Food News

Anthony Bourdain on the State of Food Writing

June 23, 2016

On the almost-eve of his sixtieth birthday (June 25th), Anthony Bourdain—the food writer and television host who makes his living documenting his meals and his travels—has been profiled (and interviewed) by John Birdsall of First We Feast.

Bourdain has a lot to say about aging chefs, his "inability" to write a sentence (oh, please!), and being a white guy "introducing" foods that are part of millions of people's daily lives to a U.S. audience. And, what's especially relevant to us: a lot of say about the current state of food writing.

As Birdsall put it, all "of us are who try to write intelligently about food, even Bourdain’s critics, are working in a tradition he’s built." (Bourdain, you'll find out in the article, would certainly deny this claim.)

So, sixteen years after the publication of his book Kitchen Confidential, what does he think about the "tradition he's built"? Here are three takeaways on food writing, straight from the man himself:

1. He would probably hate this list:

"...that's where we are now, the age of listicles and ten bests. People ask me, “Where would you eat in New York if you came back after a long time?” And I name five restaurants and it’s like Tony’s Five Best Restaurants in New York! How the fuck did we get from there to here?"

2. Food writers need to close their laptops and get out more:

"When you have this machine-pounding of people on laptops in Starbucks all over town to come up with content, you’re not going to get a lot of A. J. Lieblings, people just passionate about life and eating. It’s not all about food. Food in and of itself is pretty fucking uninteresting after a certain point."

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I agree that the most interesting, durable food writing is done by those who write on a wide variety of topics. Along with A.J. Liebling, I highly recommend Waverly Root and especially, Joseph Wechsberg. I often wonder if there are any writers out there today as good, and interesting, as any of those three. The suggestion that writers close their laptops is well taken. The internet has opened up so much information to us, but seems also to promote laziness and, worse, a tedious sameness and a race to find something "new", no matter how contrived or irrelevant. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
Comment

(Tony, if you're asking me to shut my computer and book a plane ticket to Vietnam, I'm in.)

3. And that's because writing about food is only interesting up to a point:

"...if you’re writing about describing meals, year after year, it ruins people. I’ve described it jokingly as like writing the Penthouse letters for 20 years. I sympathize. [...] Writers just writing about the food, you can only eroticize it so long. It’s all about other stuff."

Almost everyone's got a strong opinion on Anthony Bourdain. Share yours with us in the comments below (and don't feel bad: Tony wouldn't give a %[email protected]#).

9 Comments

Coco E. June 24, 2016
Food writers need to stop trying to describe the taste of food - it's futile. A single bite does a far better job than reading through three paragraphs laden with the age-old clichés of "crispy", "oozing", and "tangy". Anyone can come to those conclusions even in a food coma. What sets a food writer apart is the ability to tell a story, bring experiences to life, and ultimately inspire a sense of awe - be it towards the producers, the culture, or the chef. After all, the deepest you can dig into a sliver of cheese is its fingernail width, but what makes it remarkable is all the energy that made it what it is, and the memories and experiences it will be associated with.
 
Margit V. June 23, 2016
If you watch Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" tv series, you soon realize that it's "not just food". He focuses on the very soul of a people, a culture, a community, a family and the individuals who belong to it. That is what makes his work product so exciting, so brilliant, so HUMAN. Utter genius.
 
AntoniaJames June 23, 2016
I don't disagree. That's what all of the writers we're talking about did (or do), also brilliantly, and in each case - though I can't speak about John Thorne -- without a bit of vulgarity. (I realize it's part of Bourdain's bad-boy breaking-all-the-rules schtick and reflects his own cultural heritage, but frankly I find it tiresome and lacking in imagination -- and class -- and a bit lazy.) ;o)
 
witloof June 23, 2016
John Thorne is an incredible and remarkably under appreciated food writer. I can highly recommend all of his books.
 
Sauertea June 23, 2016
Antonia James, I agree with your excellent suggestions on other food writers. I would also recommend Ludwig Bemelman's and his stories about the Hotel Splendide. A.J. Liebling has a special place in my heart with Between Meals. Anyone who has ever been a student abroad can appreciate his descriptions of waiting at the bank for funds from home and the dining decisions he made based on his bank balance.
 
AntoniaJames June 23, 2016
I agree that the most interesting, durable food writing is done by those who write on a wide variety of topics. Along with A.J. Liebling, I highly recommend Waverly Root and especially, Joseph Wechsberg. I often wonder if there are any writers out there today as good, and interesting, as any of those three. <br />The suggestion that writers close their laptops is well taken. The internet has opened up so much information to us, but seems also to promote laziness and, worse, a tedious sameness and a race to find something "new", no matter how contrived or irrelevant. ;o)
 
cv June 23, 2016
And I submit MFK Fisher to the list. Sadly, all of these people are dead, no more new writing from them.<br /><br />It seems like great food writing is a relic from the past. Not sure I've seen anything at their level over the past twenty years.
 
Sauertea June 23, 2016
Excellent article. We need more Anthony Bourdain and AJ Liebling, a little less of the precious obsessions with presentation and sourcing and curating.
 
AntoniaJames June 23, 2016
Hear, hear, Sauertea. ;o)