Three Cheers for Anthony Bourdain

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During long holiday weekends like this, I invariably find myself scanning through my DVR archive, catching up on all the shows I’ve taped and then forgotten about. There are four programs I basically record en masse: Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares (the British version), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (still catching up with early episodes), Cash Cab (don’t judge me) and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. The latter is returning with a new season tonight at 10 p.m., in an episode where Bourdain hops between various Caribbean islands; so what better time to shower Bourdain with a little more praise?

Not that he exactly needs my compliments. The best-selling author (the hit Kitchen Confidential and the recently released Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook,) is now an acclaimed TV host with legions of fans. The simple fact that his irreverent, unorthodox travel show is about to enter its seventh season sort of says it all. I recently listened to an hour-long Bourdain interview on NPR and watched the frank video interview he did for (see below) and I think I realized I’d be perfectly content listening to him read the phone book. There’s just something about his style that I find addictive – from his voice to his cooking attitude, traveling philosophy and flavor biases. So three cheers for Mr. Bourdain, and three reasons why you need to catch up with this show tonight:

He celebrates street food. Unlike so many other travel/eating shows that focus on quirky dishes or elite destinations, Bourdain has always championed the food of the everyday eater. The way chefs and cooks can be inventive with simple ingredients, sophisticated flavors and affordable dishes; The style of cooking embraced by the blue-collar community. He adores meat in tube form, he loves all things fried and homemade. But it’s not just the food here that I find so revealing, it’s the way Bourdain can touch down in a foreign land and use his handlers to cut straight through to the pulse of a people – usually by ditching the white tablecloths for the food court at the mall or the rollable food cart in the alley. Thanks to all this, his adventures seem to celebrate the reality of the place; not just the photoshopped travel-brochure versions of his locales.

The show is gorgeous. I find it kind of ingenious that each and every No Reservations episode is created with a whole new stylistic theme. One of his journeys was modeled after the Michael Caine thriller Get Carter, casting Bourdain as gangster; another was all about the meditative beauty of Japan. From the editing rhythm to the organic music, the color schemes, and even the mature-audiences-only warnings at the beginning of every segment, each episode is a wholly unique experience.  None of this even touches upon the use of widescreen high-def photography. You can tell, when you toggle between re-runs from older seasons versus those from more recent seasons, that the Travel Channel has invested heavily in top-of-the-line cameras and lenses. The show is beautiful to look at, from the way they photograph the street food being made to the quick asides that turn away from Bourdain to marvel at the rolling French countryside or the bright lights of Hong Kong. If you have a high-def set, you know what I’m talking about: This is one of the most beautiful shows on TV.

He calls it the way he sees it. I have rarely encountered a television travel host that I thought was being as genuine or sincere as Bourdain. He’s blunt with the people he talks to in his travels, even more unfiltered in the accompanying narration that underscores his adventures. In Namibia, he narrated the painful experience of eating a meal prepared out in the desert dirt. In (I think) Vietnam, he constantly makes jokes about his official state-sanctioned “tour guide” he’s been assigned. In Lebanon, when a war erupts and he’s confined to his hotel, not only does he muse philosophically about the everyday people affected by international disputes, but he then retreats to the kitchen, educating us all about the importance of food as a communal safe haven.

It does make one wonder: How much longer can all this keep going forward before the show starts feeling repetitive, or reductive? Can Bourdain be the wise ass until the end of time, or is he ever going to be forced to play ball (I’ve noticed some very tacky credit card product placement moving its way into his show). I don’t know what season seven holds; but I do know about seasons 1-6. They are my TV comfort food, my go-to escape with someone I admire quite a bit. I’ll be watching tonight. The perfect end to a perfect weekend.