My Beef with Bourdain

Sneering at pain and poison part of his punk schtick?


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. While I’d much rather have a beer with him than with Rachael Ray, I’ve come to see him as a sinister force for corporate culinary conservatism. 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. With a devil-may-care attitude, Bourdain’s one motivation is pleasure at any price—human, environmental or moral.

The conceit of the San Francisco episode was that he was traveling behind enemy lines where anyone who doesn’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 he develops the proper reverence for sustainable agriculture and Slow Food.

But as Bourdain sampled the 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, he 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, he admits he loves the city. “San Francisco, underneath a gossamer-thin veneer of granola, is, in fact, a two-fisted drinking town, a place of oversized martinis, silver zeppelins overloaded with bleeding slabs of meat, restaurants you could call ‘institutions’ that defiantly refuse to suck, and in an ever tidier, cleaner, Disneyfied world—where even New York’s Times Square looks like a theme park—is still a delightfully nasty, dirty, beautiful, carnivorous, vice-filled town.”

I’m with you there, Tony. And I share your disdain for sanctimony 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 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 trepidation about Frisco 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 makes him punk rock and a culinary outsider. 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, corporate and predictable.

In the scene of the San Francisco episode where he’s chowing down on a cheeseburger at Red’s Java House, he wonders why anyone would care where their beef came from and whether it was grass-fed or organically raised. “It tastes like it died screaming,” he says with glee as he digs into his dripping burger.

Why celebrate an animal dying in pain? Why is that preferable to treating animals and food in general with respect? Is it rebellious to support a government-subsidized agricultural industry that is hastening global warming with its reliance on oil- and carbon-belching transcontinental shipping? Is it punk rock to cheer the products of cruel factory farms that treat workers almost as poorly as the animals they warehouse before the slaughter? What’s so cool about a food system that contributes to human and environmental misery? I can imagine agribusiness execs cheering Bourdain on as he pillories those who seek an alternative to industrial food that is delicious, green and humane.

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 old order. He poses no threat to industrial agriculture. He’s a dream for the likes of Cargill, Monsanto, ConAgra and other agribusiness heavies who are under pressure to clean up their act. And that’s what makes him dangerous. He offers conformity cloaked in a leather jacket.

For me, what’s revealing about eating in and around the Bay Area isn’t that the anti–foie gras forces co-exist with old-school odes to meat like the House of Prime Rib, but that doing the right thing for the environment, for animals and for farmworkers, also happens to be the delicious thing, too. Food treated with respect and made by people treated with respect just tastes better.

Maybe you can come back and take another look, Tony. What do you say?

Stett Holbrook is the food editor for the ‘Metro Silicon Valley.’ Follow him at

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