The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness, not as some elemental substance, but as a blend. He played with some of the most tricky aspects of modern life—the obsession with identity, the overawareness of how one’s image moves through the world, and the imperative to indulge one’s hungers—as if they were blades: He knew their dangers, and he knew what they could make. Pop culture and politics may have recently given the concept of authenticity a beating, but Bourdain was able to still make a persuasive case for it because he understood how much appearances really do matter.
You see this clearly in his famous spats with other chefs. When Alice Waters, the evangelist for organic and locally grown cuisine, fried an egg on a spoon for 60 Minutes, Bourdain sniped not at her food, but at her marketing sense. It was “strategically foolish and inappropriate and bad for her argument to be seen cooking a fresh-laid organic egg over an open fire for Lesley Stahl,” he wrote in his book Medium Raw. But, he added, “What’s truly wonderful about Alice is that she is, first and foremost, a sensualist … She’s made greed, lust, hunger, self-gratification, and fetishism look good.”
Bourdain, of course, did the same, though pointedly without the precious egg spoon and quite-so-overt ideology. “I like to eat like a child, in an emotional way,” he once told GQ. “I don’t like to overanalyze.” This was apparent in how, on TV, an “Oh man, that’s good” and what he once called a “just-fucked look” would typically follow the best slurp of soup or bite of sausage. It was apparent in his commitment to not overly script the encounters of his shows. “I’d rather miss the shot than have a bogus shot,” he told The New Yorker.
The no-bullshit edge also glinted in his prose, which he used to nick the pretenses of the food world, high and low. Regarding Chicago’s vaunted gastronomy lab Alinea: “My meal there was one of the longest, least pleasurable meals of my life.” Regarding Paula Deen’s recipe for a burger with donuts for buns: “What was Jesus’s position on gout?” This anti-snobbery was, of course, very rude and certainly a kind of snobbery in itself. But Bourdain chose his targets carefully, often made amends, and rarely thwacked his rhetorical skillet upon the less powerful. When the internet snarked on the North Dakota food critic who’d earnestly praised Olive Garden, Bourdain first joined in but then reconsidered, and he ended up contributing the foreword for a book of her reviews. “This is a straightforward account of what people have been eating—still ARE eating—in much of America,” he wrote.
His rise did help nourish the so-called “foodie” movement and everything dubious that went with it, including the impulse to eat interesting meals so as to photograph them. But while some of his viewers may have cared only for the costume of the authentic—resulting in $14-a-cocktail “dive bars” and the rise of “Brooklyn barbecue”—Bourdain insisted that the best sensory experiences were informed by circumstances, backstories, and a logic that goes beyond market engineering. “The word authentic has become a completely ridiculous, snobbish term,” he told Time. “There are so many first- and second-generation immigrants making wonderful mashups of food they grew up eating. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that every time Guy Fieri puts barbecue pork inside a nori roll, an angel dies.”