Anthony Bourdain has eaten a lot of hard-to-swallow stuff in his day: duck embryo, goat head, a still beating cobra heart. In the new season of his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, he finds himself consuming that most piquant of delicacies for the first-world traveler in the third world: shame.
The chef, author and Top Chef judge is visiting an open-air restaurant in post-earthquake Haiti. There are pots of stew bubbling and, on every table, hand sanitizer to ward off cholera. As he sits down to callaloo and chicken creole, a crowd of kids gathers and stares. "One plate of food would be a good day for any of them," Bourdain says. "And here, I am painfully aware, I'm eating three."
Bourdain and his producers buy out the stand to feed the kids. But the feel-good decision turns feel-bad as fights break out. "Hungry people everywhere behave like hungry people," he narrates. "Because we thought with our hearts and not with our heads, it all turned to s---."
It's not a typical food-show moment, but Bourdain isn't interested in typical food-show stories. His memoir Kitchen Confidential exposed the unsavory side of restaurants; A Cook's Tour was a gonzo travelogue of gastro-extremism. No Reservations is a wry, street-level look at how a country's food expresses its culture and sometimes its seedier side.
In recent years, the show has focused on more posh getaways Paris, Rome, Dubai. This year Bourdain is turning to troubled spots: Haiti, slipping out of the world's memory; Cambodia, where a dish of pepper crab is a reminder of the killing off of ethnic Chinese by the Khmer Rouge; Nicaragua, where Bourdain does a segment on churequeros families that scavenge a garbage dump. "Seeing this," he says, "I don't feel so good doing another season where I shove food in my face."
The approach makes No Reservations less a food show and more an essay on history, politics, the morality of tourism, the complications of charity and the ethics of TV. In Haiti, Bourdain notes, people shy from the camera because they've paraded their troubles for too many foreigners promising help. And now here he is, shooting a show. "Are we part of the problem?" he asks. He doesn't answer.
Travel-show hosts are surrogates, eating foods and seeking experiences on behalf of their viewers. Here, Bourdain also seeks the dissonance for them and puts it on their plate. And it belongs there: food is intimate, and it's political. Americans argue over whether Michelle Obama's drive for kids to eat vegetables is a public-health imperative or a nanny-state intrusion. A despot can take people's liberties and dignity, but people storm the barricades when the bread runs out and someone tells them to eat cake. Prices for staples are skyrocketing now, with destabilizing effects; the Egyptian protests were driven in part by rising food costs.
Bourdain noticed that on a 2008 No Reservations trip to Egypt, where his handlers tried to steer his crew away from the bread shops. "They didn't want people seeing that 70% of the average Egyptian's diet was bread," he tells me over the phone on his way to a shoot in Cuba. Sometimes world issues found him; after a trip to Beirut was disrupted by war with Israel in 2006, the episode was nominated for an Emmy.
There's a line between caring and voyeurism. In his Cook's Tour days, Bourdain says, he was guilty of "misery tourism." But misery is as essential an ingredient of cuisine as joy. Many beloved foods (cassoulet, brisket, hopping John) came from scratch-in-the-dirt poverty "trying to take a little and turn it into a lot," as Bourdain tells me. "What people eat tells a story: what they're cooking and why they're cooking it."
Food, in other words, is a people's history and sometimes its unignorable present. Bourdain wraps up his tour of Haiti by visiting Sean Penn, who relocated there with relief organization J/P HRO. But, Bourdain concludes, he has "no happy horse---- assurances" about Haiti's future. The trip No Reservations takes us on is not about easy answers or giving up. It's about seeing the world with open eyes, stepping outside your comfort zone and taking the bitter with the sweet.