Anthony Bourdain may travel the world, but he's no culinary guide
The bar where I was meeting my chefs before the show was packed. The hearth-fire lighting glowed in prisms of condensation on the windows; jackets and scarves were hanging on hooks and draped over chairs. The five of us squeezed around the corner of the wide, hickory-topped bar, aged and oiled by elbows and worn smooth with conversation. I ordered my October-through-January standard: ten ounces of the Great Divide's Hibernation Ale pulled off the tap and a shot of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey with two ice cubes. In Denver our air is thin, but our intoxicants are not. We have a culture of strong beer and strong whiskey, and I am extremely fortunate to be able to imbibe the creations of people I know and respect. This connection makes the love and appreciation of the drink that much deeper — and the buzz that much warmer. People continued to flow into the bar, blowing on their hands, stomping the snow off their shoes, looking for a place to sit. Like I said, the bar was packed, standing room only. I was happy with this, because it was my bar.
Going to the show was not my idea. Sure, I'd heard of the guy, but I wasn't really familiar with him, had never read his books, never seen his TV program. But my chefs were unanimous in their desire to see him. "Why pay seventy dollars a ticket to see a guy talk about what we do every day?" I asked. They remained unified, though, so I acquiesced and ordered tickets the same way 90 percent of people order wine: I looked at the cheapest and most expensive offerings and chose something right in the middle. The balcony.
The crowd outside the Buell was younger and more stylish than I expected, which lifted my hopes — until I found out they were going to see Ray LaMontagne in the theater next door. "Are you guys sure you'd rather not see Ray?" I asked, trying to push a last-minute agenda. But my chefs are savvy to my tricks and held fast to the original plan.
The crowd inside the Buell looked as if they'd spent some quality time on the couch. I think I saw Jason Sheehan, Westword's meat-toothed restaurant critic, all shifty-eyed, lurking in the corner, wearing a black trench coat and a fan boy T-shirt, doing some serious mouth-breathing.
Grabbing another round of drinks, my crew and I headed for our seats. I don't think there is an American alive who can sit in a balcony and not look around for John Wilkes Booth. We joked, did a few assassination reenactments, started talking about Kennedy and vampires. Texts starting arriving from friends who'd scoped us from seats below and invariably made reference to Lincoln. We gave them delicate rodeo-queen waves and settled in.
John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, who's steeped in restaurant cred, introduced "Tony," the best-selling author of tell-all restaurant industry books, and presented him with a beer to the city, a well-selected Great Divide Titan IPA.
Tony started out by admitting that the scene in little ol' Denver doesn't suck as bad as it used to, and then, casually sipping his beer, revealed, "I don't prepare for these engagements."
Damn, really? Seventy bucks a ticket to see this dude wing it? I strained my ears for the strum of Ray's guitar.
He continued by trashing celebrity chefs. He threw some shots at a short, round chick with an annoying voice who has a cooking show, bagged on a dude with spiky blond hair and sunglasses on the back of his head from some other Food Network show. The crowd, obvious fans of cooking shows, prodded him on with sardonic laughter and hoots of agreement. I, however, was completely lost. Not only had I never seen Tony's show, but I'd only watched one Food Network show in my life, and that's because I was on it. And that show sucked.
After the crowd-pleasing Food Network ribbing, he carried on about his show on the Travel Channel, everyone's dream job: travel the world with your mouth and your guts. His stories of eating his way through parts of Vietnam, Morocco and other exotic locales were told with an easy confidence; he spoke of sitting at the table, sharing food and drink with people and learning about their culture. "When in another country, I eat what I'm offered because I don't want to insult the host," he said (or close enough). He allowed those words to settle in, then followed with this: "Which is why I have such a problem with fucking vegetarians." The crowd erupted in hoots and hollers of support that seemed to carry on for minutes. I heard guffaws and saw high-fives being exchanged; was that Sheehan pumping his fist in the air? Our friends below looked up to see our reaction. What could we do but smile?
Really, though? Fuck you, Bourdain. And fuck you, too, John Wilkes Booth.
I recall that evening while sitting on a wooden bench in front of a food stall in the Mercado Juárez in Oaxaca City with mi socio en negocios, my business partner, Dave Paco. We order two copas de mezcal as an aperitif, to celebrate successfully navigating the labyrinth that is Mexican bureaucracy and finally becoming a legal business in this country. We wave off the training wheels of orange slices and chile salt and sip the liquor. Mezcal is not tequila; mezcal is magic. If you were to lick the perspiration off Mother Earth's upper lip after an afternoon delight, her sweet sweat would taste of great mezcal.
"On your travels, have you ever offended someone because you don't eat meat?" I ask Dave.
"Offended anyone?" He cocks his head, then says simply, "No."
I ask him this question because before he, my wife, Michelle, and I opened Osa Mariposa, a travel hostel in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, he spent five years traveling the globe. Not the REI khaki zip-off pants, collapsible trekking poles in Nepal, photos in front of Angel Falls, eco-tourist kind of travel the globe, but the live on ten dollars a day, ingratiate yourself in the community by learning the language, sleep with local girls and work under the table kind of way. He's had a book published about his two-and-a-half-year journey from Los Angeles to Tierra del Fuego, called Walk (www.frederickpublishing.com); another book is coming out about his travels through India, Thailand, Japan and more. After all his travels, his Facebook friends page looks like a casting-call list for a Benetton commercial.
The abuelito who works the market food stall asks what we would like to eat. For me, it's easy: flor de calabasas stuffed with queso Oaxacana. Even though the dish is vegetarian, the sweet little grandmother cooking the food does not seem offended at all. But Dave's a vegan, and now his ordering dance begins: Tú tienes comida sin carne, sin queso? (Do you have food without meat or cheese?) I have witnessed this dance a hundred times before with Dave, and the response is always the same: Si, tenemos comida con pollo o pescado. (Yes, we have dishes with chicken or fish.) Then Dave's patent reply: Gracias, pero sin pollo y sin pescado. (Thank you, but without chicken or fish.) The grandmother gets a little concerned at this point: No carne, no queso, no pollo y no pescado? she asks. Sí, perfecto, solamente verduras, only vegetables, Dave concludes.
In all the times I've witnessed these exchanges, I have never seen the grandmothers take offense. Quite the contrary: There's invariably a tenderness and a grandmotherly smile. I imagine her saying to herself, Pobrecito, él no es más grande que un pito de abeja. The poor child is as skinny as a bee's dick.
The grandmother's long silver hair is braided with colorful ribbons and tied around her head like a wreath. Her small body moves efficiently in the compact kitchen as she pulls ingredients from ceramic bowls and cooks on a simple propane burner. She shuffles over to another stall to borrow an ingredient and then returns to the cooking. The food arrives at our table. My plate is beautiful: huge yellow squash blossoms stuffed with a gamey white cheese and fried in an egg-and-flour batter, then topped with a piquant green salsa and served with the ubiquitous black beans and corn tortillas. What she presents Dave with is even more magnificent: a plate-sized tlayuda, a popular Oaxacan dish that's like a large tostada. The crisp corn tortilla is topped with black beans, sautéed mushrooms, nopales (cactus), lettuce, avocado and tomatoes. Solamente verduras. Then she sets down a bowl of smoky salsa that has such kick it should be applied with a steady hand, and wishes us buen provecho: good appetite.
The afternoon turns to night as we continue to get mezcalized, a clean fade that leaves you in control of your faculties and, if you don't mix in any other type of alcohol, sin hangover. We move on to Los Danzantes, a restaurant where we hook up with Horacio, a local bartender who invented the canallegra, a mezcal cocktail with cinnamon sticks and citrus. Around the corner from Los Danzantes is a tiny mezcalería where Juan Pedro tours us on different types of mezcal — from sweet and smoky to strong and earthy — and between varieties has us sniff coffee beans to clear our senses. Hungry again, we have dinner at Biznaga, where I scrape my plate clean of the succulent mole tamarindo. By midnight we are at a club dancing salsa to a ten-piece Cuban band with Lucia, Salvador, Maria and Santiago.
Through my travels, as a vegetarian and not, I am becoming a citizen of the world. I do my very best to never offend a host, and, minus a non-food-related incident on the Amalfi Coast, don't think I ever have. Anthony Bourdain's "fucking vegetarians" comment, while an obvious crowd-pleaser, was naive, implying that foreign countries have a homogeneous culture that can be offended by one particular act. In every country, in every city, in every town, there are a variety of cultures. There is the dominant one and then there are the glorious and varied subcultures. In my travels, I seek the subcultures. The subcultures are where I thrive, where I spend my time, and by running two vegetarian restaurants and a vegan bakery in Denver, they are where I make my money.
I am very proud of Denver's culture of strong beer and strong whiskey, but if you don't drink, don't worry: I won't be offended. We'll find something else to share.
While we look for a new restaurant reviewer, Westword is publishing essays and features on the food scene by writers and restaurateurs, including this piece by Dan Landes, owner of WaterCourse Foods and City, O' City. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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