When Anthony Bourdain rose to fame in the early aughts, the celebrity-chef-industrial-complex was reaching its most bloated moment. Food Network stars like Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, and Emeril Lagasse were seemingly everywhere at once, using their very familiar faces to launch countless restaurants, with which they had varying degrees of actual connection. Bourdain was different. Sure, he had been a chef, but a chef-for-hire, and not always a successful one. He wrote his famous first piece in the New Yorker in 1999, after closing one flopped fine-dining restaurant and taking a more modest executive chef gig at Brasserie Les Halles.
Between the New Yorker piece and his tell-all book Kitchen Confidential the next year, Bourdain was a celebrity and a chef, but somehow different from the other celebrity chefs. Audiences loved the rock-‘n-roll language and kiss-and-tell nuggets of his writing. Never order fish on Monday, since it’s bound to be old. Only suckers eat their steaks well done, since chefs, he claimed, saved the worst cuts for them: “People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service for those of us in the business who are cost-conscious: they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage.” But for me, what Kitchen Confidential really captured was the unrelenting work, the emotional highs and the camaraderie, that made working in the kitchen so compelling. Above all, it recognized something that at the time felt surprisingly new: that restaurants are not the product of a single chef.
“Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional,” he wrote. “We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.” It was a darkly romantic vision (one that, for me, often thrilled too much in shock-the-squares mode), but it acknowledged that cooking was a team sport, which didn’t really gibe with the celebrity chef-as-genius-impresario moment. In his world, meals were wrestled to life by a whole crew of unruly characters.
The celebrity chefs on the Food Network before Bourdain had been largely cut off at the waist, anchored behind their colorful show-kitchen counters: they were the sole fount of knowledge and the object of audience admiration. Meals seemed to emerge straight from their expert hands, all within the half-hour format. In the early days of the Food Network, Batali rose to fame antically explaining Italian cuisine while cooking for an audience of three; even when he took the show on the road in Mario Eats Italy, the center of attention was still his own hyper narration and goofing around. Emeril cooked for an admiring live audience on Emeril Live. By 2005, Batali and Bobby Flay were posturing like pro wrestlers on Iron Chef America, the competition show where they were positioned (admittedly with some irony) as towers of cooking knowledge.
Bourdain, meanwhile, busted loose on TV first with A Cook’s Tour, then with No Reservations, and finally with his CNN show, Parts Unknown. By valuing street food, improvised meals, and home cooking on the same plane as extraordinary restaurant meals, he helped viewers recognize that great dining didn’t need status signifiers. Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri would soon build their own brands on showing audiences how to enjoy lower-brow meals, too, but Bourdain always seemed to absorb more of the world around him: the lives and personalities of the people making the food, the clash of cultural histories. Even the sounds: he chose microphones that picked up more street noise than typical mics would.
Bourdain understood that a huge part of what was interesting in the dining world was not going on in fine restaurants. In No Reservations, he sought food and conversation in all sorts of previously undersung places, whether eating tripe sandwiches in Sicily, at Singapore’s famous hawker center food courts, or at a New Jersey hot dog fryery. Overall he helped propel a key shift in American dining culture: the great casualization of American restaurants, which is still ongoing today.
Ambitious young chefs ran with the idea that Bourdain popularized: diners didn’t need a whole evening’s worth of comfort and tending, they just needed extraordinary food with a story. David Chang’s Momofuku and Roy Choi’s food truck Kogi emerged as style-setters for young chefs across the country. Pop-ups became a standard workshop for new restaurants. Restaurants could look like rock clubs (and be as hard to converse in), as long as they provided big flavors. Bourdain wasn’t the only reason for this shift; the economics of restaurants in big cities mean that staffing a full-service restaurant is an almost impossible mission. Social media favors dining moments—the cross section of the jianbing, the laksa noodle pull—over a discursive restaurant review. And of course the innovating chefs themselves deserve credit.
But it’s still hard to not to feel like Bourdain is partly the reason why this new generation of chefs is so collaborative and outward-looking. Chang’s now-shuttered Lucky Peach magazine dove deep into issues like the stress of restaurant work and the toll it takes on chefs. Choi has worked to bring healthier food to underserved urban communities. Mission Chinese’s Angela Dimayuga has talked very openly about the need to address overwork in the restaurant world. Bourdain was the first to show that the coolest celebrity chefs don’t profess mastery. They’re always ready to learn from the world outside the restaurant door.
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