Years ago, when I was but an infant in my research into why people suddenly gave a shit about chefs (with due respect to a chef I give most respect to: yes, I’m talking about the late, great Bourdain) – and by giving a shit I mean turned them into celebrities – I experienced something which pissed me off mightily, but which I now file in the (virtual) cupboard of naivety when it comes to online behaviour.
In brief, I had the gumption to delve into the comment section of a blog post I had an issue with, and which unfortunately got personal when someone decided to look me up and discovered that I was researching something called “food media”: ‘wot dat?‘ was among the commentary.
I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film by Zero Point Zero, the production company responsible for the excellent Parts UnknownÂ (featuring Anthony Bourdain) and The Mind of Chef (narrated by Bourdain).Â
Tower, for those who haven’t heard of him (which is apparently a lot of people, including myself before hearing about this film), worked at Alice Waters’ iconicÂ Chez Panisse restaurant back in the days (meaning the 70s), and apparently helped to turn a little hippie venture into one of the most sought-after restaurants in the area. From Wikipedia:
After his grandfather died, Tower, who was used to being taken care of and supported, found himself out of money and in need of employment.
Inspired by a berryÂ tartÂ he had eaten at the then-unknownÂ Chez PanisseÂ restaurant inÂ Berkeley, California, he applied for a job there in 1972.Â Alice WatersÂ and her partners hired him for his demonstrable skills and brazenness when it came to recreating great French traditional food. Within a year, he became an equal partner with Waters and the others. He was in full charge of the kitchen, the writing of the menus, and the promotion of the restaurant.
‘Being taken care of and supported’, we learn in the film, meant being a child of wealthy parents who took him with them on trips around the world in first-class passage, where he was pretty much left to his own devices by a father he describes as an asshole and a mother as a raging alcoholic whose dignity he had to protect by stepping in to poach, skin and decorate the salmon at dinner parties once he noticed that she was too tanked on martinis to finish the job herself. Continue reading “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”
The documentary Theatre of Life is a lovely film about a lovely initiative, started by a lovely man. (Yes, most sentences are impoverished by adjectives, and the worst sentences contain three repetitions of the same adjective. Not off to a good start then.)
Oops, I think I just made one of those clickbait titles. But what else do you call the demise of the thing that’s gotten everyone salivating up till now?
It started with the announcement that (the generally excellent) Lucky Peach is folding after their final issue is published in May. Confession: I have a subscription (though my pile does not include the elusive first copy that apparently sells for upwards of $175), and my first thought was will I get my money back for the issues I won’t be getting?Â â˜¹ï¸
It’s a misleading title, in a way, because I was driven to write this here and now by a new article/interview with “original” bad boy celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (though as rightly acknowledged in that conversation, that distinction of Uber bad boy must of course go to Marco Pierre White. After Keith Floyd, that is).
I’m a fan of Bourdain, for the record. (And congratulations to him on turning 60, which is why he is pictured here with his face on a cake having narrowly escaped being punctuated by birthday candles.) But here’s the bit that got me:
In order to write well about food you need to eat well, and you cannot eat well if youâ€™re analyzing the food.
‘Chefsâ€™ obligation to help save the planet? A lofty idea, they [Keller and Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz]Â agreed, but the priority is creating great, brilliant food.
â€œWith the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?â€ Mr. Keller asked. â€œThe worldâ€™s governments should be worrying about carbon footprint.â€
It was an experience of exquisite narcissism to be able to take myself out to lunch the other day with a book. Written by me.
Yes, so it finally arrived, which means that it will be coming to a bookshop near you very soon (it is, ahem, of course available through the usual online channels. You know where to look).
Funny, I was once “ridiculed” in an online spat by someone I have never met who claimed that my PhD on “food media” must be bogus because there is no such thing (because, like, it doesn’t exist on Wikipedia). Well, to borrow a line from Courtney Cox in ScreamÂ (I forget which one): “uhm, you know the saying, ‘I wrote the book on that?'”
I’ve been experiencing various levels of annoyance at various times over the last few days. Much of this is heat(-wave) related, but mostly it’s from witnessing the brouhaha over the Paula Deen “scandal’ in the food media world. Practically everymediaoutfithastheirowntakeonit, but the facts are these:
– Deen (the “butter queen“, or as Frank Bruni put it, the ‘deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking’) recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes;
– She has known this for three years already;
– She is receiving money from Novo Nordisk to plug Victoza, a new diabetes drug (with as yet questionable benefits: those evil Danes!). Victoza is pretty expensive compared to other drugs on the market – think $500 a month vs. $20 a month.
The scandal includes any or all of the following:
a) she has deceived her audiences
b) she is a shill
c) she is a shilling a product that ordinary (read: poor) people cannot affordÂ
d) she is still fatÂ (well, no one says it like that, but that’s what they mean when they comment on her not having made ‘significant lifestyle changes’)
e) she wasted three years not teaching her viewers how to cook healthy food.
Now, I’m not going to enter into the shilling debate. This piece in the LA Times did a fairly good job of convincing me the major problem with this, which is the illusion of a quick-fix solution that Deen’s deal with the evil Danes promotes:
‘The life of a diabetic is somewhat less than swell â€” but Novo Nordisk is selling swell, alongside drug companies that promise to medicate away depression, gas, incontinence, clogged arteries andÂ fibromyalgia. …Â Support and encouragement is one thing, but what we’re being sold is magical thinking. In the battle between healthcare reality and fantasy, Paula Deen is small potatoes (steamed, skins on, no butter), but what she represents matters: another attempt to market immortality to a culture that’s particularly in love with misbehaving, followed by an easy fix.’
What does irk me, though, are the various permutations of a) and e), above. Suddenly now (or then, as it happens) that she has diabetes, Deen is only allowed to cook “healthy” food on television? Suddenly she now has a responsibilityÂ to make her audiences healthy too, and thereby fix the diabetes/obesity crisis? Maybe it would be a good idea for her to stop tasting and eating the food that she is apparently so good at making (even though she has pointed out that – surprise surprise – what we see her make on TV is not actually how she eats every day, and that her shows are for entertainment), but that shouldn’t stop her fans from making her fatty, buttery recipes if they damn well please. Should watching Anthony Bourdain sucking foie off a plate come with a diabetes advisory?
‘The sticking point is that art and fashion last, whereas food is evanescent. You think of great acts of creativity, and their value is tied up with what they left to posterity. There’s something unsettling about seeing so much effort, intellect and expertise, lavished upon something that you’re just about to eat. The higher the esteem in which you hold the chef, the more abashed you feel by your own role in the proceedings. It’s like going to an exhibition in which you demonstrated your appreciation by kicking the art off the walls. I saw an argument once between Marco Pierre White and the journalist Pete Clark â€“ it would ill-behove me to call anybody drunk in this exchange, but they were, and they were having a fight about mushy peas. Pierre White said: “What’sÂ your opinion, anyway? Tomorrow’s chipÂ paper.” Clark replied: “And what’s your work going to look likeÂ tomorrow?”
The values of the old-school Michelin system, and the distended excellence that has grown in its wake, can all look like an elaborate disguise where the heightened refinement is there to distract you from the worldliness of food. You’ll eat it. You’ll digest it. You’llÂ expel it. And that will be that.’