Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bourdain in Context

In an upcoming article for the journal Gastronomica, Krishnendu Ray of NYU examines the role of American FoodTV in bringing "cuisine" -as distinct from home cooking-to an ever larger audience of American consumer. Dr. Ray, a sociologist and former Associate Dean for Curriculum Development at The Culinary Institute of America, also takes-on the notion that watching someone cook something for it's entertainment value alone is inherently pornographic (as in "food-porn") while watching with the expectation that you will do it yourself is something else.

But the bulk of Dr. Ray's essay is devoted to an analysis of the nature of the types of shows and characters we find on FoodTV which, he says [my paraphrase] fall along a continuum with at least two poles: domesticity (e.g. Sandra Dee) and anti-domesticity. Of the latter type Ray cites Anthony Bourdain as an example -and I think does the chef a real solid- in the closing lines of the essay with a discussion of his affect and significance. What follows is excerpted from the closing pages of Domesticating Cuisine: Food and Aesthetics on American Television, by Krishnendu Ray in Gastronomica (Winter 2007).

His [Bourdain's] writing is not only a retort to Juliaesque domesticity but also a mirror image of the somber masculinity of the “professional chef,” played with swagger and sardonic irony. His act is as much a caricature of masculinity as is Emeril’s. Bourdain’s conceit is a modernist celebration of the bad boy, a rock star mocking himself. As one of the more thoughtful students at the Culinary Institute of America, Christopher Fotta, puts it:

“Anthony Bourdain’s book [Kitchen Confidential] is the antidote to the CIA. In fact it is almost anti-everything that we are taught here. It is the opposite of the code of professionalism that is drilled into our psyche from the first time we set foot on campus. It highlights a subculture in the cooking industry that is seldom discussed in our sacred Roth Hall. It is the world of machismo, locker-room minded, substance-abused, foul-mouthed cooks that steal anything they can and screw every available waitress in the dry storage area. This is the entry-level, humble beginnings of our glorious profession….I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment that “the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit.”

[Bourdain] shreds the aura around professional cooking, which appropriates a different posture—a proper, upwardly mobile, gentlemanly ethos—in contrast to his affinity for working class masculinity. Both scripts are far from Julia’s, but the blue-collar foul-mouthed screed is the more extreme counterpoint both in terms of class and gender. Bourdain predictably appropriates it, but his attitude is not born of the class he hopes to mimic, which is evident from his literary self-confidence. He writes:

Generally speaking, American cooks—meaning, born in the USA, possibly school-trained, culinarily sophisticated types who know before you show them what monter au beurre means and how to make a bĂ©arnaise sauce—are a lazy, undisciplined and, worst of all, high-maintenance lot, annoyingly opinionated, possessed of egos requiring constant stroking and tune-ups, and, as members of a privileged and wealthy population, unused to the kind of “disrespect” a busy chef is inclined to dish out.

Bourdain can even slip into some class and race sentimentality when he writes that “the Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadorian cooks I’ve worked with over the years make most cia-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks.” That from a Vassar-educated and cia-trained white boy!

Bourdain’s language here exquisitely mimics the rhetoric of journeymen printers at the end of the nineteenth century who, with the introduction of the Linotype and the birth of publishing corporations, felt a serious threat to their working-class masculinity. It is at this time that “male printers expressed even greater concern and antagonism toward boys than toward women who worked in the industry.”

With Bourdain we see the other face of TV cooking, the gesture of denial against domesticity and upwardly mobile gentlemen-boys tied to the apron strings of well-bred women, which is the world Julia came to occupy. The most popular shows—Emeril Live, Rachael Ray, and Iron Chef—are basically contra-Julia, post -domestic shows, reactions against the hegemonic model of The French Chef. They strike a chord because, ever since Julia, we have been stuck in the TV kitchen and put in a dress. That is why Bourdain wrote, in Kitchen Confidential, that he wouldn't be caught dead on the Food Network. Of course, even the best of us are eventually domesticated. In fact Bourdain's discovery of foreign food in The Cook's Tour is another iteration of domestic cuisine, albeit in opposition. Bourdain brings us back to the chase -the ethos of movies -with which I began this essay- this time in pursuit of authentic, exotic fare, by ranging widely across the globe, yet he does so by keeping us glued to the home entertainment center allowing us to appreciate anew the dialectic between the home and the world and the role of the man within it.

Cross-posted at Michael Ruhlman's blog.