I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain. His show “No Reservations” is one of a handful of TV programs that are worth watching. What is it that many of us find so compelling about him? For one thing he is doing exactly what we would like to do: traveling, eating and drinking from one exciting, exotic locale to another, discovering the undiscovered, and passing judgment in his profane, obnoxious and insightful way. Conventional wisdom says that popularity comes by being inoffensive and obsequious, but Bourdain defies this directive with his sharply tongued diatribes against those with whom he disagrees. For instance, his distaste of vegetarians, especially the vegan tribe, is legendary and he regularly berates them with scorn and derision.
So how does a former line cook and middling chef, who most definitely does not try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, turn into a bona fide celebrity who can command upwards of $150.00 a pop just to hear him talk? His personal history certainly is not one that would typically lead to the kind of success he is currently enjoying. By his own accounts, he lived a doomed life full of mistakes, shunning the obvious road to success and stumbling down his own lesser-traveled path of mediocrity and squalor. He is a former cocaine and heroin addict who sometimes sold his cherished records on the streets for drug money. His enormous appetite for self-destruction was equaled by a towering arrogance; his mother exclaimed on camera that she loved him but did not like him very much at times. He is evidently a born rebel, and like other dark heroes—Keith Richards comes to mind—is one of those case studies in doing the wrong things and coming out right in the end.
He achieved initial success in a most unlikely way: He wrote a book called “Kitchen Confidential” that is partly a memoir and partly an expose of what might be happening in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant—if it were run by a punk who worships at the altar of Iggy Pop and The Ramones. By what can only be categorized as a stroke of luck on par with winning the lottery, “Kitchen Confidential” became a bestseller and made him a star. A publisher saw an email he wrote to a friend and was so impressed that she wanted to know more about him. The rest, as they say, is history. Bourdain himself was completely stunned by his good fortune. He had very modest ambitions for his book and figured himself to be a lifer in the kitchen. However, one thing led to another, and a show on the Food Channel eventually led to his current series “No Reservations” and made him a star, wealthy and famous beyond his wildest dreams.
There is something about his popularity that restores my faith in humanity, particularly our own American culture that so frequently elevates the unworthy to such exalted levels. Occasionally, we do give success to some worthy talent. I think of Bourdain in a direct lineage populated with people like Henry Miller, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, three cult icons that flayed at the base of hypocrisy and ignorance. Like them, Bourdain is a divisive figure, as reviled as he is admired. Being reviled, however, is obviously not a hindrance to success.
In my opinion, he is deserving of his celebrity status, but he also was very lucky. Not only did he happen to get noticed by the right person, he also got noticed at the right time, just as our food culture exploded into enormous popularity. Cable channels are flooded with celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and glutton shows like Adam Richman’s “Man V. Food,” so it would appear that Tony happened to catch the wave and has managed to stay on his feet by telling the truth as he sees it. He is not ingratiating, and that is precisely what many of us find so compelling. Sometimes we have to trust those who are not trying to please us.