Anthony Bourdain at Royce Hall: Crispy on the Outside, Smooth and Creamy on the Inside
Royce Hall was packed to the gills Thursday for Anthony Bourdain's book signing and speaking tour. Really, his lecture was more like stand-up comedy, with his acerbic wit with razor-sharp observations. He machine-guns bon mots so fast, so smoothly, it's easy to believe he does 40 speaking engagements a year.
The reason Bourdain can get away with talking so much shit is that he lets the audience in on the joke. It's like the two of you are sitting at a bar together as he elbows you and says, "Look at that guy." Maybe you are the guy wearing shorts in the Louvre and eating at McDonalds in Rome, but there is a temporary suspension of belief. The quick-witted author is engaging, mesmerizing, and makes you feel like you are in the club.
Bourdain started out with his usual patter about The Food Network, which, much to his chagrin, has bought the Travel Channel. He bemoaned the Food Network's replacement of chefs with "personalities." He imagines a Godfather-style scenario: "Hey Emeril, Mario wants to talk to you in the parking lot. Bang! Hey Mario, Emeril wants to talk to you in the parking lot, Bang!" So by the time they got to Bobby Flay, he was willing to compete in chili cook-offs with anybody anywhere.
There are his horror stories of staring into "the dead doll eyes of Sandra Lee" and his detente with Rachael Ray. He gives a run-down of his favorite shows. He likes the original Iron Chef but not so much Iron Chef America. Bourdain spent a good five minutes tearing into Hell's Kitchen. He likes Top Chef and admits when he judges they are plied with gin and tonics (Eddie Lin also recently mentioned the excessive wine pourings). "By the time Padma says 'Pack your knives and (slur) go' we're sloshed to the gills." He admires Andrew Zimmern, because he himself only has to eat weird shit once in awhile, but Zimmern eats nothing but that every day. He is convinced they are actually trying to kill "the kid on Man vs. Food."
As the evening wore on, he became serious and went on a diatribe against the state of our food supply. Outer cuts of meat that used to only be used for dog food are now being used for hamburger. Why does the burger have to be served well-done? He believes we shouldn't have to treat our food like toxic waste. "Now hot dogs, there is an implied consent there. You're on your own."
As a parent he is concerned about the lure of fast food clowns and toys. He understands that some people don't have a lot of choices; it is cheap and convenient. But for those who have the option, how do you combat that? He feeds his child organic foods, and is on a brainwashing campaign to convince his daughter that "Ronald McDonald has cooties" and kidnaps children.
He advises the audience on travel etiquette: Dress nicely, try to observe local customs, every once in awhile take one for the team (i.e. eat the "difficult" food when offered by a host). Eat politely. Be grateful. Understand that in most of the world people express themselves through their food. He calls it "the grandma rule." No matter what awfulness you are offered, imagine it's your grandma offering you her dry turkey, and say, "Thank you! Yes, I would like seconds."
He tells us that in Russia, people don't become friendly to strangers until half a bottle of vodka. Expect to be drunk the entire trip, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Accept that in Japan, you are instantly a big, hairy, offensive oaf. And don't you dare swish your wasabi into your soy sauce at a sushi bar in Japan or you are dead to them.
Finally, live in the moment and enjoy the serendipity. Your memorable meal is not some 12-course French Laundry meal. It is a meal eaten with someone you love as you run into a shack giggling to escape the rain.
When it came time for audience questions, I asked, "Beyond your LA show, have you explored the Los Angeles food scene, and what do you know about it?"
Not much. Not enough. I'd love to spend more time -- I'd love to spend some time here in Jonathan Gold territory. I mean, I think the real stuff in LA from what I can see is in the strip mall. You can spend a lot of time arguing, who's got Eric Ripert? I think the high-end, tweedle-dee is probably in New York, but what we don't have is the low-end, ethnic-y. stuff you have. We don't have food trucks. And we don't have In-N-Out Burger. Every few years someone starts a hoax that In-N-Out is coming to like, Queens, and New Yorkers go batshit, "They're coming!" Then it's, oh, just kidding.
And where did he eat that night? In-N-Out.
Only people who had purchased VIP tickets were able to attend the book signing and "meet-and-greet." For as eye-rolling and cantankerous as he may seem, Bourdain gave every fan his full attention. He looked them in the eye. He showed interest in them. He listened politely, he responded and laughed and smiled. As much as it may kill him to smile and smile and smile, he spent hours signing books and posing for photos like each fan was his best friend. He could not have done more to earn my respect.