In this week’s edition of The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe has written the definitive profile of everyone’s favourite travelling gastronome, Anthony Bourdain. The piece runs many thousands of words, chronicling Bourdain’s unlikely rise from disgruntled, drugged-out line chef in New York City through his breakout memoir, Kitchen Confidential, to his multiple television shows and his ultimate position as an eminence grise of the American television tradition — possibly the only man who could convince President Obama to sit for an interview in a grungy Vietnamese noodle joint.
I have always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain, but I admit to a familiarity mostly with his recent work — later seasons of No Reservations, and his current show, Parts Unknown. I count on finding an episode (or, if I’m lucky, a marathon!) late at night in faraway hotel rooms. To me, his face is omnipresent on the TV dial, a constant of cable television as an American institution.
But, as luck would have it, the New Yorker profile coincided with the re-release of Bourdain’s first show, A Cook’s Tour, on Netflix Canada. It is, apparently, a golden age for Anthony Bourdain completists — which is what I have unwittingly become. And you should, too.
In form, style, and just about every other defining feature, A Cook’s Tour is exactly the same as the rest of Bourdain’s oeuvre: he travels the world, eats food, talks shit into the camera. But this first show feels different, largely because it is, more than anything, a brilliant time capsule. The episodes were filmed in 2000 and 2001 — an eternity ago, it seems — and everything about the show feels more innocent, more sincere than anything he’s done since. Bourdain is younger, his hair thicker and less grey, his body lean and wily — he smokes almost as much as he eats in each episode (and often indoors). In A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain swashbuckles around the globe without regard for borders or bureaucracy, as one hasn’t been able to do since 9/11. He travels with a single cameraman and sleeps in fleabag hotels. He isn’t a celebrity yet — he’s just a man on a mission, still learning how to appreciate food around the world, still learning how to talk to the camera, still learning how to be.
A Cook’s Tour is not high art, and it’s hard to argue it’s even essential viewing. But if you’re looking for something refreshing — something simple and obvious and easy to digest — try wading in for a few episodes. The world was simpler 17 years ago. It’s rare, these days, to see juvenile adventure for the sake of adventure — to see the world as we wish it still was, full of wonder and irony and grace. That’s the spirit that made Bourdain famous in the first place. It’s worth getting reacquainted with it.