In 2011, a mere five years ago, the American food scene was a cosy hellscape of meatballs, home-cured charcuterie, artisanal bitters, and upmarket fried chicken. Elitist speakeasies and secret reservation lines were giving way to more communitarian supper clubs and rooftop gardens. Scripps Networks had just launched the Cooking Channel to satiate the overflow of demand from the Food Network. The sky was the limit for the Savannah-based celebrity chef Paula Deen.
As the designation “foodie” was transitioning from badge of honor to pejorative, culinary cantons were becoming less exclusive, swinging the doors open to new kinds of obsessives. It was around the same time that Ariyan Arslani, a 300-pound chef and rap hobbyist, slipped in the kitchen of the Queens restaurant where he was working as a cook and broke his leg.
“The light turned on,” he told me in New York last week. “The light just turned on and I went hard.”
Arslani, the Flushing-born son of a American Jewish mother and an Albanian Muslim father, devoted his four-month stint “on the shelf” to launching his rap career under the name Action Bronson. In the few years since, he’s released a dizzying number of albums, EPs, and mixtapes, established himself as an Internet star, and skyrocketed to relative fame and notoriety through eccentric performances that involve cartwheels, back flips, and the body-slamming of overzealous fans.
It’s true that Bronson, whose lyrics are unabashedly profane, gleefully traffics in the tropes of his genre, frequently citing his appetites for weed, morally dubious sexual activity, and money, and expounding upon his ambition and success. But what’s truly fueled his ascent has been his passion for food, which manifests itself constantly in lyrics with an erudition that would charm a Lucky Peach reader.
Food appears on Bronson tracks in every form imaginable. It pops up in list form, as a menu (Jewish platters, kreplach soups, and sable); in exhortations (Barbecue the venison, pair it with a great stout); as a signifier of status (Never fuckin’with the crab that’s pre-lump); as inspiration and vehicle for simile (The Amarone got me spinning like a gyro); and so on. Whenever a new track is released, food magazines dutifully examine his references to eating like talmudists performing exegesis.
This month, the mischief-making, polpette-shaped gourmand’s online food series, F*ck, That’s Delicious, made its way to cable as one of the flagship shows on Viceland, the new online television channel created by the filmmaker Spike Jonze and Vice Media. In many ways, this development is evidence of the wild moment when food and rap have both become prime cultural commodities.
“It feels like it was meant to be,” Bronson said over a plate of salumi. “Rap obviously has been the rock star, and the chef has been the rock star for a bunch of years now. You could listen to a bunch of people talk about food that rap well, but they don’t know shit. I do both.”
In F*ck, That’s Delicious, Bronson and his merry cohort of musical collaborators wander the globe in search of good food in between concerts and other (capital H) High-jinks. Part of what makes this an alluring departure from the countless shows with a similar conceit is that it’s so obviously unscripted. (Most, if not all, of the filming takes place during or after Bronson and his crew have just smoked, vaped, ingested, or dabbed cannabis.)
They eat, they smoke, they perform, they philosophize, they sign autographs on pizza crusts, they run into admiring chefs and kitchen workers. The clash of personality and haphazard improv registers somewhere on a guy-heavy spectrum between Duck Dynasty and The Rat Pack’s Ocean’s 11.
What helps is that Bronson has the charisma and star power of a P.T. Barnum. He’s the consummate paradox—a quick-witted, quirky, wholly authentic huckster.
He’s also hard to look away from. With countless tattoos, deep blue eyes, and high cheekbones that he’s never been afraid to reference, Bronson also sports a long, majestic trademark beard that he’s described in verses as “golden brown just like a biscuit” and looking “like Uday and Qusay,” the deceased sons of Saddam Hussein.
In the context of the show, it’s entrancing to observe strangers and fans encounter this massive force of nature. In the first episode, Bronson and his entourage roll into Washington, D.C.’s Rose’s Luxury, recently hyped as America’s best new restaurant, for smoked trout and fried oysters, and patter about food with the chef. Later, they infiltrate a humble roadside joint in Atlanta for some barbecue ribs before heading off to the beach in Miami.
Bronson will be the first to tell you that he turned down the chance to sign a lucrative record deal with Sony to join forces with Vice, which offers him multimedia latitude. Demographically, it’s a natural fit. A student of pop culture, Bronson, at 32, cites Freddie Mercury as an influence in his songwriting and performing, samples beats from the likes of Phil Collins and Tracy Chapman in his songs, and makes a habit of calling back to Saved by the Bell, video games, and wrestling. “I’m like a fucking computer for useless information, but it’s now useful,” he said.
Vice—which courts a Millennial crowd, is frequently lampooned for pandering to its hipster wing, and is often critiqued for not hewing to traditional journalistic standards—stands to gain a lot from its affiliation with a brash and unpolished symbol of the minute. At his best, Bronson represents what Vice, in theory, is supposedly meant to do: make the efforts of a media-trained, overly produced, telepromptered mainstream seem a bit ridiculous, instead of the other way around.
But no matter how you might feel about Bronson’s lyrics, or his antics, or even his persona, it’s hard to deny his sincere, poetic fixation with food, which has captivated a new, similarly-minded crowd. During a show at New York City’s Irving Plaza in 2014, late into his set, Bronson performed “It Concerns Me,” a song with a sample lifted from Le Streghe, an obscure late-1960s Italian arthouse flick.
On the album version, after name-checks of Ellen DeGeneres, Hall and Oates, and Gary Sinise, the song ends with a verse that Bronson performs a cappella. That night, however, he was joined by an unlikely chorus—a mostly addled, 90-percent male confederation of Manhattan teens, young outer-borough dads, and roughnecks:
Greek men, jump off the back of the boat for dinner
Barehanded snatch up a octopus, I’m a winner
Grill it, hit it with olive oil and lemon
Then kiss my fingers, efharisto, that was delicious