March 15, 2011
Television is littered with lousy food shows. I know I risk sounding like some grumpy old coot wondering whatever happened to Jack Paar, but I do wonder what the spirit of the great Julia Child would make of the utter mediocrity, the sheer lack of aspiration, the game show approach and personality-driven fluff that has become the norm in food TV.
Thank God for Anthony Bourdain.
Writer/chef Bourdain is the host of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. It’s not a traditional cooking or food show, but rather Bourdain’s essayistic take on food and culture around the world. In each episode, Bourdain travels to a new location and finds the people, conflicts and foods that most inspire and intrigue him. He has filmed episodes in almost every important and fascinating food location in the world, with one glaring exception: Israel.
Tony, it’s time.
“No Reservations” is a critical and commercial success. The show has won Emmys, millions of people have tuned in to watch it, and it has more than 1,047,000 Facebook friends. Bourdain, already a best-selling author beginning with “Kitchen Confidential,” has become a cultural icon.
I think that’s because people have come to understand that food is not just intricately tied to eating, but also to culture, politics and spirituality; to the health of our bodies as well as to the health of our planet. You won’t learn how to make fresh pasta watching Bourdain, but you will learn what fresh pasta means in the communities that have raised it to an art form. Come for the food, stay for the revelation.
In his eighth season opener last month, Bourdain visited post-earthquake Haiti. He ate some gnarly-looking chicken stew in a makeshift restaurant, then decided to buy out the inventory and distribute it for free to the hungry people nearby. A riot ensued. It was a painful illustration of how tragedy and hardship can easily break the bonds that food ordinarily cements. Bourdain’s predilection is for stories others might leave behind, or for the unsavory, the offal of food television (not surprisingly, he prefers meals that include giblets, guts and glands).
The most dramatic Bourdain episode took place in Beirut in July 2006. He and his four-person crew arrived to do a story on the rebirth of the Lebanese capital as a travel and food destination. They enjoyed a great traditional meal of mezze and lamb … and then all hell broke loose.
Soon after Bourdain arrived, Israel invaded Lebanon in what has become known as the Second Lebanon War, an attempt to punish and subdue Hezbollah after a series of cross-border attacks. One moment Bourdain is looking forward to lamb-innard kebabs and tabouli, the next he is bivouacked in his luxury hotel watching Israeli bombs rain down on Hezbollah positions. In an attempt to stop captured Israeli soldiers from being spirited out of the country, or arms from being smuggled in, Israel destroyed the Beirut airport. That left an increasingly edgy Bourdain waiting for an eventual evacuation via water.
If anyone could make the transition from sybaritic, world-weary chef to seasoned war correspondent, Bourdain could.
He reported on the grim toll he saw the battle take on the Lebanese he knew, as well as on the nerves of the Americans and other tourists witnessing the shock-and-awe up close. It would have been easy for him to lapse into an anti-Israel narrative — after all, Israeli rockets had destroyed his exit route. But during the show and in interviews afterwards, Bourdain kept his balance.
Here is what he told The Washington Post just after the experience: “As it happened, I was standing with a Sunni, Shiite and a Christian when Hezbollah supporters started to fire automatic weapons in the air celebrating the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers. As a few supporters drove by, the three people I was with all instantaneously took on a look of shame and embarrassment as if a dangerous and unstable little brother had once again brought the whole family into peril.”
Bourdain returned to Beirut last year to see how the city has recovered. He found the food was as good as ever, the city had bounced back, and Hezbollah had become more powerful than in 2006.
“If anything,” he told CNN, “they seem to be the beneficiaries of the conflict.”
One place Bourdain hasn’t been in the Middle East since 2006, or ever, is Israel. He did an episode in Dubai, in which he focused on the plight of the maltreated, deracinated imported laborers, and in Saudi Arabia, where he humanized a culture that exists mostly in monochromatic stereotype, while falling short of giving it a ringing endorsement.
But why not Israel? The comments section of Bourdain-related blogs is peppered with unanswered pleas for an Israel episode.
The country has undergone a food revolution; it is, and has long been, at the crossroads of Middle Eastern cuisine. Israel is home to great chefs, innovative producers, and there’s no lack of moving stories. If you want to examine how food and culture interact, Israel is one of the world’s perfect laboratories.
I assumed Bourdain was keeping his distance out of pique. With a bit of bad luck, he could have been killed in 2006 courtesy of the Israelis. I e-mailed Diane Schutz, the show’s producer, at Zero Point Zero Productions and asked flat out, “Will Tony go to Israel?”
I expected no answer. But very quickly, by return e-mail, came a yes. Yes, she e-mailed me, it is something they are very much interested in. Not this season, which is in the can, but soon.
Now that will be a food show. Stay tuned.