Anthony Bourdain is an eminent chef – Brasserie Les Halles advertises itself as his “home base” – but he’s more widely known as a bad-boy author and television personality who offers a welcome antidote to the perfectly controlled, perfectly pretentious variety of television chef. In his first book, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain referred to himself as the Chuck Wepner of cooking; in case you’re not up on your boxing history, Wepner, a.k.a. “the Bayonne Bleede,,” was a journeyman fighter more famous for his guts and his willingness to take on just about anyone than for his victories in the ring. It’s hard to think of any other celebrity chef likening himself or herself to a boxer (Rachel Ray? Wolfgang Puck? Emeril Lagasse? Don’t think so), let alone a boxer best known for the fights he lost, but that attitude exemplifies just how fresh an approach Bourdain brings to the world of celebrity cooking.
His current television show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, is as much about Bourdain’s persona as it is about food, and it’s more about travel than either one. Perhaps that’s not surprising, since the show airs on the Travel Channel, but if you’ve never seen it you may be surprised at how little a role cuisine plays in some of the episodes. That’s not a criticism, just a warning that you won’t learn much about how to make any particular dishes from watching this show, nor will your learn much in the way of practical travel advice (there’s always Rick Steves and/or Globe Trekker for that).
Instead, what you get with each episode is the vicarious experience of a new culture in the company of someone who’s always open to new experiences, not afraid to let his rough edges show, has a flair for the dramatic, and is always a lot of fun to be around. The episodes carry a “parental discretion” advisory, although most of Bourdain’s profanity is, unfortunately, bleeped out.
Collection 7 of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations contains three discs and 15 episodes, all originally airing in 2011. The DVD jacket promises a “Forbidden Detour to Cuba and Beyond” and Cuba is indeed one of the episode locations, as are Haiti and Cambodia—but in this season Bourdain also visits Vienna and drops in on El Bulli, showing he’s not afraid to mix it up. The other locations in this series are Nicaragua, the Ozarks, Brazil, Boston, Hokkaido, Macau, Naples, Ukraine, Kurdistan, and Cajun Country.
The Haiti episode is probably the strongest in this collection, and also the least about food. It won an Emmy for cinematography and an Eddie (from the American Cinema Editors) for editing, so I’m not the only one who appreciates it. It’s a fine piece of cultural journalism, giving the audience an idea of what life was like in the country a bit over a year after the catastrophic earthquake of January 2010. Bourdain visits both a tent city and a relatively prosperous area, and finds little evidence of a people demoralized by their fate, let alone too lazy to help themselves. Instead, everyone seems to be working and carrying on with their lives as best they can.
Of course, there’s still heaps of rubble from the earthquake, and plenty of people in need, and this leads to the one false note in this episode. Bourdain and his crew are buying lunch at a street stall and notice crowds of silent, hungry children and adults watching them. In a fit of generosity, they decide to buy out the merchant’s wares, instructing her to feed as many people as she can with the food she has prepared. A perfect example of direct charity, right? Maybe so, until a fight breaks out, because there are many more hungry people than there is food to go around, and they’re not all inclined to wait patiently to see if they are among the lucky few who get fed. This result was so totally predictable that it’s hard to believe the whole episode wasn’t dreamed up for the cameras, allowing Bourdain to lay on his viewers the obvious moral that uninformed charity may do more harm than good.
I’m willing to forgive that lapse because the rest of the episode is so good. Bourdain stays at the Hotel Oloffson, the model for the Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, and the description of the hotel from the novel (quoted by Bourdain) aptly describes both its colonial splendor and its decay: “With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house in the New Yorker. You expected a witch to open the door to your or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him. But in the sunlight, it seems fragile and period and pretty and absurd, an illustration from a book of fairy tales.” Hotel proprietor Richard Morse, who jokes that he’s been in Haiti for “22 governments,” offers a clue about how to survive not only political upheaval but also the natural disasters of which Haiti seems to get more than its share. A hurricane is heading for the island, and Morse and Bourdain calmly observe its progress from the hotel balcony—fortunately, it misses the island, and the next day people are back to business as usual.
There are no extras in this DVD set: what you get are television episodes, transferred to disk with excellent visual and sound quality.