Gordon Ramsay Couldn’t Shake Bourdain’s Shadow

September 4, 2019

By Karen

Gordon Ramsay’s first season of Uncharted recently wrapped on National Geographic. On the NatGeo site you can watch his travels to Peru, New Zealand, Morocco, Laos, Hawaii and Alaska. The reviews were not positive, usually comparing Ramsay unfavorably to Anthony Bourdain.

Ramsay has been my guilty pleasure for years, though I admit he’s not for everybody.

He shows (I hope) his nice side on MasterChef Junior with adorably precocious kids. On adult MasterChef, the withering insults flow, but he leaves the heaviest dickishness to fellow judge Joe Bastianich.

I love Hell’s Kitchen when Ramsay, in bleep-filled fury, strips culinary bozos of their delusions of competence. He’s similar on 24 Hours to Hell and Back, trying to save failing restaurants by berating and humiliating the owners in front of their customers. I was also a fan of Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell. Not so much The F Word.

Bottom line: I’ve seen a lot of Gordon Ramsay. Uncharted was something else.

Ramsay denies ripping off the Bourdain formula, saying he got the idea in Cambodia during a 2004 visit. But comparison was inevitable because both men’s series focused on travel and food. Ramsay’s big twist was his trademark move: turning the food into a competition with a tight deadline.

Ramsay’s mission was to learn as much as he could about the place’s cuisine in a week, then to prepare a feast against a local chef, with invited guests blindly choosing which dishes they preferred.

To make it a “fair fight,” Ramsay gave himself the disadvantage of cooking outdoors with unfamiliar ingredients. He always managed to create something edible, but his dishes weren’t always the favorites. His willingness to come in second showed, at least, an attempt to be humble.

To develop his menu, Ramsay roamed around and had people show him where ingredients such as eels, ants, beetles, grubs, plants growing on cliff sides, fish and game were sourced. Gathering them was often physically grueling, showcasing that 52-year-old Ramsay works out a lot.

What Uncharted never showed was Ramsay strolling through city or village markets, looking effortlessly chic and cool in a rumpled shirt and jeans.

Also missing was the stunning cinematography that Bourdain’s Zero Point Zero film crew had honed to Emmy quality. Uncharted captured what it needed of Ramsay, but any tourist could have shot the uninspired B-roll.

Another glaring omission for Bourdain-spoiled viewers was compelling narrative. Ramsay’s voiceover was often nicely self-deprecating, but light on wit and insight.

Ramsay did break new ground by introducing the Ugly American’s cousin — the Ugly Scot. He mocked locals for going to extremes to snag ingredients. He spit out what he was served a lot. Apparently not a drinker, he missed those opportunities to bond with his hosts, settling instead for a quick sip of the local brew, then insulting it with a puckered face.

Most irritating to me were Ramsay’s ever-present deadlines, which he enlisted everyone into helping him meet.

“I want to hear all about your history, your culture and your cooking techniques, but I’ve got this feast to prepare in the morning, so chop-chop!”

Bourdain had a production schedule, but I can’t recall ANY meal in ANY of his series where he ever made his hosts feel like he didn’t have all day or night to spend with them, eating, drinking, just shooting the shit and enjoying himself.

If Gordon Ramsay accomplished anything with Uncharted, it was to unwittingly remind us of the extraordinary soul we lost with Bourdain’s passing.


Bourdain Releases His Inner Wolf in Libya

May 21, 2013

By Karen

Anthony Bourdain is clearly feeling CNN’s once-considerable “weight” on Parts Unknown. Who knows? Maybe he’s what the foundering network needs to stop being almost as big a joke as Fox “News.”

As Tony navigated through Libya, I felt like I was watching him grab the next rung up in his career  — and I was cheering for him all the way.

With each new Parts episode, Bourdain’s confidence grows almost visibly as he tries new ways to expand beyond food. He’s seeking out people involved in historic upheavals, and expats who love and live in danger zones. Then he lets them take center stage to talk about life and politics — instead of food — while Bourdain mostly listens and learns.

His narrations fill in just enough history to make it all make sense for viewers.

As he drove through Gaddafi’s destroyed, deserted compound and scrambled alone through the rubble of the dictator’s palace, I thought how, if he were still on Travel Channel, that probably would have been a scene of him lunching in Tripoli at some trendy new drive-through called Muammar’s.

I was the first blogger to follow him closely “way back when,” before Eater started hanging on his every word (e.g., their “Quotable Bourdain”), so I’ve seen him rise and begin to descend once, in spite of all the award nominations that started rolling in for No Reservations. It’s truly awesome to see him ascend again at CNN.

To foreign audiences, he must serve as the antidote to the cliché of heedless Ugly Americans who spew like mold spores from air-conditioned tour buses and cruise ships everywhere, often ignorant about where they are, and interested in nothing beyond a perfunctory glance at how “the other half” lives and cheap souvenirs.

When Bourdain was in Libya, the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was still fairly fresh, and warnings were being issued about Westerners’ safety., which must have been giving him flashbacks to Beirut. As I watched Tony travel to Mizrata, I hoped to God I never awaken to news that he’s injured, missing — or worse — in some godforsaken hellhole.

But like his predecessor, the world-renowned (now largely forgotten) English writer, Somerset Maugham, Bourdain is compelled to travel to exotic places and collect stories from ordinary people, digest them without judging, then spin them into something fascinating for the rest of us.

Unlike much of Maugham’s work, Bourdain’s dominant genre is nonfiction, which takes more courage to write.

Instead of closing the Libya episode with another relatively easy meal scene, Bourdain trekked to the ancient Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, where he noted he was the only foreigner because the country’s never-ending strife has killed tourism, and that someone had “chipped off all the dicks” from the statues.

Would Samantha Brown ever share such a tidbit? I think not. But that’s just the sort of detail we expect from Bourdain.

Then, in the show’s most shocking moment, he joined a troop of Libyan Boy Scouts on a field trip, recited the pledge from memory, and revealed he was once a scout.

Anthony Bourdain — BOY SCOUT?

That notion was even wilder than the beard he sprouted there, “going Blitzer,” the reason for which was never explained.

I’m really liking this more-than-a-foodie Tony. I think he’s on track to earn that personal Emmy that’s been eluding him.


Hooked on House Hunters International

March 14, 2012

By Karen

I’ve found a travel show I love even more than watching Anthony Bourdain stroll strange streets, stuffing food into his mouth.

It’s House Hunters International on HGTV. In 30 minutes, a regular single person or couple, not always American, who wants to relocate to another country checks out 3 properties there, then picks one as home.

There’s a domestic House Hunters, too, but every time I’ve watched, married twits with budgets inadequate for their outlandish expectations rejected great homes for dumb reasons. It would be amusing only if they’d let the real estate agents snap and cuss out the stupidest clients or beat the living crap out of them.

But back to International. They price everything in U.S. currency so you can relate, and show where real people live in Paris, Aruba, Tuscany, Hanoi. In so many places, the spectacular everyday views of water, city streets, and mountains are drool-worthy.

Thinking of Bourdain, I really got into the Hanoi episode, where a single guy wanted a one-bedroom apartment in a real Vietnamese neighborhood. In his search (the places all came furnished), he found a fridge in one living room, and a shower in a closet off the bedroom, but the toilet and sink off the hallway.

A local friend helped him snag a beautiful, modern place and they negotiated the rent down to $360 a month from $450.

After you see the 3 properties, the people discuss the pros and cons of each place before picking one. I don’t think I’ve ever guessed the right property, and they NEVER pick the one I would have chosen. Weird.

The show ends by following up a few months later, and the people are always deliriously happy in their new home.

Sigh. It really makes you want to pack up and just go for it.


A Case of Bourdain Burnout

July 11, 2011

By Karen

My waning interest in Bourdainia has been a long time coming. Travel Channel stomped on my last nerve with this one-and-a-half-page ad in Entertainment Weekly for the new Cuba episode of No Reservations, which airs tonight…

Season premiere? Season 8? What happened to Season 7, which disappeared after 8 episodes nearly 3 months ago? Was Tony’s trip to Haiti just filler?

And what’s suddenly so fucking special about Cuba? Andrew Zimmern was there for the first episode of Bizarre World — in 2009. Here’s the dramatic full page of Tony’s EW ad…

 

And there’s another one floating around, with Tony sitting on a curb in Havana.

Anyway, TC, you win. Figuring out when No Res will air is a game for your ideal demographic — young males who think road trips to BBQ competitions contitute “travel.”

The Bourdains themselves now run a slick PR machine on Twitter @NoReservations and @OttaviaBourdain, and most of Tony’s friends and crew tweet. Tony regularly tweets pictures and links to articles about himself. Eater.com does regular posts about him, with his cooperation.

I feel as if Cats Working’s job is done.

Several years ago, I asked Tony for a Cats Working interview. He declined, saying he didn’t want to endorse a blog that discussed his personal life.

That was long before he embraced the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, but I’ve never seen him utter “Cats Working” to a soul unless he was talking to me.

I’ve grown wary of much of his hyperbole. I thought chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, was spottily disingenuous and certainly not a book Tony should have wished he had written.

I just watched both seasons of Treme, the HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans that Tony has called one of the greatest shows ever, if not the greatest. In Season 2, he wrote the scenes for the chef character, Janette, who moved to New York and worked for Bourdain’s network of BFFs: Colicchio, Ripert, and Chang. They all had cameos.

Bourdain was asked to write for Treme so those marginally relevant scenes would be authentic.

Here’s a news flash: Only the tiny fraction of the population who actually works in restaurants knows (or cares). And if they’re as poorly paid as Tony says, it’s unlikely they get HBO anyway.

Sad to say, I found Tony’s work kind of lifeless, except for the scene where Janette tosses a drink in Alan Richman’s face. Some of his dialog was even retread.

If Bourdain writes for Season 3, I’m taking a miss. Not because of him, but because too many of the characters have such terrible diction, I’ve spent, literally, hours watching scenes where I caught one word in 10 with the volume maxed out, and had no idea what was happening.

Ditto for Top Chef, where Tony sometimes guest-judges. Watching hard-working chefs sabotaged so their dishes can be pooh-poohed by nitpicking snobs is not my idea of entertainment. Host Tom Colicchio seems like a nice guy, but I’ll never take his opinion seriously until he sheds the bimbo sidekick, Padma.

I knew my disaffection was complete when saw that Tony’s getting a new Travel Channel series, 24-Hour Layovers, and thought, “Now they’re sweeping the cutting-room floor.”

But apparently not. Tony tweeted he went to Singapore and Hong Kong for new shows.

If TC ever actually airs it, I’ll watch, just to see if Tony & ZPZ really can put Samantha Brown to shame. Poor Samantha. She’s like TC’s Rodney Dangerfield.

From now on, I’m letting Tony do his own thing and expanding our horizons here. If there are any interesting Bourdain developments that he doesn’t totally scoop me on, I’ll share them. But you can better get the latest news straight from him — and tweet him directly @NoReservations.

Bourdain fans, I hope you’ll still stick around, but if you don’t, the cats and I thank you for stopping by.


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