How Anthony Bourdain is Fueling the Rise of Pretension in Cooking

A few months ago I read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”, the book that transformed him into a celebrity chef. Though I had never actually watched a full episode of one of his shows, I had heard a lot about him and had seen enough bits and pieces of his show to know that it involves him travelling around the world and eating all kinds of things that I get nauseous just thinking about.

Usually when I read a book I either like it or don’t like it, but I found that I loved certain parts of the book and hated others. The parts that I found very interesting were the first hand, behind the scenes accounts of what is involved with running a restaurant and the stories of the characters he had come across in his years in the food business. What I hated was the contempt that Bourdain seemed to have towards so many of his customers. He repeatedly uses the word “rubes” to describe customers, and seems to look down on anyone who orders the special, goes to Sunday brunch, dines on the wrong day of the week, or god forbid, likes their steak well done.

While I found it informative when he talked about why many restaurants fail, I didn’t feel it necessary for him to use up half the pages in the book with a seemingly endless series of detailed examples of how so many of the restaurants he had been involved with had failed. It almost seemed like his was reveling in the failures of these restaurants.

The most striking thing about the book, knowing what I know about Anthony Bourdain the TV star, is how he talks about how he wouldn’t order the special or eat at the Sunday buffet because restaurants use both to get rid of not quite so fresh food. This is the same guy who in recent years has been filmed eating live warthog rectums. It is not clear whether he at the rectum on a Thursday evening or if it was a Monday special.

For the purposes of full disclosure I will admit that for someone interested in food and cooking I am a relatively picky eater. I don’t eat shellfish. I look at eating lamb the way others look at eating dog. For me, cooking is about making eating as enjoyable as possible. I am more adventurous than some meat and potatoes people I know, but less adventurous than others. That is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. I believe that people should eat dishes that are (more or less) healthy and that they enjoy. Cooking should be about you, not about how you appear to others.

For me, Anthony Bourdain symbolizes how pretension has infiltrated the world of cooking. For far too many people, cooking and dining has become a game of one-upmanship. Cooking is no longer just about preparing food, but about proving how sophisticated you are. When he is not busy traveling the world, Bourdain spends his time feuding with pretty much every celebrity chef on the planet.

Pretty much the only chef that Bourdain has not criticized is Julia Child, but had she been alive today I am sure he would have found some fault with her. I should point out that some of his criticisms are both creative and hilarious, such as wishing he could travel back and time and bully Jamie Oliver, but they are still part of the overall problem of viewing cooking as some sort of competition. Cooking is not about image or competition; it is about the enjoyment of food. It is ok to order the special. It is ok if you like your steak well done.