Review: Anthony Bourdain is kind of a jerk, but he still rocks

Anthony Bourdain during the Q&A at The Fox. (Photo by Madeline Friedman)
Anthony Bourdain during the Q&A at The Fox. (Photos by Megan Volpert)

By Megan Volpert

As I sit down to review last night’s Close to the Bone tour stop at the Fox Theatre, I’m listening to the Stooges’ Fun House album because what Anthony Bourdain and I have in common is that this is the album we’d keep if somebody put a gun to our head and we could only pick one. He said so during the Q&A, but indeed had already proven as much by dropping Iggy Pop’s rowdy noises across the packed house as his pre-show music. That’s all you need to characterize this top tier journalist slash chef slash celebrity, because Anthony Bourdain is kind of a jerk. You know it and he knows it. He likes to hold forth. He’s strongly resembles your favorite college boyfriend – the one who fell somewhere between edgy and badass, the one who had strong principles and opinions but little ambition or commitment, the one who you always knew would turn out pretty great but who was far from marriageable when you dated him.

Bourdain was a young teen when Fun House landed in 1970. The beauty of the album, in retrospect, lies in the fact that it best represents the vigor of the band’s live shows. One of history’s most iconic rock music photos is Iggy with peanut butter smeared all over his chest. If you’ve seen Bourdain on the Food Network, or the Travel Channel or CNN, you need to know that there’s a lot more to love live, just like with the Stooges. The image of the band or the man presented in books and on television doesn’t do justice to the performance – it’s been sanitized by producers and watered down a bit by the distance implicit in the medium. Onstage, things come alive properly.

fox marqueeLast night’s set ran about an hour and a half, with the final half hour devoted to audience questions. Bourdain’s opinions are pretty well publicized these days, so the majority of the show didn’t contain any major news. He opens with a variety of insults lobbed at Guy Fieri, still the original gangster of television-generated celeb chef sell-outs. The irony of Bourdain’s own fame in this regard is not lost either. He mocks his own status with a level of reflection that reminds you why his twelve cents is still valid. He’s been complaining about the same stuff for the past fifteen years because it remains very much there to complain about. Here are some choice cuts:

“When did cooking become a competitive thing?”

To a goat-herder in a foreign land, “Man v. Food is basically a recruiting tool for ISIS.”

Instagram foodie porn “is not even passive-aggressive; it’s aggressive-aggressive.”

“I don’t see a lot of gluten-free people in India; I’m not sure they can afford that disease yet.”

He also drives his knife into myths from juice cleansing to umami to farm-to-table. The core of Bourdain’s likability is his willingness to express negativity and contradiction in a humorous manner. His roots are proto-punk, and he may finally have been ready to become a father at age fifty – but his dark henley and worn jeans, his pre-gaming request for Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-year-old bourbon and his delightfully constant cursing all speak to the fact that Anthony Bourdain’s heart of hearts has not aged a day.

A talented and energetic speaker, he ran classic riffs from a set list with smooth transitions and solid comic timing. A guy with that kind of talent on a loose script often flounders during the impromptu bits, but Bourdain managed the Q&A portion with an easy grace and no moderator. The first question was a softball about his writerly inspiration that he surely gets all the time. Still, he dug in with surprising tenderness to deliver an ode to “good high school English teachers. […] Many of them really closeted gay men who couldn’t talk about things” that were clearly floating through his classroom discussions of Tennessee Williams and the like. He also had good advice for a woman traveling to Madagascar: “Bring some food. Bring Spam.” The Q&A showcased Bourdain’s true gift for the funny, breezing along his secret guilty pothead love of Popeye’s mac and cheese, the angry female Japanese ghost tattoo newly inked on his left forearm, how sexy pasta looks when it soaks up the first drizzle of olive oil on the plate, and his obedience to perfect sushi masterminded by Jiro Ono. When asked to name the dead celeb chef with whom he’d most like to have dinner, Bourdain immediately retorted, “can I kill him first?”

Chef Eric Roberts and Sous Chef Matt prepared food for the VIP event for Bourdain's tour stop.
Iberian Pig Chef Eric Roberts and Sous Chef Matt prepared food for the VIP event for Bourdain’s tour stop.

As a libertarian atheist, he tread perhaps more lightly than necessary in explicating his political opinions. There wasn’t much time spent on the specifics of his international travel takes, and he jumped on some easy applause by laying thick praise on the Marines that once escorted him out of Lebanon. Despite his natural tendency toward ranting, Bourdain’s essential message is one of compassion. He calls it the Grandma Rule: “Yes, I’ll have seconds, thank you. When I’m at grandma’s house, I eat what she puts on the table.” He repeatedly emphasized that we should all “be good guests and be curious about the world.”

And that’s how Iggy Pop ended up with peanut butter on his chest – somebody in the crowd handed it to him and he just went with it. He went with it all the way: always hilariously and shamelessly, sometimes brutally, and ultimately to legendary effect on a model that Anthony Bourdain clearly strives to emulate. Despite all outward signs of rebelliousness, he’s a grateful man. He sat and signed autographs in the VIP room for almost as long as he spent on stage, patiently snapping photos and fielding further conversation from every person in line to meet him. Then he packed up his dinner from Chef Eric Roberts – whose catering of killer tapas plates from the Iberian Pig had been making the hour-long photo-op wait more than bearable for all – and left the building.

He probably went to go video chat with his lovely little daughter and mixed martial arts fighter wife. Because when you get right down to it, the man knows what’s sacred even when he makes a career out of spouting the profane. Not many punk bands from 1970 are still kicking it. People say Iggy Pop must’ve made a deal with the devil to survive his own success. Pop and Bourdain are both college drop-outs, and I bet the girls they dated back then always knew those bad boys would turn out to be charming elder statesmen.

Megan Volpert lives in Decatur, teaches in Roswell and writes books about popular culture.

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