A Crowded Table
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Being a chef--which often requires the ability to complete precise and complex tasks with lightning precision while battling sleep deprivation and/or substance abuse--is not for everyone. Author and executive chef Anthony Bourdain has made a career gleefully explaining why. There are better cooks (Bourdain is the first to admit to that), and different takes on the chef's fraternity (Mark Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef take a more analytical, but equally compelling approach), but few combine the two subjects as vividly as Bourdain. Perhaps best known for "Don't Eat Before Reading This," a 1999 New Yorker essay which scared many restaurant patrons away from ordering fish on Monday, Bourdain parlayed that essay into 2000's notorious Kitchen Confidential. Mythologizing and deprecating the camaraderie of the commercial kitchen in equal parts, Bourdain combined an aging punker's cynicism and a teenage boy's adventurous romanticism to chronicle his exploits manning the burners.
This, along with Bourdain's raspy voice and five o' clock shadow, translated to the tube very well during his two years hosting the travelogue series A Cook's Tour for the Food Network. Tour shone when Bourdain visited a home kitchen or restaurant buddy, and bored when it resorted to gimmicks: In Tour's accompanying book, Bourdain complained bitterly about some of the more stuntlike aspects of the show, such as his being asked to eat a snake's still-beating heart on camera. (He got his revenge by verbally flaying Food TV golden goose Emeril Legasse at every opportunity.)
So then, apart from a hip Jon Spencer Blues Explosion soundtrack and 60 minutes to rant instead of 30, it's surprising how closely Bourdain's new series, No Reservations, resembles Tour. It might even be more stagy: A Parisian absinthe binge takes him on a trip into his hotel room's wallpaper, while campy James Bond visuals and sound effects accompany a visit to a Vietnamese resort.
Bourdain's gabfests with chefs, food producers, and enthusiastic eaters remain intact. A fey Malaysian TV celebrity, Chef Wan, drags Bourdain around Kuala Lumpur's open-air market like a diminutive cyclone. ("Gastronomy, history, geography, and ethnography all in one block in 14 minutes," gasps Bourdain.) There's even a French teen completely unimpressed by Bourdain's attitude (and accompanying camera crew) in a Parisian coffeehouse: "Who wears cowboy boots today? Not even Americans!"
What keeps his persona from degenerating into glib cynicism is that there's a true yearning for community. When a council of Malaysian headhunter elders compliments him on his tattoos after a rowdy evening of feasting, he's unironically gobsmacked, pondering later, "Is it possible to feel enriched and hollowed out at the same time?"
Of course, the philosophy behind Bourdain's wisecracks is completely missing from producer Darren Star's sitcom iteration of Kitchen Confidential. Bradley Cooper plays Jack Bourdain, a onetime cooking star felled by hedonism, now relegated to throwing tantrums about oversauced pasta at an Italian family restaurant when he's not skipping AA meetings. Tortured plot machinations place him at the helm of an elegant Mediterranean restaurant run by the dapper yet menacing Pino (Frank Langella), and bring some reprobate line cooks along for the ride. There are blond jokes; scenes of grievous bodily harm; an extremely unprofessional restaurant critic; an attractive, talented cast; and the sinking feeling that if you changed the venue to an office, candy factory, or TV newsroom, the jokes would be pretty much the same. The closest the show gets to the irrational, maddeningly exacting passion of chefs is when Bizarro Bourdain hauls a whole, fresh sea bass out into the dining room and brandishes the fish angrily: "Nothing sits under the lamp! Got it?"
At one point, Jack wails to his TV boss, "You've got no food, no staff, 300 on the books, and you want me to run your kitchen?" For the Fine Living channel's Opening Soon, that's no mere plot complication, but business as usual. The documentary series distills the two months prior to the debut of a new hot spot into a frantic half-hour. The Canadian-U.S. co-production is broad and democratic in its choices--a no-frills lobster joint on Prince Edward Island is covered alongside a high-profile venture from celebrity chef Todd English. The editing is smooth and the narration measured, but none of this detracts from the headlong rush toward the deadline. The complications could spin off a show of their own: An Indian restaurant can't get work visas for its star chefs until just before opening day. The slick, pragmatic owners of an elegant Ottawan bar spar with their passionate Italo-Japanese chef about art and commerce. A rowdy kitchen staff gives the finger to the surveillance camera in the long-distance owner's living room. Contractors make mistakes big and small, business partners throw tantrums justified and unjustified, interior designers mutter under their breath, and yet all is forgotten and forgiven when the first cork is popped and the guests are free to roll their eyes orgasmically at their entrees.
One of the funniest episodes centers on the opening of the Jasper Brewing Company in tiny Jasper, Alberta. A trio of twentysomething pals who define the term "holy fools" decide they're going to build a brewpub. Of course their ideas are about as coherent as the drunken brainstorming session that hatched them. The narrator notes dryly: "They've hired an architect to help them realize their dream of a rustic, metallic, grainy, wet place serving Creole, French, Egyptian, and Italian cuisine." Shockingly, it's a huge success. Soc, one of the clueless buddies, verbally stumbles around until he trips over an aphorism that summarizes the dogged masochism of the restaurant world as well as anything else: "A glassful of patience is better than a bushel of brains."
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