Anthony Bourdain’s ‘A Cook’s Tour’, or, Things that Make You Strong

One of Bourdain's common themes in A Cook's Tour was eating meals that locals said "will make you strong." His focus was not on the bravado, however, but on the people involved in making local food, home cooks and restauranteurs alike.

Type “honest” and “Bourdain” in a Google search and you will see pages of articles and posts detailing how people remember Anthony Bourdain. The former dishwasher, line cook, and at the time, executive chef appeared on the scene as an improbable celebrity. After years of working in kitchens and using illicit drugs, he wrote about all of the experiences in an essay that published in The New Yorker, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” (19 April 1999) and his memoir would be expanded in his first nonfiction book, Kitchen Confidential (2000). For the rest of his career, Bourdain would be known as a “bad-boy” chef for all the debauchery he described in clear and punctuated prose. When he made his first appearance on TV, that image began to change. Through his talent and ethical world view, Bourdain developed a persona that has been described as a cultural ambassador for nearly every place he visited through his career.

Maybe it was a sign of the times that Kitchen Confidential (Bloomsbury, 2008) had bestseller success. It was 2000, and reality television was training viewers to watch confessional lives of teenagers and the backstages of restaurants where a well-trained, often white-clad staff constructed food towers on dainty plates. But this book took things further. It showed the backstage like never before. Bourdain writes about his experience stabbing a chef in the hand after he grabbed his butt one too many times. He showed us a world where standard practice means that Sunday brunch specials offer many opportunities to consume processed leftovers from the previous week’s tables, and avoid the petri dish properties of the hollandaise sauce. While his original essay for The New Yorker introduced people to many unseemly aspects of the restaurant industry, Kitchen Confidential gave readers insight into the specific experience of Bourdain as a confessional writer who also spun tales of inebriated debauchery that would have had a hard time getting a “R” rating in the theater.

A Cook’s Tour (Bloomsbury, 2001) brought another version of the bad-boy to the television screen. Chain smoking, earring, black leather jacket, and an ever-growing collection of tattoos, Bourdain traveled the world meeting new cultures and sharing meals and drinks wherever he traveled. One of his common themes was eating a meal that the locals said “will make you strong.” These included dishes like a beating cobra heart, lamb testicles, fugu (pufferfish), and fried duck embryo. He never took these meals seriously, tossing away any bravado by adding humor and sometimes disappointment. Instead of the outrageous meals, his focus always turned to the people involved in local food, whether restaurateurs or home cooks. He sought to learn something about them through their food.

As a television personality, Bourdain quickly developed a persona that exuded empathy and humility that allowed him to present a humanistic view of the world where the people he encountered were more important than any dish, political view, or cultural difference—and they were always more important than the image of the host.

In an interview with Patrick Radden Keefe for The New Yorker Festival posted on YouTube (25 October 2017), Bourdain shares his thoughtful perspective of how he approached a trip to West Virginia to see how people who were supportive of Donald Trump’s presidency lived their lives. (Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown “West Virginia”.) He said he was able to get past his expectations by thinking about how he was able to eat with former Vietcong and KGB officers and others who had cultural issues he would find abhorrent if they were spoken at his table in New York. “Why can’t I go into West Virginia and make that same leap of faith that people are doing the best they can?”

Bourdain’s perspective is an important interpersonal communication tool. To communicate with others, we must realize their perceptions are based on everything they have been exposed to in their lives. If we don’t consciously try to understand the other’s perspective, we judge them, creating a false identity based not on their reality but our own bias and expectation. Beginning in the Cooking Channel’s A Cook’s Tour, the television series, Bourdain practices this in his approach to how he narrates his experience.

In the opening narration of the Vietnam episode “Cobra Heart, Food That Makes You Manly”, Bourdain quietly and suggestively refers to the country’s turbulent history twice, yet he sees the people and separates that from his understanding of the history. Sitting on the sidewalk, he describes the dish he is eating to a person behind the camera, then the show shifts to voice-over narration.

So I sit there, eat my squid soup, and watch people go by on their motos, doing the everyday things they were doing 200 years ago and will probably be doing 200 years from now. There’s a cheerful stoicism and generosity here in spite of an almost overwhelming history that comes home to you, even when eating the simplest bowl of squid soup.

Bourdain owns his perception of history instead of prescribing the view as a reality for the people viewers see passing on the street. Bourdain understands that food is the language of the people, the history, the economy, and the source of life, and sometimes, joy.

Bourdain’s attachment of food to relationships always supersedes his perception of the culture. Directorial, editorial, and scripting decisions of A Cook’s Tour maintain the separation of Bourdain’s monologues from the broadcast tendency to create narratives based on viewers’ preconceptions of place and culture. In the Fez, Morocco episode “Traditional Tastes” Bourdain describes the inner workings of a home kitchen as his host’s mother and sisters prepare a large meal. He tells viewers that as a Muslim country, the women who work in the home kitchens stay out of the public eye. Without adding any political perspective or personal feelings about the condition, he maintains his focus on the family. As the preparations progress, he comments on how well the mother runs her kitchen, stating how her operation compares to a professional kitchen. At the beginning of the segment, the women avoid the camera and seem hesitant to interact with the crew, but by the later stages, smiles and laughter punctuate the intense kitchen drama.

Bourdain comments on the reality of gender dynamics in the Moroccan culture without adding any judgment to his statement. He shows admiration for the skills and actions of the women cooking by comparing their work as better than some professional kitchens in the west. While his rhetoric is biased to his own culture, he casually describes an issue of another culture without removing the individuality of the people on the screen. They remain the stars in their own home, and viewers can appreciate the work and skill they display.

Those involved in the creation of the show strive to create a voice that is descriptive, not prescriptive. Like Bourdain’s own narrative tendency to allow readers and viewers to perceive the best and worst in his travels, the show does not pronounce judgment on more than his personal experience. This allows viewers to see how the people he meets live and interact with each other outside of a political context, even when politics, war, or subjugation have shaped the culture he engages.

In the opening of the St. Petersburg, Russia episode “The Cook Who Came in from the Cold”, Bourdain both emphasizes the effect the cold war had his life and his perceptions of the former Soviet town while using humor to undermine his own anxieties about the people and places.

The opening parlays into a skit where Bourdain meets his guide Zamir by using the spy movie motif of a passphrase to communicate identity to another spy. Bourdain hams it up through much of the episode, undermining the pretention of the perceived importance of the more tourist-centered locations. They then travel to representative Russian restaurants and historical places, but in the final segment, viewers meet Ludmilla, a Russian woman whose personality defines the episode. The cinematography and editing add force and momentum to her movements as she shops and bargains with the sellers. When the scene changes to her preparing the food, the camera focuses on both her tendency to talk as well as the physical effort she continues to put in while preparing the meal. As she hand turns a meat grinder, Bourdain comments on her effort and jokes if Ludmilla had been sent to Siberia, she would be able to hold her own.

This episode turns American pop culture views of the former Soviet state into throwaway jokes while focusing on a single woman going about her work to prepare a traditional Russian meal. While not fully successful, the rhetorical logic becomes another tool to strip away both prejudices and preconceptions of the people and places visited. Bourdain and the creative talent of A Cook’s Tour attempt to show a St. Petersburg resident as a unique person totally detached from the Americanized view of who populated the Soviet Union.

It only took a few years for the bad-boy chef to evolve into a social conscience who attempted to honestly show how similar we are when we start our conversation with food. A Cook’s Tour developed many of the techniques and tendencies viewers see in his more recent series. Bourdain, always conscious of his own bias, uses narrative and film techniques to give others a chance to show their lives through food. When he speaks to people, he looks at them and doesn’t pose for the camera. He tells the story of a culture through the eyes and plates of the people he meets. While still often cited as a bad-boy, he might be better remembered for his strong ethical presentation of the people and places he traveled. Eat with respect for the people and the food. That’s what makes you strong.