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Monday, October 4, 2010

Anthony Bourdain Preaches (Profanely) to the Choir at the Fox Theatre

Posted By on Mon, Oct 4, 2010 at 12:06 PM

A standing ovation from an enthusiastic (though under capacity) audience greeted Anthony Bourdain as the chef turned author and TV host strolled onto the Fox Theatre stage on Friday evening. For the next two hours, Bourdain demonstrated the force of personality that has made him one of the biggest stars in the food world, alternating between comic riffs about his favorite targets (the Food Network, Alice Waters, McDonald's) and impassioned pleas to dive head-first into all the opportunities that food and travel offer.

Much of the material from Bourdain's set (for lack of a better word) was cribbed from his latest book, Medium Raw. This included a lengthy broadside against the current state of food television, especially the dwindling number of programs featuring actual chefs. Even Iron Chef America "blows" because celebrities like "Chris Angel, Mind Douche," judge the work of real chefs.

Bourdain did allow that "Alton Brown doesn't suck" and, to his credit, didn't limit his criticism to the Food Network. He called Man v. Food -- a Travel Channel show, like his own No Reservations -- "morally wrong." To be fair, he directed this criticism at the show's concept rather than its host, Adam Richman. The reason we watch Man v. Food? "You want [Richman] to die."

Bourdain also gave a glimpse behind the scenes of Top Chef, on which he often appears as a judge. The judges, he said, keep shakers full of gin and tonic under the table; by the time they have to render a verdict, "We are fucked up." This prompted without doubt the most profane of the night's many profane moments. How did (a presumably hammered) Bourdain describe to his fellow judges one contestant's too-sweet dish of seared scallops in butterscotch sauce? "This is like felching Mrs. Butterworth."

Unsurprisingly, Bourdain set aside time to pick on vegetarians. When he brought up the subject, the crowd laughed, suspecting what was to come. (Though someone did shout out, "Vegetarians rule!")

"I respect vegetarians," Bourdain deadpanned. "Actually, I don't. Fuck you."

On this evening, at least, Bourdain's attack on vegetarians and vegans had little to do with the ethical implications of eating meat -- in fact, he now believes we should eat "a little less meat" -- but what his travels have taught him about hospitality. To turn up your nose on "principle" at whatever a guest might prepare for you is the height of arrogance.

Or, as Bourbain put it far more colorfully, while he does draw the line at eating cat or dog meat, should he visit someone in a foreign country and should that person take the time and incur the (in many countries likely exorbitant) cost of preparing, say, a dish of stewed puppy heads, well, then: "Pass the fucking puppy heads."

Obviously, puppy heads were an extreme example, but Bourdain implored the audience to travel with an open mind -- and to stay off the well-worn tourist paths. "Eat everything," he said, adding that for all the supposedly "dirty" street food he and his crew eat while filming No Reservations, the only person who regularly gets sick is the staffer who eats the breakfast buffet at the hotel.

The question-and-answer session included many gushing thanks to Bourdain for visiting St. Louis. As I reported on Friday evening, it also elicited the information that Bourdain is planning to film an episode of No Reservation in Missouri and Arkansas.

The most notable moments of the Q-and-A segment included comments from a young woman who had been so moved by the episode of No Reservations where Bourdain was trapped in Beirut during Israel's attack on Lebanon that she went there to study. A boy suffering from leukemia told Bourdain he loves seafood and wanted to know where he should go to eat it once he has recovered from his illness. A visibly moved Bourdain told him to go to Spain.

If the night as a whole offered few surprises to longtime fans of Bourdain's writing and TV shows, it left no doubt that, jokes and profanity aside, he is utterly sincere in his work.

"I think food is important," he said. "I'm pretty goddamn grateful I get to do all these things."

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