Bourdain's got no apologies upon his return to Baltimore

The 'No Reservations' host appears at the Hippodrome Saturday

May 19, 2010|By Rob Kasper, The Baltimore Sun

Anthony Bourdain was about to say that he was "sorry" for the way he depicted Baltimore on his "No Reservations" show last winter on the Travel Channel.

In that piece, he characterized Baltimore as a gritty city as he prowled rundown neighborhoods with characters from "The Wire," ate lake trout at The Roost in West Baltimore and pit beef at Chaps on Pulaski Highway, and chugged bluish cocktails with construction workers at Mo's Seafood in East Baltimore. The episode provoked outrage among some city pundits and bloggers, who thought it dissed the city.

Last week, while discussing the show, Bourdain said the word "sorry" but quickly caught himself.

"I am sorry; well, I don't know if I am sorry, but I will say some of the reaction did sting," he said.

Bourdain, the chef-turned-author-turned-televised-world traveler is coming back to town. On Saturday night at the Hippodrome Theater, he and Eric Ripert, executive chef and owner of Le Bernadin, a three-star New York restaurant, will headline "What to Eat Baltimore," an evening of storytelling and a question-and-answer session followed by a sampling of dishes from top Baltimore restaurants.

"Unlike me, Eric has a reputation to protect as one of the world's greatest chefs," Bourdain said. "We are friends, and I have caused him many uncomfortable moments. I hope my relationship with Baltimore doesn't cause him any this time around."

In a brief telephone interview from Le Bernadin, Ripert said he and Bourdain make a good team even though they have different styles. Bourdain is better at performing in public, Ripert said, but, "I am better at cooking."

Bourdain does like to talk, and he does it well. In a wide-ranging telephone interview from his home in New York, Bourdain discussed his love of street food, trends in American restaurants, and The Food Network. But mostly, he talked about the Baltimore "No Reservations" episode and people's reaction to it.

He was peeved at the notion put forth by some of his critics that the show should have focused on crab cakes and the city's fine restaurants.

"If you have watched any of the previous shows, it is clear that I am not coming to your town to do an impartial description, a compendium of the best-ofs," he said.

Rather, Bourdain said, he comes with a point of view. "We want to show people food that you have that we in New York or anywhere else don't have."

"We don't have lake trout; we don't have pit beef," he said. "Crab cakes? My god, we have seen them before. Anyone who trudges through town has the obligatory crab cake. Pit beef and lake trout were two authentic, indigenous specialties. We would have done the same thing if we were in Borneo or Paris."

Bourdain acknowledged that he has had an unhappy relationship with Baltimore, pointing to a short stint he had as a drug-addled cook in a Harborplace restaurant in the 1980s. But lately, he said, he has become a fan of the town.

"I have been back a few times, and in my own quiet way have come to really like the town," he said. "I don't know if the feelings have been reciprocated, especially after the show."

In filming his show, Bourdain travels the world. The day I spoke with him, he was just back from Rome and soon to be on his way to Beirut. When Bourdain arrives in a destination, he often checks out the street food.

"It is the quickest route into the main vein of a country," he said. "What people eat when they have had a few beers and want a quick bite provides a quick portrait of the character of a country," he said.

Moreover, he likes the casual venue. "I am a jaded old stiff who has eaten more than his share of lavish meals," said Bourdain, who is 53 years old. "I am happy sitting on a low plastic stool in Vietnam, or standing at a wet taco stand in Mexico."

He spoke of how a few months ago he found a truck serving "real Mexican tacos — no sour cream, no cheddar cheese" — a mere two blocks from his New York home and "almost dropped to my knees and wept for joy."

As for trends in restaurants, Bourdain mentioned several. One is that chefs are better behaved these days than 20 years ago, when he chronicled randy restaurant behavior in his first book, "Kitchen Confidential."

"Cocaine in the kitchen, midservice sex, those things are frowned upon these days," he said, referring to his wilder days. "Chefs have become more professional. It is not a loser profession the way it once was," Bourdain said.

Another trend he mentioned is the unexpected challenges of cooking in a down economy.

"The financial meltdown of 2008 has added a sense of urgency to the move toward economy cuts of meat, and oilier, cheaper fish. As David Chang [owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York] has pointed out, hard times might force us to cook better," he said.

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