Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Bourdain’

Food on Film, Documentary and Television.

July 15, 2017

 

 

TV Review: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

(Food and Travel)

8/10 Stars

By Andrew Johnstone

There are three constants that define the process of being alive and living: survival, reproduction and nourishment. The first two are not possible without the last, the method by which living organisms obtain the energy that fuels the machinery of existence from the biosphere This energy is extracted from the light of the sun, from the mineral substance of the planet and from the gaseous chemicals of the atmosphere and passed about between species about in a vast cycle that feeds billions in a bewildering variety of ways and means.

In the human species, energy extraction is an impulse that has transcended the base process of survival and has morphed into an art so profound and fundamental to the human experience that we cannot be properly examined without reference to the food we grow, prepare and eat which perhaps explains the popularity of television food shows.

This genre offers a bewildering variety of options but of them all, one shines like no other. The host is Anthony Bourdain and the show is called Parts Unknown.

 

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013 -)

Anthony Bourdain (Born 1956) is acerbic, ironic, informed and opinionated and he has a unique take on food and its centrality to the human experience. A former professional chef and author of the groundbreaking expose of life in the restaurant kitchen, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) Bourdain has progressed into television and has made four shows: A Cooks Tour (2002-3), No Reservations (2005-12), The Layover (2011-13) and Parts Unknown (2013-).

Music, art politics and history are all part of the Bourdain formula and as for the food, he lsays little more than a “mmm, that’s good” as he tackles everything from ‘baby beaver in blood gravy’ to nasty looking NY street food. He loves mystery meat. “If it does not have the potential to give you the shits it isn’t worth it,” he explains to the camera.

In an age when American has turned inward and closed itself to social equitability and new experience, Bourdain (refreshingly) is a strident and unrepentant American Socialist and his cause is equality and inclusivity. He has seen too much of Britain, The EU and Scandinavia to be taken in by the self-serving economic truths espoused by Conservative America.

While he acknowledges America’s faults, he never forgets that America is more than shouty Christian Republications with guns. Mostly this is a people of good countenance seeking the best from life and each other. He also loves American food – street food, fast food, fine dining, BBQ ……all of it and the rest.

 

Season 5 Episode 5 Madagascar.

He explores that mysterious Island off the lower East Coast of Africa with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan – 2010) and finds a unique biosphere teetering. Bourdain never says much when doing the face to face (he says what he wants to say in voiceovers). Mostly he just prompts people along and they talk and tales of corruption, exploitation, over population, poverty and lawlessness spill out explaining the conditions that have led to the environmental shambles that is modern Madagascar. Regardless, he finds people of good heart with hope in the future as well as a ton of spicy meat laden food.

 

The thing that sets Bourdain apart from all his peers is his unwavering dedication to reality. An unapologetic carnivore, he never flinches from the hard truth of meat and the camera never turns away from a creature being slaughtered (he often participates) lifting the veil on an unappealing aspect of food.

For all his liberalism he does not get vegetarianism and has no time at all for hipsters and food Nazi’s. Opinionated yes, fanatical about it…..no. He mocks others, he mock himself. In the Bronx a guy on the street says “Hey, ain’t you that Anthony Bourdain?” Bourdain, “Nah, I wish I had his money!” Guy, “Yeah, that prick – fuck him”.

He is honest and straightforward and he is not afraid to reflect on his years as a heroin addict, He knocks back the booze like he’s on a mission and one time in Amsterdam he gets high as fuck and raves about his CNN contract. In Season 4 Episode 7 Massachusetts, he explains his proclivities while reflecting on that nations Pharmaceutical opioid crisis. This is a ‘hard’ episode that still manages to serve up some pretty tasty looking local food. Go figure.

 

Season 9 Episode 7 Oman.

He reveals Oman to be a moderately liberal Muslim society governed by an enlightened Sheik. The people practice a mild form of Islam, which prompts Bourdain to remind us that like Christianity “Islam is not a monolith”. Woman have broad rights and are championed by a progressive leader but later out on the edge of the desert while eating and dancing with Bedouin men we are given a surreptitious glimpse of a heavily veiled woman standing far in the background and off to the side. Bourdain can be as subtle as he can cynical and opinionated.

Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan (QOTSA) wrote and recorded the shows raucous opening anthem. As artfully grunge as the man himself, it sets an appropriate tone. This is a sharp production with a decent budget and there is emphasis on lighting and composition, editing and research…. stuff like that. In one episode, it may have been Philadelphia, he is not in a good mood and gets drunk while waiting out the interminable time between setting a scene and filming it. “Those fucking lighting guys and sound guys and camera guys….. it goes fucking on and on,” but he has way too much conscience to let himself behave too badly or take it too far.

 

Season 3 Episode 6 Russia.

Bourdain shares tasty looking Russian food and alcohol with some interesting locals who are not as jaded as you imagine Russians could be. It’s his outright disdain for Putin that makes this episode so compelling.

Season 9 Episode 2 Los Angeles.

Trump is now president and Bourdain talks to Latino Americans about food and not being white. Acknowledging that undocumented workers “do the work most of us don’t want to do” Bourdain is unforgiving in his disdain for Trump. He finishes up with this: “Dear Mr President, Muslim Americans pay more taxes than you do”.

He has another go at Trump while in Antarctica, Season 9 Episode 6. What he finds at McMurdo is a community dedicated to scientific endeavour and co-operative egalitarianism, and in an age where science is being undermined and money counts more than community, this is all a big beautiful breath of bullshit free air.

 

They eat a lot of meat in Argentina and the people of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (the birthplace of wine) are fighting to sustain a modern progressive democratic culture. Nashville was a musical eye opener and Quebec came across as odd. Sichuan Ethiopia Borneo were among the most compelling episodes ….. oh and his chef/guide in Sicily, he who goes out to catch the seafood for the meal he is about to cook. Well it goes that Bourdain’s crew catch the guy dropping market bought fish and octopus into the sea and then diving in and retrieving it while proclaiming to one and all the natural abundance (these waters are long fished out). Bourdain rolls his eyes and spends the rest of the episode avoiding him as much as possible.

Bourdain’s Dogma is thus: “To eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice. Over a meal they open up to you in ways that somebody who is driven by a story may not get.”

 

 

 

Rick Stein’s Long Weekends (2016)

English celebrity chef and mega wealthy restaurant mogul Rick Stein is in many ways Bourdain’s opposite. While they both travel and eat, Stein is all about food and nice scenes. Stein avoids political commentary and has little of interest to say outside of a few pedestrian observations. Nice light entertainment that’ll easily fill out an evening. If you like there is more, lots more. The Rick Stein food franchise is mega. This series is all about easily reached but slightly ‘off the radar’ European weekend destinations. Bugger about Brexit.

 

 

Nigella Lawson.

Everything in Nigella’s world is sensuous and sexy and eating seems to be her fetish. She can be informative, occasionally entertaining but mostly she is just strangely fascinating (for the reasons I have noted). She is not a chef, “just someone who cooks and eats for pleasure”. Lately she has been doing a lot of Reality TV, cooking contests, that kind of thing. Sometimes she sounds like a character Enid Blyton might have written, mostly she is entertaining, knowledgeable and pleasantly unique.

 

River Cottage (1999-2015)

If Anthony Bourdain is Rock and Roll and Rick Stein is AOR Pop then Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage) is Morris Dancing. Gentle, rural and resourceful, Hugh is a Jamie Oliver like figure for the allotment set. A bit dull.

River Cottage is a brand used for a number of ventures by television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. These include a long running television series, cookery courses, events, restaurants and products such as beer and yogurt – Wikipedia

 

 

Cooked (2016)

Food writer and philosopher Michael Pollan examines food from the most primal perspective in his Netflix series Cooked. This 4 part series explores in order: Fire, Water, Air and Earth and the relationship of these elements to food.

The broad conclusion of the series is that the evolution of our energy hungry brain has been aided by ever more efficient methods of extracting nutrients from the environment. So far so good but in the end Pollan, is like his conclusions, is pedestrian. Still worth a look but.

 

Chef’s Table (2015- )

Chefs Table is documentary series that explores the lives of notable Chef’s. It tackles muse and philosophical motivation as well as ingredients and technique. This series is challenging and perhaps a little overblown – this last statement depends on how prepared you are to accept the Chef as an artist worthy of deep analysis. Many of these chefs are thoughtful people. Some a little mad, one or two crazy. Just like most ‘artistic’ professions. Made by the guy who bought us the acclaimed ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ (imagine Studio Ghibli as food documentary). Pretty good overall.

 

 

Food Films:

City of Gold (2016)

Jonathon Gold is a journalist who fell into food writing when he grew bored with his job as a sub-editor at the L.A Times. He decided to review every food joint on a particular strip in L.A. His project turned heads and later he become the first food journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize.

At ease with food trucks and haute cuisine both, Gold is a trained musician, successful writer and cultural philosopher. He is an assiduous researcher and a fountain of information. We go about with Gold in his pickup truck as he seeks out opportunity for his prodigious appetite, “They have good chilli fries”, “that place has good Korean”, “over there is the best Ethiopian,” and so it goes. He seems to have eaten everywhere and the mind boggles at the scope of his ambition.

Later the film weighs up Gold’s food writing against food review sites like Zomato (where “amazing” seems to be standard – the filmmakers) and we get some insight into what it takes to be a vocational food critic of integrity. Gold can make or break a business and understanding the responsibilities he goes about his work with diligence, sometimes visiting a restaurant 17 times before writing his review. Very satisfying.

 

 

The Search For General Tso (2014) and Deli Man (2105).

‘General Tso’s Chicken’ is one of the most popular dishes in America, possibly second only to pizza, and this documentary sets out to discover the story behind the dish and in doing the doing reveals something of the Chinese/American experience and the evolution of the ubiquitous suburban Chinese Restaurant.

 

Deli Man is strikingly similar to General Tso’s Chicken except the subject matter is Jewish American food culture. At one time the American food landscape was defined by tens of thousands of Chinese Restaurants and Jewish Deli’s. Unlike the ubiquitous Chinese Restaurant the Deli is in decline but there are those dedicated to maintaining the tradition of this culturally significant food style. Cue Ziggy.

A third generation deli owner and trained Chef, he has made a name for himself as the torchbearer for traditional Jewish American Deli food. A man of outsize personality his insights are compelling as his big heart.

Besides the chicken itself, General Tso’s Chicken explains the famous Jewish love affair with the Chinese restaurant and Deli Man responds by explaining about the Jewish Chinese relationship, one forged from their mutual experience as social outsiders. As for General Tso himself, he is an historic provincial hero whose name is attached to many things as an honorarium and the reaction of locals to this American Chinese food innovation is as startling and hilarious. “Did General Tso love chicken? We don’t know the answer to that question”.

 

 

A Film About Coffee (2014).

Coffee is a mildly ‘consciousness altering’ beverage that turns the effort of waking into an anticipatory experience and this documentary seeks to be a hip and poetic exposition on the beverage from farm to cup. The story of America’s ‘small’ coffee industry contribution to rising incomes for growers in the third world is probably the most useful part. A bit wank at times but at least the kids care.

 

 

Soul Kitchen (2009, Directed by Faith Akin)

Drama, Comedy

Zinos is the owner of a shabby backstreet restaurant in Hamburg. He is behind on his taxes and his life is a shambles. Things get crazy when he decides to make sort things. In short, the Germans are crazy and Soul Kitchen is a lot of fun. The German Trailer is much better than the American one:

 

 

 

Babette’s Feast (1987, Directed by Gabriel Axel)

Drama/Morality Fable

A refugee from the French Revolution, aristocrat Babette finds herself in Denmark and cooking for a pious Danish family and their congregation. Many years later she wins a lottery and rather than return to her old life in Paris, she decides to spend the money cooking her community a feast born of appreciation. If you need a little unaffected beauty without the schmaltz factor, this is your film.

 

 

 

The Lunchbox (2013, Directed by Ritesh Batra)

Romantic Drama

Everyday, wife prepares loving lunch for indifferent husband. One day the Dabbawala (Mumbai style Lunch delivery specialist) delivers the food to the wrong man. The food keeps coming, he writes her notes of appreciation and back and forward it goes. A friendship develops and …… well, you’ll see. A delightful film about love, longing, flavour and appreciation – You won’t find a more perfect meal anywhere.

 

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