I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.
In the recent San Francisco episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the writer/host ends in part with a question: “What do I really know of San Francisco? Well, you saw the show; you tell me.” My relationship with San Francisco goes back over thirty years, and it was mighty peculiar seeing it from Mr. Bourdain’s perspective; well, at least the images were familiar. While I must admit having once been a fan of his show, I’ve become an infrequent viewer. I grew tired of the pseudo Beat sensibilities reflecting from his Ray Bans and the all too Prada-like suppleness of his self-righteous social indignation. And while I had been made aware of his public dispute with Alice Waters, I must admit not having had much interest at the time in the details - I figured that Alice could hold her own. If a friend of mine hadn’t inquired whether I had seen the episode the night before and hadn’t listed the places he visited, I may have never seen it.
Apparently, “I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more” isn’t enough reason for a show anymore, so in the opening montage Mr. Bourdain offers two themes:
San Francisco 2009, bridges, fog, food, highlife, lowlife, vegans…It’s crunchy granola, but it’s also double martinis and big slabs of beef.
Nearby is the self-professed center of the Food Revolution, sanctimonious locavores in one of the richest zip codes in the country; ‘Tony we should; we must eat organic!’
One would expect that ‘vegan’ was his primary theme, especially since so much of what follows involves Mr. Bourdain stuffing himself with meat. His first stop is “a quaint little café, coffee shop, radio station with a ‘vegan’ theme” to taste its Maple Bacon Latte. The DJ makes the latte with “refined” bacon and milk from a one-gallon container. Of course, Mr. Bourdain realizes that the use of ‘milk’ means Pirate Cat Radio isn’t a ‘vegan’ café, and the ‘bacon’ means it's not even vegetarian! Yelp has Pirate Cat listed in “Coffee & Tea” and “Radio Stations,” and while some reviews mention vegan donuts and other vegetarian offerings, most mention the Maple Bacon Latte. The Pirate Cat website contains nothing about being vegan or vegetarian.
This is as close to a 'vegan' as Mr. Bourdain gets in demonstrating his “central paradox” - meat-eating San Francisco as the epicenter for hoards of tofu lovers. All we get from this point is the meat eating. Mr. Bourdain may have scored this idea of San Francisco in the 60s as a teen when he pined to visit during the Summer of Love. Yelp lists 4394 restaurant in San Francisco (pop. 750,000) with 42 listed as vegetarian, and in comparison, Manhattan (pop. 1.5 million) has 103 vegetarian restaurant listings. This certainly qualifies as a “central paradox”!
Mr. Bourdain vainly attempts to write and edit more segments into this theme, he eats an oyster and bacon omelet in the Tadich Grill, has martinis at Zam Zam, a Haight Ashbury bar that resisted granola eating flower children, and declares that a slab of pink meat is "the American Dream" at the House of Prime Rib. Sadly, these segments demonstrate nothing but Mr. Bourdain’s appetites, since he never substantiates his “central paradox.” Intellectual laziness, shoddy research, or a smoke screen, what’s really on your mind?
Mr. Bourdain turns his attention to the elitist, food fetishizing organic types, but strangely, not with a visit to their ‘omphalos,’ in Berkeley. Those “sanctimonious locavores” appear to live in the Berkeley zip code where Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse is located. This is just the first instance of Mr. Bourdain’s slovenly need for quick sound bites. Not only is the Chez Panisse zip code, 94709, not "one of the richest in the country," it's not one of the richest in California, or even in Berkeley. It's median income $38,613, is below the US average!
Mr. Bourdain arrives at the “distasteful” Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, with a voice over:
Organic, and green, and local, yes, but also a magnet for a food fetishizing elite from an area with an average household income of $85,000 per year.
Again his research and his writing fail him, since few residents of the East Bay schlep over to the Ferry Plaza on Saturday mornings to fight with the hoards of food fetishizing tourists, which he in part helped create. They do have Farmers’ Markets in the East Bay, and the Berkeley Bowl with its amazing produce department, much of it locally supplied.
It's not surprising that there is little interaction between Mr. Bourdain and any of the farmers at the Market, since his reason for visiting is to buy an expensive, imitation Mexican meal. Instead, he gets a full plate at a reasonable price, and by his own words, it’s good! He is foiled in his expectations to use the meal as a metaphor for all that is wrong with the market. Unfortunately, with his next stop he gives us the metaphor anyway.
We cut to Mr. Bourdain driving over the bridge, doing “what you do, or should do, when in San Francisco,” visit Oakland and sample the burgeoning scene of taco trucks operated by those who make their money the hard way. On the way he dons his social smugness:
It’s useful to remind yourself that maybe not everybody lives like you or can afford to buy the best or has time to grow vegetables in a yard they don’t even have.
Mr. Bourdain bellies up to a truck that offers nothing more expensive than $4. Had he done any research at all he would have known that there is also a burgeoning scene of entrepreneur-run taco trucks in San Francisco, so why the trip to Oakland?
What comes next is truly amazing even for Mr. Bourdain’s fractured logic and runaway metaphors. After his excellent snack, it's back across the bridge for “something completely different; old school, pretty damn purist sushi ingredients and preparation...” At Sebo, sushi is about as expensive as it gets, and it’s where Mr. Bourdain’s moralizing collapses. It isn't clear how he will connect Sebo to the rest of the episode, but after lauding the food, he jokingly asks the chef if he’s a ‘locavore’ - buying locally grown food is politically correct. The answer is quick and obvious with laughs all around.
With all of his travels and meals over the last seven years, Mr. Bourdain must have forgotten his visit to Napa Valley in 2002, filmed for an episode of his previous show, “Cook’s Tour.” At the time he got to fulfill a “life long dream,” by eating at chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, the most fetishized restaurant in the US. He was joined by well-to-do chef and food writer buddies, and to complete the metaphor, they rode to Napa in a white stretch limo. Once there, they enjoyed what amounted to an 80-course meal.
Chef Keller gets most of his organic herbs and some of his vegetables from the restaurant’s own garden, and he relies on Jacobsen Orchards for much of his remaining produce. Mr. Bourdain even visited the certified organic farm owned by Dr. Peter Jacobsen, a dentist by profession, who has an exclusive supply agreement with Chef Keller. If you manage get a reservation, those fruits and vegetables will cost you $240. The French Laundry menu is always a great read of the culinary cutting edge - Chez Panisse’s menu on the other hand, reads like home cooking.
I know, a different time, a different show, and a different Tony; since then he’s become more socially conscious and more aware of the havoc created by overpriced, locally grown, organic produce and humanely raised animals. Yes, but wasn’t there a “Special” visit to El Bulli in Spain in 2006, and what about the 'boutique' pig in Cleveland in 2007...
Mr. Bourdain is enamored with the ‘old school;’ in just about every episode he visits at least one 'classic' restaurant or bar, such a the Tadich Grill. He would feel right at home in the culinary world of the 1920s, 30s, or 40s, when many of these places were born, since no one talked about how things were raised, mainly because most farmers used the same methods. In that halcyon world, most fruits, vegetables, and meats were produced locally, just like they still are today in many of Mr. Bourdain’s favorite places in Europe.
As a matter of fact, in an episode this past January he visited Venice, Italy, and boated to the isle of Sant’Erasmo, describing it as: “an isolated ecosystem, unique in the world, a metaphysical mix of soil and salinity which famously produces some of the best fruits and vegetables found anywhere.” On the island he had “a near religious experience,” as he enjoyed a salad of heirloom tomatoes, freshly cut basil, olive oil, and salt - but then again, Mr. Bourdain has always been an adept food fetishizer. Living in one of the most expensive cities in Italy, and owning some of the most valuable farmland, I don’t think the farmers of Sant’Erasmo sell their produce at Costco prices.
Mr. Bourdain eventually leads us to his penultimate San Francisco meal at Incanto, where his friend Chef Chris Cosentino specializes in head-to-tail cooking. If vegetarians can’t stand meat, then obviously, they will be disturbed to the nth degree by the consumption of animal organs. One of the diners is food icon Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry, technique and history of food and cooking. I suspect that this is the reason Mr. Bourdain returns to his vegan theme with a brief monologue, but no mention is made of sanctimonious locavores. An amazing meal ensues including Deer Heart, Goose Intestines, and Calves Brains and Testicles, ingredients that aren’t easy to get even from a commercial meat supplier, but checking the Incanto website:
We take great pride in serving sustainably grown and harvested produce, meats and seafood at Incanto, because we aspire to leave the world better off for future generations and because food tastes better when its ingredients are the product of thoughtful stewardship. We are proud to support our local farmers, Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, Certified Humane…
The episode ends with Mr. Bourdain crossing the ‘t’s and dotting the ‘i’s of his oh so carefully constructed metaphors at Red’s Java House, “a state of mind, really.” It’s where a griddle of sizzling burgers and a gurgling deep fryer filled with soon-to-be chile cheese fries smells “magnificent…like a bed of roses, only different.” Who cares where this great tasting food comes from or how it was produced! With a smile he takes a bite and utters his last line: “This is the antidote to Alice Waters. Mmm, tastes like it died screaming.”
Well, I’ll tell you Mr. Bourdain; I was left wondering if you are a wannabe dharma bum, more concerned with the sound and fury of your words than their sense or significance, a jaundiced observer of the culinary times, with a perspective worthy of Fox News, or just another hipster doofus, willing to say anything at any time to gain notoriety; after all you did feel the need, or desire, to stand in as a judge on Bravo’s Culinary Gong Show - let’s see, were you subbing for Rip Taylor or Charles Nelson Riley, I forget. I guess, I’ll just keep re-reading Jim Harrison’s The Raw and The Cooked; even though most of it is decades old, his words and the images they evoke are far more satisfying.