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"No Reservations" About Watching Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is commonly referred to as the enfant terrible of the culinary set. The author of the critically acclaimed foodie memoir "Kitchen Confidential" (itself the basis for an unfortunately failed FOX single camera comedy this season), Bourdain is a chef (at the world famous Brasserie Les Halles restaurant in Manhattan), writer, critic, and life-long cynic. He's also the host of the Travel Channel's brilliant series No Reservations (gotta love that culinary pun).

No Reservations isn't a cooking show or a travel show. Really, it's a travel show about cooking. But even that designation doesn't really capture the essence of the show. Bourdain's previous show, A Cook's Tour, on the Food Network also depicted Bourdain traveling the world in search of exotic foodstuffs. But that series relied more heavily on the shock value of witnessing Bourdain eat anything that came his way (see Anthony eat a still-beating cobra heart!) than No Reservations, which is about the culture, people, and traditions of the places Bourdain visits as much as it is about the food he eats. Bourdain realizes this and revels in it and this notion frees him up to explore the alleys of Osaka or the Amalfi Coast with the same zeal and hunger.

Which is not to say that Bourdain now shies away from injesting the exotic or unusual. Last night's premiere of brand new episodes on the Travel Channel brought us a two-hour block of Bourdain's adventures in Asia, or more specifically to Japan (this time to Osaka and the countryside) and China (a first for Bourdain). In Osaka, Tony nearly eats himself to ruin (a longstanding Osaka tradition) as he eats searingly hot octopus dumplings, sweet-and-savory stuffed pancakes, and cow and pig organs... in fact, it's as though Tony has organs on his brain as in China he eats raw cow liver and an assortment of entrails and odds and ends of a number of farmyard animals.

But unlike most travel or cooking shows, Tony interacts with the people of the places he visits. In Japan, he joins a Japanese family for the festival of Obun, the highlight of the Japanese religious year and a celebration of the dead, where the spirits of the ancestors join the living for a holiday of lights and food. Asking the family what dish they would request if they knew they were about to die the following day (probably not the wisest of questions given the holiday in question) yields some interesting answers: a young man pines for a chocolate eclair while his mother, having lived her whole life in the countryside, seeks the childhood pleasure of eating a delicacy in those parts: small birds (sort of like a variation of the French ortolan or drowned bird).

Similarly, in China, Bourdain ends his gastronomic trip by visiting a farmhouse in the Chinese province of Sichuan, where--after enduring the spiciness of black flower petal peppers and searing hot pots--Bourdain eats the simplest peasant food, all grown or obtained locally on the farm, and in the presence of the kind people who have invited him into their home, eats one of the most delicious meals he has eaten.

It's moments like those that make No Reservations such a television gem, taking the series away from the self-promotional travelogue and into a level--informative, touching, and hysterical--all its own. Granted Bourdain isn't touchy-feely at all. He's a chain smoking, sarcastic drunkard most of the time and don't get him started on his hate for TV chefs Rachael Ray or Rocco DiSpirito. (Personally, I agree with Bourdain on both counts and love his diatribes or ongoing jests at their expense.)

But in the end, that's why I love him. He's not afraid to speak his mind or bare his heart for what he thinks or believes in. Or really to do the potentially embarassing things he does in this series. Bourdain genuinely loves food and new experiences and it's apparent from the very first moment of each episode to the closing credits.

And, ultimately, that's why I've got no reservations about watching him.

"No Reservations" airs Monday evenings at 9 pm on the Travel Channel.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Most Outrageous Moments/Scrubs (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); According to Jim/Hope & Faith (ABC); American Idol (FOX); America's Next Top Model (UPN)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Scrubs/Teachers (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); Sons & Daughters/Sons & Daughters (ABC); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)

10 pm: The Amazing Race (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC); Boston Legal (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8:30 pm: Scrubs.

Gilmore Girls is yet another repeat in a long line of repeats (fret not, GG fans, it FINALLY returns with a new episode next week) and I don't do American Idol anymore, so I will probably catch Scrubs, one of the single best written and acted comedies currently on television. I'm behind on my Scrubs watching by several seasons (I got hooked on the DVDs), but I'll catch it tonight.

9 pm: The Unit.

Tonight, Mamet, Ryan, and Co. bring us an episode entitled, "True Believers" (written by Shawn Ryan), in which the team must protect the Mexican drug minister, whom a cartel targets for death. Which would be difficult enough, but then the minister's family is also kidnapped, raising the stakes significantly for everyone involved. Could they protect puppies just once? You know, for a change of scenery?

10 pm: The Amazing Race.

On The Amazing Race ("Good Thing I Took That Human Anatomy Class in High School"), nothing goes right for several teams: one pair gets lost on their way to the road block... only to end up at the pit stop; Lori has a meltdown trying to assemble a statue; and the teams must locate a marked piece of clothing from more than 2000 pieces of laundry. Meanwhile, Phil acts dignified in the face of stupidity from Eric and Jeremy and maybe even points at an approaching team. Sounds like another brilliant episode of the sophisticated granddaddy of reality series.


Anonymous said…
Wow. I caught the very end of the Japan hour and the entire China hour last night and was completely entranced. As a fan of all things spicy, I was salivating over the "hot pot" segment. Everything looked so delicious.
Jace Lacob said…
Whitney, I too was salivating over the hot pot... though that thing seemed HOT. Like atomic blast hot. But the stuff that I was really drooling over was the gorgeous feast at the farmhouse. Yum!
staci said…
I thought I was the only one who watched "No Reservations". What a great show.

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