Excerpt: ‘Consuming Homonyms for Desirable Traits’, by Nancy Lee

Photo by Alexander Mueller. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

I could never really pin down why I cared about food, or why I felt like I needed a reason. So when I first read Anthony Bourdain’s account of eating his first oyster, an experience which completely blew his mind as a young boy, it was like having an epiphany with him. “It tasted of seawater… of brine and flesh… and somehow… of the future. Everything was different now. Everything… Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight, and impress. It had the power to please me, and others. This was valuable information.”

I didn’t know Bourdain, and I have only met him once, when he signed my copy of his book. Ten years ago, I read his memoir Kitchen Confidential, first published in 2000. Being Chinese, I had of course, always been ‘into’ food. I liked eating food, cooking food, I liked reading about food, and I liked talking to people about food. As the daughter of immigrants, I grew up in my family’s restaurant kitchens and on my mother’s garden bounty. As I write this, it has been three days since news of Anthony Bourdain’s death broke; three days since the internet was awash with grief-stricken tributes, and only three days since I disappeared into my bedroom to have a quiet cry, because the person who changed my life and profoundly influenced the way I see and understand the world was gone.

Bourdain pre-dated the celebrity chef craze of the mid-naughties, of ‘plating’, molecular gastronomy, and Instagram flat-lays. Among all this glamour, I hung onto his revelation about the power of food. It provided a context, a reason for why I read everything I could about food, and his reverent tributes to his brigade reinforced my respect for people who worked in kitchens and cooked for others. His writing oozed with fervour and clear-eyed joy, whether it was about the backbreaking lunch services in Provincetown, or the wonder of eating in Tokyo. Anthony Bourdain totally gets it, I thought. This means there are other people like me.

He was definitely high as a kite when he wrote Kitchen Confidential, but that didn’t take away from his conviction; he did whatever the hell he wanted, he did it well, and quite frankly, he DGAF about anything else.

Bourdain could have lapped up the acclaim he received for Kitchen Confidential and trail-blazed his way into being an iconic cook riding off a reputation for being a particularly articulate cowboy. Instead, he latched onto the notion that food has power and over several travel series — including A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and most recently, Parts Unknown — brought the world onto people’s screens. To these series, Bourdain brought his energetic curiosity, but the fervour and conviction that leapt from the pages of Kitchen Confidential had matured into a quieter empathy; it was as though, after learning that food is a language, he’d mastered it to create a space for others to speak. A common theme that ran throughout his later work was that sharing food, trying different food in different lands can show us we are all the same. “Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food,” he implored. For Bourdain, food was powerful as a means to understand people, and to learn more about what it is to be human.

Now it seems as though everyone is ‘into’ food. The (Eurocentric) food world has seen an evolution of sorts in the last ten years. Destination dining became aspirational, and degustations were the height of sophistication. After the GFC, everyone began to reign it in and we saw the rise of share plates and ‘dude food’. René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s lauded Noma came along and introduced us to foraging (the pinnacle of austerity?); Melbourne’s Ben Shewry made potatoes in ‘dirt’. Instagram came along in 2010, and gradually we got to peek into chefs’ kitchens and at their off-duty snacks and food travels. We saw burgers and clean eating and whole carcasses. We became more conversant in food in terms of technique and ingredients thanks to programs like MasterChef, then levelled up years later with the glossy Chef’s Table, which follows chefs’ creative processes. From this foundation of contemporary, pop culture-enabled food literacy, there has been a noticeable, mainstream shift to the role of food as a political subject, and the chef as a cultural gatekeeper, or pseudo-authority. In the last few years at least, in Australia, more scrutiny has been applied to wages received by hospitality workers; high profile examples included Sydney’s Mamak, Melbourne’s Chin Chin, and in establishments run by MasterChef judge George Calombaris. In the US, a discussion about the ethics of tipping was widely covered by American food media. While food is primarily a form of sustenance, and this shouldn’t be forgotten, Bourdain in particular was very good at emphasising its cultural role as a conduit that crosses all kinds of boundaries, enabling us to understand who we are and how we relate to others. As other writers of colour have noted, Bourdain refrained from taking an Orientalist view in examining different cultures, and customs as ‘other’, but rather sat and listened patiently.

One topic that always seems to hover at the periphery of food culture, is cultural appropriation and fetishisation. There is a specific kind of enthusiasm non-ethnic food lovers have for ethnic food. ‘Authenticity’ is a highly valued element; as in, the nasi lemak is super-authentic at this place, as though it is a mysterious, elusive ingredient that can only be found in certain spaces or circumstances. Often, ‘authenticity’ is found in dingy establishments with tacky decor. ‘Hospitality’ is a bonus. The strange nexus between cultural appropriation, ‘authenticity’, and fetishisation is crystallised in a moment in which Bourdain is walking through the streets of Chengdu with his BFF, Eric Ripert. “I’m very surprised already of what I see in the city here,” marvels Ripert, first-time China visitor. “I was expecting, like, a giant Chinatown.” Bourdain throws his buddy some side-eye and counters, “That’s some racist shit, right there.” In order to unpack this, it’s important to realise that many (though not all) ethnic eateries in Western cities are run by immigrants who are in the service industry because it is their only profitable skill. Coming from an extended family of immigrants who opened restaurants after coming to Australia, the rhetoric of ‘following your dreams’ to work in a loud, hot kitchen does not exist. That particular kind of labour is a necessity to surviving, and everything about the space reflects that necessity.

In many cases, this includes modifying the ingredients to be more palatable to non-ethnic preferences. Never in my life has my mother made sweet and sour pork or honey chicken for me at home, yet they are ubiquitous items on Chinese menus. My childhood was filled with tripe, intestines, giblets, fish heads, weird vegetables and a kaleidoscope of spices I don’t know the English names for. When I was much younger, offal was not appealing ‘eating out’ food, so ethnic immigrant cultures, making food for non-ethnic Australians, had to adjust accordingly. These items are rarely found on menus, but if they are, then the restaurant must be ‘authentic’. It is not often acknowledged that food that now carries this stamp of ‘authenticity' — pungent, gristly, slimy, weird food — was rejected as unappetising not that long ago, as dirty or uncivilised. As Australians became more mobile, as they travelled further, so ‘authenticity’ became cultural currency—unusual ingredients and textures became more and more accepted, even desired. And of course, with the primary food critics in Australia being of European background, this acceptance is always delivered through a Eurocentric framework, through a colonial lens.

Bourdain pushed against this in his work, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Most of all, he let his hosts, usually locals of the destination he was visiting, speak. In the Shanghai episode of Parts Unknown, he cheerfully admits he will die ignorant of most of China, seeing how big and speedy its ongoing evolution has been. In the Sichuan episode, while eating sea cucumber with Ripert and Sichuan gastronomy writer Fuchsia Dunlop, Bourdain muses, “That [texture of the sea cucumber] is kind of the last frontier for Western palates.” Dunlop adds, “That doesn’t exist in Western culture, eating something to enjoy its texture.” Bourdain takes things for what they are, and attempts to understand why. He gave his local hosts the stage to explain to us the history and cultural significance of what they were eating, instead of taking on the role of authoritative tour guide. By providing the context of what he was eating and who had cooked it, Bourdain showed us it is not always as simple, or aspirational, as a chef wanting to flex his creativity, as contemporary celebrity chef driven food culture would have us believe.

This is an excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.

Nancy Lee wrote her PhD thesis on celebrity chefs and social media. She researches and writes about food and the ways food media shapes our understanding of what, how, and where we eat, and the people who cook and grow our food.