Every couple of weeks, I’ll dig up the truckload of memories I have from No Reservations or Parts Unknown and revisit my favourite episodes. Last week, I found a gem I didn’t remember watching as a kid. In this episode, Bourdain revisited the iconic New York Brasserie – ‘Les Halles’, where he used to work as the executive chef at one point. This was way before television stardom took him far away from the line. Not entirely satisfied with putting a very out of practice version of himself back in the kitchen for a nightmarish evening shift, he also dragged along Eric Ripert, the owner of Three Michelin starred Le Bernardin (Chef Eric, to put in context is to the world of cooking, what David Bowie is to music or what Jeff Koons is to art) The people in the restaurant were obviously flummoxed by the sight in front of them. I would be too if I walked in a restaurant and was told Eric Ripert personally fired my steak. As both of them struggled with age, Bourdain characteristically looked into the camera and acknowledged two things- 1) Returning to the kitchen was the exact nightmare he had imagined it would be 2) They were shit help. It’s the absolute honesty that everyone who binged on No Reservations or Parts Unknown had come to expect.
Left: Chef Eric Ripert
The truth is most food writers don’t know their left butt-cheek from their right. They know they ‘like the taste’ but they have no clue what happens when acid hits meat or to summarise – the actual science behind why dishes taste good or bad. They have no idea what it means to eat a certain dish, the class it has developed from, for example – the millions of people who were so oppressed by the rich before they had no option to use the cheapest cuts to make a dish that’s become iconic over time. They start writing about food because they can afford expensive meals at restaurants others aren’t privileged enough to go to and create an illusion of insight. It’s so easy to befuddle a reader with an above average grasp of a language and no real critical insight. Bourdain to me was the first real deal. He worked and failed and reworked himself silly in kitchens for two decades before he started writing and talking about food. He actually spoke the language of the kitchen. When he went over to a city and broke the food down, he carried himself with the humility. Not once do I remember him acting like the legions of white talk show hosts who make it seem like they’ve tamed and made a region accessible to the west. Over a day of reading about people’s lasting thoughts of him I know that several others like me too wished he’d come and visit their hometowns. He seemed like the kind of a guy who you could feed the misal you eat, without alterations. Someone who wouldn’t say ‘That’s a little spicy for me’ or ‘Ugh. That’s like unhygienic’. One of my favourite lines of his about Indian food was ‘It’s spicy but it won’t kill you’, and he ate just like the rest of us do.
The first article: This piece would go on to change the face of food journalism and make Bourdain’s career – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1999/04/19/dont-eat-before-reading-this
Bourdain’s refusal to keep politics out of a food show is what makes him such a titan. He recognised how inseparable they are. His work was politically charged because he understood what an absolute privilege it is to have a voice that’s heard by millions. His voice was loud and unfaltering whether it came to talking about Gaza, about Kissinger, about Harvey Weinstein and countless issues. Every show, whether it’s Chef’s Table or Ugly Delicious is a direct inspiration from the base he set. Simply talking about loving food can never be enough. Viewers deserve better.
I hated Mumbai when I got here half a decade back. I was staying in a shithole. The only way I realised I’d get myself to embrace the city a little was with food. I’d plan entire days around it. I marked the city out with restaurants I needed to get my ass to. You know the drill – you travel two hours to eat a oil well of a salli boti because three people guarantee it’s ‘the best thing ever’. It’s mostly still an oil well with floating hunks of meat in even when you do eat it but by then you’re so hungry you truly believe it’s amazing.
Food kept and keeps me truly happy in Mumbai. I owe everything I know about the city to it because it’s literally the only thing that gave me incentive to see and slowly love the place for what it is. Whether that’s screaming through a line of seventy people to eat the first batch of dosas at Cafe Madras, personally wrestling away servers at Thaker’s to insist you cannot and will not eat more servings of their thali just to keep them satisfied, sitting on the pot for an entire day after overdosing on calamari at Deluxe or having the rude as hell servers at Aaswad break into a rare smile and place a sabudana wada on your table without you asking for it, actually being rendered speechless; overwhelmed after eating at the Bombay Canteen…the warmest moments I’ve had in the past half a decade have been around food. It’s helped me come to terms with enjoying being alone and learning so much about who the people around you are with every single bite you eat.
Bourdain is the solitary reason why I want to write and document food and he’s the sole reason why I will not do it. I won’t offer my expertise on a subject till I know it inside out. I refuse to be a part of a culture that encourages experts who have no idea what goes into the creation of a product. I
Over the past year we’ve seen so many of our idols fall prey to their own problematic behavior. I feel no remorse for them. Fuck Louis CK, fuck Woody Allen, fuck Mario Batali and Morgan Freeman and every other person we’ve admired at one point. They don’t deserve pity or sympathy. Their work in my opinion deserves to whither. Which is what makes this particular loss hard. In Bourdain, we lose an a man who checked his privilege, corrected his faults with time and stood for what was right. His legacy stands beyond food. I don’t believe in an afterlife but for once, I really wish I did. The world would have come to stand-still to make sure to ensure he had a perfect final meal in the afterlife before moving on.
I always think of the film Ratatouille when it comes to anything about food. It was such a strange alchemy, the way Remy the rat and Anton the critic complete each other. I think of Anton’s speech at the end all the time, it’s a beautiful examination of the job of criticism (In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.)
In Bourdain, we find the yin and yang of both, Remy and Anton – creator and critic. It’s going to be incredibly hard to find a replacement and in an unexplainable way, I hope we never do.