Anthony Bourdain: An Encounter by Alex Sukhoy

“My job does not suck.”

So opened the Anthony Bourdain keynote address entitled “The Global Feast” at the Iconoculture conference in Miami Beach. “Iconosphere,” as the conference was branded, hosted a series of speeches, breakout sessions and discussions all focused on educating consumer product professionals on the latest behavioral trends. Topics included “Recognizing the Many Faces of Moms,” “Shades of Green: Exploring New Dimensions in the Eco-Savvy Marketplace” and, among others, “My Name is not Earl: Marketing to the True Blue Collar Consumer.” The presentations provided insight such as why a certain consumer would prefer to shop at Target, citing its Democracy of Design and a Well-Edited Collection of Goods. The marketer in me found these types of topics interesting. However, only one person at the Inconsphere conference connected with the artist in me.

The morning of Anthony’s Bourdain’s presentation, I made sure to arrive at the ballroom early, to secure a front seat. A man like him, in my imagination, stays up all night eating, drinking, smoking, conversing and laughing with questionable company. To my surprise, when I arrived at 8:20, I saw him having an in-depth conversation with the head chef of the hotel, perhaps even the head chef of Emeril’s restaurant downstairs. Ah, the Food Network irony! One woman approached me and asked if it’s ok to ask Anthony for an autograph. “I don’t see why not,” I replied and, as soon as she positioned herself near him, a long line immediately formed, of men and women, some smart enough to have purchased his book prior to attending the event, and some, like me, with cameras in hand. There we were, with great anticipation and the eagerness of an inspired child, waiting to meet a man who has eaten a snake. And got paid to do it on cable.

Anthony Bourdain in life is Anthony Bourdain on television: he is tall, dark and handsome. He has a smoky voice, deep eyes and reconfirms my description of him as “the Leonard Cohen of food.” This “what you see is what you get” energy permeates his presence and the essence of who he is. You can not separate the name from the brand: they are one and the same.

“Hi, so nice to meet you,” I said nervously as I stretched out my hand to shake his.

“Hi,” he replied.

“My friends, Deborah and Scott, are big fans of yours. They just got married. Would you mind signing this for them?” I asked as I gave him some hotel stationery.

“Is that Deborah with an ‘h’?” he asked.

“Yes…. And could I please get a picture with you?”

“Sure,” he replied, completely un-phased by the fan club in front of him. But then, what can possibly phase a man who has eaten the world?

With photo and autograph in hand, I was a happy camper and resumed my back of the ballroom seat with other American Greetings employees.

Without any glorified props, scientific research nor predictable PowerPoint slides, Anthony began his dialogue about food: about where food trends began, where they are today and where they are headed in the future. He spoke of food as though it was the one thing on earth that connects us all. And, really, if you had a grandmother in your life, you would agree.

From a historical angle he asked, and then answered, the following question: “What makes a great food culture? When someone invades a country…. Look at England, the most boring and bland food you will ever eat.” Currently Asian and Latino foods are his favorites and the best examples of what Anthony referred to as “food fusion” are in Malaysia, Singapore and Brazil. Because in these places “the influences are all moving together.” Traveling to other countries to eat their food is “gastro-tourism,” something Americans are finally doing.

According to Anthony, “The tipping point in the American palette was when Americans wanted to eat sushi…. Suddenly a white fried fillet was not the only acceptable way to eat fish.”

Anthony Bourdain also spoke of how food trends are determined. “There’s a group of chefs, sitting somewhere in New York who are deciding if pork bellies are the next thing. And if that’s what they decide, you will be eating a lot of pork that year.”

Considering that this man has traveled everywhere and eaten everything, I was surprised that while being a food connoisseur, he wasn’t a food snob – and that there’s a difference. For one thing, he only spoke for 30 minutes, leaving half of his time for audience questions, a generous move for a television celebrity.

“The prettier the food, the more sweaty fingers have worked on it.”

“The most disgusting thing I ever had was a chicken McNugget.”

“The best meal I ever had was pork chops on a bed of rice on a white plate. It was white on white on white, which breaks all the (presentation) rules. But it tasted great.”

“The scariest meal I ever had was a seven course vegetarian meal in Los Angeles. Humorless, angry people.”

Anthony also spoke of his experience in Russia, which, for various reasons, was of great interest to me. “In Russia, they drink a lot of vodka. And (just when you think you’re done) they will make you toast to their mother’s health. And how can you say ‘no’ to that?”

Speaking of vodka, when asked if he has any fear about what he eats, his reply was “Alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol…. You should eat with the natives. And if they have been eating this food for hundreds of years, how bad could it really be?” “Food,” Anthony suggested, “should be submissive.” He did admit to once having to lie in fetal position for several hours after eating some meat cooked in a village that had no water. He quickly followed this story with a non-chalant “But, then, so what?”

At one point, while the rest of us, and please, pardon the pun, were eating out of his hands, a woman in the audience, a woman, I am guessing, who probably carries an important title and whose salary, bonus and welfare depend on how many boxes of processed food she can push down on tired, busy American parents, asked Anthony what he thought was the future of …snacks.

He quickly motioned his hand in a downward slope and gave this woman and the rest of us a very quick and in-your-face schooling on the lack of nutrition, the obese lifestyle children are experiencing in the U.S., how childhood diabetes is at a rise and how his own daughter, born earlier this year, will be fed “real food” as soon as possible. How even today, her Italian grandparents send over Italian baby food, and how, like him, they consider American baby food unacceptable.

Another person in the audience asked Anthony what he thought of the recent popularity of organics. His reply? “Organic food is food of the rich. It’s great if you can afford it. But there’s nothing wrong with a regular tomato.” Finally, when asked where food trends are headed, Anthony looked optimistic and shared his theory: “We’re going to be eating the food of our grandparents.”

It’s comments like this that resonated most with me. Anthony Bourdain worked his way into the celebrity lifestyle from the far more humble beginnings of washing dishes in restaurant kitchens. He knows his roots and accepts that only with this sense of history does he have a foundation.

Today he travels the globe to eat, drink and be merry with the natives. At age 51, he has a young Italian wife and a baby daughter. Anthony Bourdain is a man whose inner core and public persona are the same: that is the recipe of being a great artist – knowing oneself and allowing your talent to be food for the soul to the world.

 

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