement depends on how prepared you are to accept the chef as an artist worthy of deep analysis. Many of these chefs are thoughtful people, some a little mad, one or two crazy. Yep, artistic types. Made by the guy who brought us the acclaimed Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (imagine Studio Ghibli as food documentary) Chef’s Table is mostly interesting stuff.
City of Gold (2016)
Jonathon Gold is a journalist who fell into food writing when he grew bored with his job as a sub-editor at the LA Times. He decided to review every food joint on a particular strip in LA. His project turned heads and later he was the first food writers to win the Pulitzer Prize.
At ease with food trucks and haute cuisine both, Gold is a trained musician, successful writer and cultural philosopher. He is an assiduous researcher and a fountain of information. The camera sits next to Gold in his pickup truck as he seeks out opportunity for his prodigious appetite: “They have good chilli fries”, “that place has good Korean”, “over there is the best Ethiopian,” and so it goes. He seems to have eaten everywhere, and the mind boggles at the scope of his ambition.
Later, the film compares Gold’s food writing against food review sites like Zomato (where ‘amazing’ seems to be standard) and we get some insight into what it takes to be a vocational food critic of integrity. Gold can make or break a business and understanding the responsibilities he goes about his work with diligence, sometimes visiting a restaurant 17 times before writing his review. An emotionally satisfying film experience.
The Search For General Tso (2014) and Deli Man (2015).
General Tso’s Chicken is one of the most popular American meals, and this documentary sets out to discover the story behind the dish and in doing so reveals something of the Chinese/American experience, and the evolution of the ubiquitous suburban Chinese Restaurant.
Deli Man is strikingly similar to General Tso’s Chicken, except the subject matter is Jewish-American food culture. At one time the American food landscape was defined by tens of thousands of Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis. Unlike the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, the Deli is in decline but there are those dedicated to maintaining the tradition of this culturally significant food style. Cue Ziggy.
A third generation deli owner and trained chef, he has made a name for himself as the torchbearer for traditional Jewish American deli food. A man of outsize personality, his insights are as compelling as his big heart.
Besides the chicken itself, General Tso’s Chicken explains the famous Jewish love affair with the Chinese restaurant and Deli Man responds by explaining about the Jewish-Chinese relationship, one forged from their mutual experience as social outsiders. As for General Tso himself, he is an historic provincial hero whose name is attached to many things as an honorarium and the reaction of locals to this American Chinese food innovation is as startling and hilarious. “Did General Tso love chicken? We don’t know the answer to that question.”
A Film About Coffee (2014)
Coffee is a mildly ‘consciousness-altering’ beverage that turns the effort of waking into an anticipatory experience, and this documentary seeks to be a hip and poetic exposition on the beverage from farm to cup. The story of America’s ‘small’ coffee industry contributing to rising incomes for growers in the third world is probably the most useful part. A bit ‘hipster earnest’ at times but hey, at least the kids care.
Soul Kitchen (2009)
Greek/German Zinos is the owner of a shabby backstreet restaurant in Hamburg. He is behind on his taxes and his personal life is a shambles. He decides to sort things out and in short – Germans are crazy, haute cuisine is kind of silly and love is fraught with complication. Soul Kitchen is a lot of fun. The German trailer is much better than the American one:
Babette’s Feast (1987)
A refugee from the French Revolution, aristocrat Babette finds herself in Denmark cooking for a pious Danish family and their congregation. Many years later she wins a lottery and rather than return to her old life in Paris, she decides to spend the money cooking her community a feast of grand proportions to celebrate the hundredth year of their founders birth. If you need a little unaffected beauty without the schmaltz factor, this is your film.
The Lunchbox (2013)
Everyday she prepares lunch (lovingly) for her indifferent husband. One day the Dabbawala (Mumbai-style lunch delivery specialist) delivers the food to the wrong man. The mistake keeps repeating, he writes her notes of appreciation and on it goes. A friendship develops and… well, you’ll see. A delightful film about love, longing, flavour and appreciation, you won’t find a more perfect meal anywhere.