Eat & be merciless

by Sarah Barnett / 30 December, 2006
Travelling chef Anthony Bourdain and his acid tongue are back. But waiter, there's more. His life in the kitchen has also been turned into a sitcom.

It's one of television's small mysteries that chain-smoking chef Anthony Bourdain hasn't tarred his palate into sticky oblivion yet. Maybe the alcohol deglazes his taste-buds; maybe everything just tastes like tobacco. It could explain why he's able to stomach cobra hearts and bits of goat.

The smoking hasn't calmed him any: you could kindly call him irascible. Or, more honestly, a grumpy arse. Yet, he's mastered the art of being sympathetically heartless: very likeable personally, but a total bastard generally.

In his latest series, No Reservations, he's possibly even more irked than he was when he wrote that vegans were the "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of vegetarianism. "Look at this," he says in Quebec. "It's beautiful. One of the bases of - not just French food, but world food. And yet," he seethes, "it's under threat."

What is "this"? Caviar threatened by sturgeon overfishing? Scallops endangered by dredging? Nope. It's a tray of huge fatted duck livers. They're on their way out due to idiotic worries about animal cruelty.

At least, he justifies, it's using the whole animal, which has had a lovely life being force-fed delicious things. It's better than fast-food chains battery-farming chickens for their breasts and drumsticks.

Relativism never made so much sense. And it seems far more acceptable than just thinking foie gras is delicious.

The first episode found him in Paris, his culinary home, in order to explain "why France doesn't suck". Not so much from a political or military point of view, of course, but more because you can get unpasteurised cheese there.

The open cooking fire in a brasserie: "Illegal!" he cries. "The meat: illegal! The dog: illegal! The cheese: illegal! Basically, everything good about this place would be illegal in the States." The dog, by the way, was not on the menu, it was just visiting.

You get the feeling that under other circumstances Bourdain would view a small grey poodle with the contempt it deserves, but now it's un petit gris symbol for why the US shouldn't be francophobic.

He's at his scathing, droll, lyrical best. And the food looks divine. On January 22, Prime will screen the final episode of the first series, in which he comes to New Zealand and maybe finds out why Christchurch doesn't suck.

Over on TV3, Bourdain: The Sitcom Years has started in the form of a comedy based loosely on his tell-all book Kitchen Confidential. Understandably, but a little disappointingly, the show picks up after his druggie "wilderness years".

The verve of Bourdain's writing about drugs, if not the actual heroin, is there in a quick-fire sequence at the start of the pilot: "Jack" Bourdain has sex in the larder, sculls from the cooking grog and snorts cocaine through rigatoni before being kicked out on his (bare) bum.

Four years later, in possession of an Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous "one-year chip", he's stuck in the kitchen of an ersatz Italian bistro ("ninja pizza explosion" is on the menu), arguing that rigatoni is a "noble" pasta not to be drowned in sauce "like a kitten in a bath-tub". He's a chef, you see, and therefore a snob.

So when he's offered the chance to be head chef at Nolita, an upmarket place with no staff, no food and 300 people booked to dine in 48 hours, he leaps at it. Even his girlfriend Suze, the bistro's manager, understands. She's actually far too understanding to last in this series without being incredibly boring.

He calls on old buddies, luring them with promises of dental work and work permits. His sous chef, "kitchen wizard and master thief", is called Steven Daedalus - yes, it's a James Joyce reference. This show is that smart. Sometimes.

Jack Bourdain doesn't quite have Tony's ravaged, degenerate insouciance, but he captures the kitchen-or-bust attitude. The wait staff are "drones" or "the floor" and the kitchen is an all-male place full of fire and sharp stuff. The new guy, Jim from Utah, is hazed mercilessly to see how far they can push his language - from "jiminy" to "mother-scratcher", they discover, after torching his bottom.

The fact that you don't hear any strong language from any of the others is glossed over - this is a Fox production, not HBO. When Steven loses his fingertip, however, he practically bleeds testosterone. Everywhere.

Of course, the finger winds up in the dinner of the top critic, who is also Jack's former girlfriend; he got the chop after she found him in bed with her sister. Somehow the food still gets a rave review. You start to think that creator Darren Star has fetishised rational women.

But at least he doesn't let them stick around for long. Suze believes Jack's explanation after she catches him in the pantry sans pants with a diner who's on her hen night (it really isn't what it looks like), but he arrives home to a Dear Jack letter in which Suze announces she's leaving him. In a really understanding way. "So good luck," she writes, "and go get 'em."

Thank God she's gone. Now the sparks can fly with Nolita's manager Mimi, whose dislike for Jack is so instant and irrational that they must be heading for time in the pantry. Which, the real Tony would surely agree, certainly doesn't suck.

Diana Wichtel returns next week.

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