Anthony Bourdain: Attitudes Unknown

Tony, before anything gets dicey, I just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan. I love the shows, I really do. I love the attitude, the swag, and man, l’chaim to your complete disregard for the taboo on day drinking. I really identify with what you’re selling – the modern man’s approach to food and the world, I totally dig it. I dig it and I try to emulate it. Your show is really cool Tony, and so are you. I think had we met at a Lou Reed concert or at a dive bar somewhere in the East Village, that we might have even become friends. As far as I can tell we have a lot in common.

For example, both of us prefer street meat to $75 prime rib. We both believe that a cold Dogfish Head is the single greatest thing you can pour into a glass and a steaming hot sancocho into a bowl. We agree that Ludo Lefebvre makes the greatest friend chicken anywhere outside of New Orleans and that David Macmillan should be immortalized with his own Lincoln-like memorial statue, except instead of sitting palms down, he’d be holding a pint and a pork chop. Neither of us can manage to get the majority of the Burgundy for a Bourguignon into the saucepan instead of our bellies, and we both know the true secret to a full and happy life – that the more a cheese smells like Zamir Gotta’s socks, the better its going to be.

But I’m afraid that’s where the similarities end, because there is one glaring difference which ultimately sets us apart Tony. You see, I’m a journalist who likes to cook. You are a cook who likes to present as a journalist. And just like I don’t understand the nuance behind emulsion, you don’t seem to grasp the nuances needed to fully understand the volatile Middle East. So while you’re fortunate enough to eat your way across the world with “no reservations,” I however had more than a few reservations of my own when a friend called to tell me your film crew had been spotted in old Jaffa.

Doing any kind of reporting on Israel is a tricky thing. Think of it as an aioli, too heavy a dose of something that piques or should otherwise not be in there, and you end up with a sour pot of clumpy off-putting waste. While your move away from the Travel Channel to CNN may have given you a license for a more gritty and newsy show, as evidenced by your shoot in Libya last season, the complexities of Gaza and the West Bank are way above your pay grade. Just as your colleague Wolf Blitzer. He’s one of ours, he can tell you. So what I’m hoping from you is that your show in Israel will look more like the description handed out by CNN, that you will be concentrating on “the rich history, food and culture, [and] spending time with local chefs, home cooks, writers and amateur foodies,” and less like your fateful episode from Beirut in 2006.

You see, I’ve known for years what you have only recently come to discover, that some of the best dishes in the world are being prepared in Israel. The Jewish State has redefined what Jewish cooking is all about. You are not going to find the deli you and I both love at Schwartz’s or Katz’s, but I assure you that the other elements you look for, old school, new school, the traditional mixing with some haute cuisine, and cutting edge experimentation, is in abundance. I know how you eat Tony, so don’t tell me a lamb’s brain and sweetbreads seared in citrus char with baked bone marrow, carrots, black garlic, tomato vinigrette, pumpkin, veal stock and lima crème, which you will find at chef Meir Adoni’s restaurant Catit, is not the kind of gastronomic triumph you’ve been searching the planet for.

For years you ignored the boom of Israeli cuisine as you crisscrossed the region, from Turkey and Kurdistan down to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. And then of course, your two trips to Beirut. Now lets talk a bit about Beirut. I understand the impulse being in a war zone with a film crew and all, bearing the responsibility to provide an inside account of a war unfolding right in front of the hotel where you are staying. But you did a terrible job Tony, and certain attitudes have been called into question because of it. Good journalists, the real professional ones, always come out with a balanced sense of what happened when “things went sideways.” Responsible journalism means not broadcasting incendiary images with an incomplete story. In the end, your reporting from Beirut was just like all the other failed attempts to report the news, broadcasting the unjust and indiscriminate destruction of Beirut by the trigger happy Israeli military machine. So naturally I’m worried that you might repeat that mistake in Israel where that kind of slanted journalism does not auger well. People are really excited about your coming to Israel and putting the food they feel so passionate about on display. Because the world does not need another montage of Israeli oppression or Palestinian discontentment a la Bob Simon. No, what the world needs is to see is you spending a few hours devouring half the menu at Barood or Gabriela.

Looking at Israel through personal stories and food is a beautiful idea and there is a rich menu to sample from, but not all personal stories need to revolve around the conflict. The conflict has a nasty habit of defining Israel, and causes outsiders to overlook some of the really amazing things going on. The culinary advances in Israel deserve not only your full attention, but the world’s too. And by depriving Tel Aviv restaurateurs the opportunity to showcase the world class cuisine they have developed in order to confine the show to Jerusalem, with short segments on Gaza and the West Bank in the spirit of fairness, seems neither fair nor logical to me. I fear that we may already be off to a bad start.

But if you or your producers insisted that there be some Arab-Israeli component, then I really hope CNN sprung to fly out world class chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tammimi to take you around and show you where they like to do their shopping. The pair came together to make beautiful reproductions of some the regions most classic dishes like mensef, aubergine kadaifi, liver stuffed vine leaves, and my personal favorite, lamb chops marinated in goat’s yogurt, and to say that their accomplishments deserve airtime would be an understatement. That small bit of Arab-Israeli cooperation, which goes on quite a bit in Israel, in case you didn’t know, will leave a better taste in your mouth than the mensef. Well ok, maybe not the mensef, but you get the idea. But all of that is nothing compared to what you’ll find at midnight. Every Thursday night, Jerusalem’s famed street market, Machane Yehuda, turns into a made for tv block party. Think Brooklyn on the Med. Young, hip, cultured Israelis, dancing to intoxicating Balkan and Yemeni beats, drinking sublime local wines and craft beers, chowing down on kebabs, shawarmas, salads and meorav. What is meorav you ask? Well Tony, its all your favorite giblets. Fried chicken hearts, livers, onions and spices, served in a pita and doused with tehina and a tart mango sauce. Yes, I know, your head just exploded.

So I hope you were equally impressed in Israel as you were in Lebanon. And unlike that episode, I hope this one will be more about food than about politics. Israelis live a gregarious life DESPITE missiles crashing into their homes (sound familiar??), and suicide bombers disrupting their commutes. You will love their company. And if you thought that every Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian or fixer in Beirut was an ambassador for their cuisine, just wait until you see how jacked up people are about their food in Israel. If you did it right Tony, this is going to be the best episode you ever hosted. I hope you enjoyed yourself in Israel Tony, and I hope I enjoy your show.

Warmest regards,

A Huge Fan


About the Author
Yaniv Salama-Scheer is a Canadian-born journalist who has reported on the Middle East from Israel and the region for The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel