Nearly two weeks later, my taste buds are still processing the New York Wine & Food Festival's Grand Tasting event, a rambunctious and nearly overwhelming tornado of food tasting and celebrity chef sightings. After methodically making the rounds to each of the up-and-coming restaurant's tables - stuffed to the gills and eager to take a break from the Tasting - I took a seat for the live chef demonstrations, watching cooking demonstrations by Alton Brown, Michael Symon and Morimoto - as well as an interview with Anthony Bourdain.
On such a gluttonous, indulgent occasion (the proceeds of which, ironically, go to support the Food Bank for NYC and Share Our Strength) I was hardly expecting the crowd - or the celebrity chefs - to be talking about health and nutrition. Yet the topic seemed the leitmotif of the culinary demonstrations. The crowd asked questions about salt, fats and chefs' personal health regimes. Michael Symon, a notorious pork (and pork fat) aficionado, voiced his healthful aversion to processed food: "I don't eat anything from a box, bag or can...other than canned beans and tomatoes". But the most outspoken, unexpected (and almost unintentional) health advocate was the self-professed, post-"bad boy" Anthony Bourdain.
If you like Anthony Bourdain, it's probably because you can count on him to be honest to a fault (and at the most inappropriate times). He's has gotten quite a lot of flack these days, most notably for his comment regarding Paula Deen. And since his network has been taken over by Scripps Networks Interactive, he's found himself in a bit of a tough spot. But at the NYCWFF, ironically, his "I don't give a fuck" attitude served to highlight something more meaningful than his media-inflicted "bad boy" persona. Because when it comes to obesity and the new obsession with watching food TV...well, Tony does "give a fuck".
In the full mastery of the Bourdain style, Tony told us what we already know, but had perhaps not yet considered:
- Diabetes and obesity are not funny; if it "takes 10 minutes for you to get out of your car" he doesn't think that's a laughing matter.
- The obsession with Food TV is a relatively new thing. And TV Chefs should be compared -not to professional chefs in restaurant kitchens - but to Julia Child. She encouraged people to get smarter and better, not to feel complacent about themselves (or glorify excessive use of butter, deep frying, etc. in the middle of an obesity epidemic)
- As a former restaurant chef, he feels strongly about certain things, like "how to cook a steak" and whether or not we should be able to "order a hamburger medium rare". And he's disappointed by the decisions of those [TV Chefs] who say it's "OK to buy a pre-chopped onion".
And Bourdain's straight-talkin' rolled right on through other topics, like fatherhood, food writing and the relationship between food and culture.
- His daughter is never going to see him doing jello shots out of the a stripper's belly button. "Daddy doesn't do that", it's just not going to happen.
- If you're writing about food, there's only so many adjectives you can use before you are creatively exhausted. And by eating in a lot of restaurants, your perspective on a "good meal" changes dramatically. No great food writer was ever a snob. What the NYTimes does, rotating people out after 2-3 years is smart, because once you lose your sense of "awe and wonder" you're past your food-writing prime.
- On food in second and third-world countries: "Food is important, food tells a story...about what they are eating, but also what they are not eating". It is amazing what people do "with nothing"; taking what little you have, paying attention, and putting in the time to make it delicious, "that is cooking."
- He spends a lot of time in Middle America. Rather than sneering down on people in our own country who we don't agree with, why not treat them with the same cultural interest that we give other countries? "Empathy is a good thing...Understanding your enemy is a strategically wise thing to do".
Essentially, it all came down to one central message. In the middle of a crowd of food worshipers (who had basically just engaged in a hedonistic food ritual), Bourdain was reminding us that food matters. What we eat and why we eat it matters. And not only does it matter, but it tells a story about who we are and the culture we live in.
I don't think I have to say the obvious: I have the utmost respect for Anthony Bourdain and the practical, cultural lens through which he views food. I'm sure he'd reject the word "activism" or the term "raising awareness", because frankly, he "doesn't give a fuck" and he's just trying to ride out the crazy adventure of his fame for as long as he can.
But no matter where it came from, thank you Tony - for giving enough of a fuck, if only by accident...maybe.