We're taught to believe life is a Kodak moment, and most of us spend much of our lives trying to hold on to all the good times. It takes maturity to be in the moment and to move on, and maturity is one of those qualities I've discovered I like in Bourdain.
I've been trying to figure out what it is exactly that endears me to the man, and believe me, it's more than just charm and good looks. Despite the fact that he claims to be jaded, he always comes off as an eager host on his series, No Reservations. Even as he's being feted and dined by professional chefs, friends of friends, and indigenous people around the globe, he seems intent upon offering up his experiences to the viewer in the most authentic light, and treating them as what they are -- rarities and treasures.
I'm also drawn to the raconteur, share-all quality, the "tell-it-like-is-Joe" who is happy to be where he is and proud to share it with you. Bourdain tends to search out what's cool or unusual about a place and a cuisine. Despite his facility with words and people, his ability to fit in virtually anywhere, he continually scrutinizes himself, and this I also find appealing:
How did I come to be worthy of this great meal? Who am I to critique it? How can I honor such fanciful cuisine? Why do I, Tony of Leonia, get such a ride? The perennial teen toeing the cliff's edge of an illegal high, Bourdain still challenges himself with the important questions. He is at his most interesting and original when playing the philosophe, analyzing the guts of what really happened, how he really feels about an event, how he "got there," what it all means. The probing, the stripping down, the upturning processes can be unnerving, but the viewer -- and reader -- sense the danger, feel the risk, and want to hop on board and see experiences through with him. Stripping back facades, getting underneath their skin, getting underneath even his audience's skin has become a trademark of Bourdain's, distinguishing him as an author and as host on his series.
In a chapter titled, "It's Not You, It's Me" in Medium Raw B recalls his disappointment with a dining experience at Alinea, a restaurant run by the great Grant Achatz, who once worked with Chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, where Bourdain claims to have experienced "the greatest single meal" of his life. He describes the 22-course extravaganza that he cherished so much and its aftermath, in grueling detail:
"Is there something fundamentally, ethically wrong about a meal as Pantagruelian in its ambition and proportion? Other than the people are starving in Africa argument, and the ' 250,000 people lost their jobs in America last month alone' argument, there's the fact that they must necessarily trim off about 80 percent of the fish or bird, to serve that perfectly oblong nugget of deliciousness on the plate. There's the unavoidable observation that it's simply more food and alcohol than the human body is designed to handle. That you will, after even the best of times, the most wonderful of such meals, need to flop onto your bed, stomach roiling with reflux; the beginnings of a truly awful hangover forming in your skull, farting and belching like a medieval friar.
'Is this the appropriate end, the inevitable result of genius? Of an otherwise sublime experience?
'Must it end like this.'"
The question of the hour hits home, bringing the reader to an awareness of what in Buddhist terms is known as samsaric reality -- The realization that no matter how sublime an experience, its flipside lingers just around the bend. Indulge in a great meal, expect indigestion. At the edge of bliss lies suffering. No matter how extraordinary an experience, it disappears like sand between your fingers -- and sometimes, as in the case of a meal, leaves you -- literally!
Beyond Bourdain's spectacular meals, beyond the high at the end of all of our rainbows, inescapable as death, lies emptiness.