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09.09.09

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My Beef With Bourdain

By Stett Holbrook


ANTHONY BOURDAIN just isn't that cute anymore. I don't tune in regularly, but his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, is usually entertaining and informative in a watch-the-booze-thirsty-hedonist-travel-to-far-flung-lands-and-eat-with-the-natives kind of way. It's one of the few bright spots in a sea of formulaic celebrity cooking programs and vapid chef competitions.

But after watching his episode on San Francisco, I'm officially off the Bourdain bandwagon. The so-called bad boy of cuisine would have you believe that he is a pleasure-seeking rebel in a world of politically correct, vegan killjoys. While I'd much rather have a beer with him than with Rachael Ray, I've come to see him as a sinister force of corporate culinary conservatism.

The conceit of the San Francisco episode was that he was traveling behind enemy lines where anyone who didn't agree with comrades Alice Waters and Michael Pollan is banished to a month of arugula picking on a biodynamic farm in Mendocino County until they develop the proper reverence for sustainable agriculture and Slow Food.

But as he sampled food at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and dined at high- and low-brow restaurants such as Incanto, the House of Prime Rib and Red's Java House, Bourdain realized that San Francisco's food scene isn't just boiled tofu served by humorless lesbians. There's a lot of really good food, too. He wanted to hate San Francisco but couldn't.

Of course, Bourdain knew as well as anyone that San Francisco's food scene bears little resemblance to those stereotypes. In his blog (http://anthony-bourdain-blog.travelchannel.com/read/im-not-angry), he admits as much and says that he loves the city. I'm with you there, Tony. And I share your disdain for sanctimoniousness and gastro-dogma. But where is your scorn for the other side of the coin? For petroleum-intensive industrial agriculture? For a pork industry that pollutes the groundwater of poor communities and contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant staph infections? For a chemical-dependent, climate-changing food system that claims to feed the world but doesn't? Why don't you pick on them instead of Alice Waters?

Bourdain's faux Frisco-trepidation was an entertaining plot device I was willing to accept. What I'm not willing to accept is that his derision of all things organic, sustainable and humane somehow make him a culinary rebel. In fact, the opposite is true. Gastronomically speaking, Bourdain is as conservative as Dick Cheney. He'd have you believe that he's the Lou Reed of food, but he's more like Clay Aiken—safe and predictable.

In the scene where he's chowing down on a cheeseburger at Red's Java House, he wonders why anyone would care where their beef came from or if it was organically raised. Never mind that nobody who goes to Red's asks such questions. What bothers me is his mockery of such questions at all. "It tastes like it died screaming," he says with glee as he digs into to his dripping burger.

Why celebrate an animal dying in pain? Is that cooler than treating animals and food in general with respect? Is it punk rock to cheer the products of cruel factory farms that treat workers almost as poorly as the animals they warehouse? A true rebel would challenge the powers that be and seek to bring down an unfeeling industrial food machine. To be really rebellious would be to expose the lies and greed behind agribusiness and look for alternatives that celebrate sensually pleasing food that happens to be produced in an environmentally sound way. The two aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they generally go hand-in-hand.

Bourdain is ultimately a great defender of the status quo. He poses no threat to industrial agriculture. Instead, he sneers at those who seek an alternative to it. He's a dream for the likes of Cargill, Monsanto, Con Agra and other agribusiness heavies who are under pressure to clean up their act. And that what makes him dangerous. He offers conformity cloaked in a leather jacket. And that's not cool.

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