Meditations

Food Geeks, Addiction & Other Nasty Bits


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“There’s nothing more annoying than food geeks taking photos of their plates of food and posting them on their blog.”

I nearly choked on my ice cold Pale Ale when I heard the above statement coming from the mouth of one of my food heroes, author, TV host and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Did he just call me a food geek? Bourdain went on to explain that “…real foodies should just give over to the experience of eating and let the experience take them away. No questions. No expectations. No analysis.” I’ll try to remember that the next time I’m sitting down for dinner at Per Se or The French Laundry, though it may be difficult to resist the urge to snap a few photos.

The author of numerous books – culinary and fiction – and former Executive Chef of New York’s French brasserie Les Halles, Bourdain was in Vancouver Sunday, June 11th on a book tour flogging his latest release, The Nasty Bits – Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones. The book is a veritable tasting menu of literary outtakes from his collected works of articles, stories and misadventures. His vivid gastronomic exposés and self-deprecating style make each short chapter easy to digest and as much fun as a meal of spicy tapas.

Appropriately, the collection is organized into sections such as Salty, Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Umami, with the added bonus of a short story of fiction for dessert. The book can at one moment seem a beautiful exploration of travel, food and culture, while alternatively making foodies cringe with offerings such as

Fast well-done steak? I’ve watched French grads of three-star kitchens squeeze the blood out of filet mignons with their full body weight, turning a medium to well in seconds. I’ve watched in horror as chefs have hurled beautiful chateaubriands into the deep-fat fryer, microwaved veal chops, thinned sauce with the brackish greasy water in the steam table. And when it gets busy? Everything that falls on the floor, amazingly, falls ‘right on the napkin.’ Let me tell you – that’s one mighty big napkin.

With an opening performance by Jim Burns and his band, the legendary blues setting of Granville Street’s historic Yale Hotel was somehow apropos for a rock-star chef who claims Keith Richards as a mentor. The packed house of adoring fans even included local gastronomic legends of our own, including Hidekazu Tojo, Vikram Vij and David Hawksworth who seemed to hang on every word.

The night was sponsored by CBC Radio Studio One’s Book Club and Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks and was taped live for an upcoming episode of North By Northwest, hosted by Sheryl MacKay and Georgia Straight‘s John Burns.

Sitting casually on stage with legs crossed, Bourdain soon had the already ‘well lubricated’ audience in hysterics while reading a short piece from the book called A Drinking Problem about the beauty of a properly poured beer or ale and the traditional pubs in which they are served.

“A good pub should never have fine food.” Bourdain read, twitching nervously as he downed a Red Bull in no more than three swallows. “What’s wrong with a good meat pie? Black pudding? Sausages? Shepherd’s pie is a beautiful thing. I don’t want truffles in it! And a vegetarian menu? In a pub? Vegetarians in a pub? For their own good, vegetarians should never be allowed near fine beers and ales. It will only make them loud and belligerent, and they lack the physical strength and aggressive nature to back up any drunken assertions.”

A New York native, Bourdain seems the kind of person at home wandering low income, crime-ridden neighbourhoods where real people live, work, eat and drink. A reformed cocaine and heroin addict, he told the audience that he had very little sympathy for junkies and claims to have no answers or solutions, but offered that all addiction sufferers eventually realize drugs are bad, look in the mirror and decide whether they want to live or die and make a choice. He wanted to live, simple. Then asked if he’d ever use his fame and influence to help those with addictions, he flatly answered no in classic Bourdain style: to the point. Rather, his cause of choice is to help raise awareness and change immigration laws to allow illegal Latino labourers to stay, live and work in the USA, inviting them to “Come to our country and impregnate us!”

Many guests thanked their hero for inspiring them to try new foods, attempt gourmet cooking, and take risks while traveling. Where’d you eat tonight? “Pringles – didn’t have time to eat.” (yeah, right) Last meal on Earth? “Roasted bone marrow, cracked salt and toasted French bread.” Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? “Beatles and scorpions tasted pretty good.” Food trends like Slow Food or Organics? “Whatever. Does it taste good? My priority is will it get my client laid after dinner?” Asked how he remains so thin at his age considering his eating habits, he quickly pulled out his shiny gold pack of Dunhills and grinned sheepishly. Apparently some addictions remain.

For the travelers in attendance, Bourdain offered his two rules of eating in a foreign land; 1) Try not to offend, and 2) Eat what the locals eat. His face lit up and body language changed notably when recalling the epiphany experience of tasting Vietnamese Pho for the first time, describing Vietnam as “a magical place” where the tastes and textures of dishes like Bun Cha (lamb patties) combine to create ethereal qualities just not found in western cuisine. When asked what he “wouldn’t” eat, he claimed that he’d always try something once, even if it goes against his better judgment. Apparently members of his TV crew, while traveling abroad filming recent episodes of Travel Channel’s No Reservations inevitably became ill only after eating the breakfast buffet at the Hilton.

Bourdain is as colourful and witty in person as on the page, never shy to tell the truth or use an expletive to drive a point home. Some say Bourdain’s spiel is getting a bit tired, and perhaps it is, but he makes no bones about how fortunate he’s been since his autobiography Kitchen Confidential hit bookstore shelves. In his own words he was at best a good cook – never a great chef – and yet now gets to travel with expenses paid, hobnobbing with the finest culinary minds alive.

Above all, the man seemed genuine and unaffected by his success and fame. He’s still the guy who went into the food business “to get laid, score drugs, and drink free liquor.” He’s as passionate about food and the experience of eating in person now as ever and it shows in his written pieces. And having served my time behind the line in the hot, greasy kitchens of my youth, it’s refreshing to hear someone explain to the world just how much hard work is really involved in creating that perfect cote de boeuf avec demi glace and perfectly al dente oyster mushroom risotto with a brunoise of black truffles sprinkled delicately on top.

But calling me a food geek is rather like the pot calling the kettle black, n’est pas? From where I’m sitting, it sure seems he makes a very tidy living writing food p0rn while wandering the world with an ever present camera crew photo documenting his every mouthful. Admitting to the crowd that he doesn’t even cook much anymore, I feel little sympathy for this well-fed and well-traveled foodie, so forgive me and call me a food geek for documenting my first attempt at coq au vin or the amazing blanquette de veau at a new bistro on Broadway.

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