Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 28, 2007

Chef shows he has no reservations

Anthony Bourdain visits Menlo Park to promote new book

by Andrea Wang

He's a celebrity chef who is famous for traveling around the world, eating in the back alleys where most tourists fear to tread, writing books about his culinary and worldly experiences, and making a television show on the Travel Channel about it all; but when it comes to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, Anthony Bourdain admitted he's impressed.

"I've (had) a lot of good food here," Bourdain said. "The American food revolution started here, so I'm sentimental about this part of the country.

"I've been received really warmly here -- even by vegetarians!"

Last Tuesday, more than 150 foodies and Bourdain fans gathered at Left Bank Brasserie in Menlo Park for a French dinner, good wine and a chance to meet the chef-extraordinaire.

Bourdain was in the area to promote his new book, "No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach," which he described as "a photo diary of my life in the last few years and the life of my crew.

"It's as much a love letter to the place I've been as it is to people I work with."

Guests bought $100 tickets for entry into the event, for which they also received a copy of Bourdain's book. Bourdain signed books and exchanged pleasantries with guests prior to dinner.

Bourdain opened the evening by joking about his hatred for the Food Network and speaking sincerely about how he has "the best job in the world."

Once the main course was served, Bourdain held a question-and-answer session, which he prefaced by encouraging fans to ask "really creative, provocative, pissed-off and even belligerent questions."

Audience members queried Bourdain about his views on cooking, eating and traveling.

One guest, after introducing herself as an "angry vegetarian," asked Bourdain about an embarrassing massage he received during his show in Uzbekistan.

Bourdain's response prompted the crowd to burst into laughter and applause: "This question is just supporting the fact that vegetarians are evil! ... But I do want to say one thing to you as a vegetarian: Bacon -- you know you want it!"

Another audience member asked Bourdain his opinion of factory farming.

"How can that be good? ... It's not even the notion of lining up chickens, cheek-by-jowl, eating their own (waste) and feathers," Bourdain replied.

"Whether it is battered or fried ... it just doesn't taste good -- that's my problem. I'm not an ethicist ... I'm not at all that concerned about cruelty as a chef ... (but) an animal that is raised in conditions of stress and pain tends to be (an unfortunate) portion on the plate, and that's my problem."

"What is an alternative?" another woman asked.

"It is very nice as wealthy, mostly white people in this room, we can all afford to get into our SUVs and head off to the supermarket and buy nice, humanely raised, artisanal, boutique ... organic food," Bourdain said.

"I am very, very grateful that I have that option. It has raised our expectations of food; it has raised awareness of what good food is; it has -- in every way -- made things better. I am so, so grateful as a chef, as a citizen of the world, as an eater, that I can afford to eat that stuff and I can afford to serve that stuff.

"But let's not kid ourselves," he added. "If you live in most of the rest of the world where you don't have a lot of money and you don't have an SUV, you (won't be) eating at the Left Bank (and) you're probably going to be eating factory-raised (food)."

One guest asked Bourdain who he felt were better chefs -- women or men.

"What do you mean by better? Who has a better palate?" Bourdain asked.

"It has been scientifically established that ... women have a better palate. ... They are better at tasting food and recognizing flavors," he said. But as to who is the better chef, "have we not moved beyond the point? Women can cook; we know they can. We know that anything that men can do in the kitchen, women can do as well."

When it came to traveling, one guest asked Bourdain what type of antibiotics he carried with him in order to combat any illnesses caught from eating local foods.

"Cipro(flavin) ... (but) you want them to work when you need them ... (so) don't pull the trigger too fast," he said.

"You know, a little extra time in the bathroom is a small price to pay for traveling this incredible world," he added.

Another audience member wanted Bourdain's opinion about local offerings.

"You've visited some strange cultures in countries and (tasted strange) cuisines all over the world," one man said. "Does Silicon Valley represent any strange cultures, cuisines, or people that you might want to visit and feature in a show in the future?"

After Bourdain responded that he would be returning to the Bay Area next spring to film an episode for "No Reservations," he asked rhetorically, "What does strange mean anyway?

"What we might find as strange (may be normal to others)," Bourdain said. "Imagine: you're a Thai; you've never left Thailand; and you're from a nondairy culture. Imagine watching an American eating cottage cheese or bleu cheese or ranch dressing. ... You turn on the TV and there's this 460 pound Texan, shoving this Cinnabon right into his face -- now that's pretty goddamn strange!"

Throughout the question-and-answer session, Bourdain never hesitated in adding playful insults and crude jokes pertaining to Food Network TV personality Rachael Ray.

Sarah Burton, Left Bank Brasserie's manager of marketing communications, said Bourdain's humor and eccentric nature is what draws both younger and older generations to love him.

Bourdain was born in 1956, studied at Vassar College, and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was -- and still is -- the executive chef at Les Halles, a Parisian brasserie, where he penned an exposť of New York restaurants, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," in 1999. This article worked as the basis to his celebrated memoir "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," which was published in 2000 and shot Bourdain into the culinary spotlight.

In 2002, "A Cook's Tour" -- a show in which Bourdain traveled the world looking for "extreme cuisine" -- aired on the Food Network, and a book based on these travels soon followed. In July 2005, Bourdain's current show, "No Reservations" premiered on the Travel Channel, which spawned two more memoirs.

Bourdain has also written culinary crime novels and has prepared a collection of cooking tips and recipes in his "Les Halles Cookbook."

Burton said Bourdain's book talk had the biggest turnout for any event the company had ever hosted at any of its five Bay Area locations.

"It feels good -- especially here," Bourdain said, when he was told his events had sold out across the Bay Area. "People know food here. They tend to know what they're talking about (because) they know and appreciate good food."

Bourdain added one tip before he left for the night.

"I don't want to be giving advice to anyone about anything, but if you could travel, (then) travel," he said.

"This is a big world with a lot of good stuff in it. If you're lucky enough to travel, do everything you can, eat everything in sight, and for God's sake, have fun! ... With an open heart and open mind, let things happen -- it's worth it."

Editorial Intern Andrea Wang can be e-mailed at


Posted by rhody, a resident of Southgate
on Nov 29, 2007 at 12:52 pm

But what does he have against the Food Network and Rachel Ray?

Posted by Foodie, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2007 at 9:52 pm

So much of the Food Network is an insult to both fine cuisine, and simple, honest food.

Rachael Ray is probably the worst thing on the Food Network. All she does is look for bargains, and her own cooking is questionable. Really amateurish.

Posted by I like Rachael, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2007 at 8:22 am

I like Rachael, her approach is full of common sense. But, I don't think her food is healthy eating, too many calories. The biggest comment is that on her travel shows she eats a huge breakfast, lunch and dinner and doesn't get enough exercise. This is not what I do on vacations.

Posted by Like to cook, a resident of Los Altos
on Dec 2, 2007 at 3:39 pm

Rachel claims to prepare meals in 30 minutes but some of the ingredients are pre-prepared or sitting ready in the cupboard, and of course shopping is done earlier.
Her necklines have gotten pretty low and that constant toothy smile and open mouth have turned me off. Maybe they are aiming at a teenaged boy audience. They've lost me. Also, her taste in clothing is cheap, and her hair is messy and falls forward toward the food. ugh.

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