Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Anthony Bourdain: Absurd Man

“I think when you don’t give a sh** is when you win.”

- Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

No Reservations is our favorite TV show. Anthony Bourdain - former chef and now author, world traveler and TV host - visits places far and wide to explore the world’s cuisines in their native settings.

The particular snippet above comes from an episode in Harbin, China, a frosty, wintry wonderland in the northern part of the country, settled around the Songhua River. Near the end of the show, Bourdain is sitting around a table with his Chinese hosts. One of them in particular is a happy go-lucky sort of guy. Throughout the show he is singing and generally making a ham of himself. He wears a cowboy hat and flight jacket with an American flag stitched on the shoulder. He loves America. He is also the proprietor of several restaurants and a successful guy by any of the usual measures.

So, Bourdain asks him what his secret is… The question is translated. The man answers in Chinese. The answer is translated back. “He has many assistants that help him manage his business.” There is an awkward pause as all realize something was lost in the translation.

Bourdain tries again. “No, I mean like a mental attitude or something that he finds invaluable in life…”

Ah, now the man gives his answer. “Live like a child.” Live everyday like you are a child. Have fun. Forget your inhibitions. Live as long as possible and die a child. That’s the message, from memory, mind you – as I don’t have a transcript of the show in front of me. We thought that was a great response.

At this point, Bourdain delivers his line, which I quote up top. We thought about it for some time after the show and hence decided to write it up here. It’s a fairly absurd sentiment.

Bourdain is an absurd man of sorts. In one episode, the mechanics of a cock fight are explained to him. In this case, the people eat the loser. Bourdain comments, “It’d be much more philosophically interesting if they ate the winner.” That would be a commentary on the futility of man’s efforts, he says. We all have our appointments with the grim ferryman.

We first found Bourdain back in 2000, when he wrote a bestseller Kitchen Confidential, his sort-of-memoir on his 25 years in the restaurant business. (Well worth the read. It’s funny. It’s immensely entertaining. And you will never eat at a buffet again, nor order fish on Mondays, nor… well; read the book and you’ll see).

We recall another scene in the book, where he is going through culinary school and there this one chef that everybody is terrified of. He is “a monstrous, despotic, iron-fisted Frenchman who ruled his kitchen like President for Life, Idi Amin…” People dreaded his class as he was famous to dressing down his students with a harsh verbal tirade that brought many to tears.

Bourdain is able to stand it better than anyone simply because he doesn’t give a flip.

“I did the convict thing. The louder and more confrontational the authority figure got, the more dreamy and relaxed I became…” The old man, in the throes of his tirade, knows he’s not getting to Bourdain at all. “I think the old bastard might have even smiled a bit, halfway through. There seemed to be a twinkle of amusement in his eye as he finally dismissed me with disgust… the fast bastard didn’t scare me. And he knew it. He could have smacked me upside the head with a skillet and I would have smiled at him through broken teeth.”

It seems a good way to be. Total detachment in the face of life’s trials and barbs. Really, who gives a flip? None of it matters anyway, so it seems ridiculous to let anything get under your skin.

For instance, we were in the car with Bomstein, who was driving. Bomstein tried to get over to make a left turn. A jerky guy refused to let us in and Bomstein may or may not have – we weren’t paying very close attention – cut him off somewhat. The guy drives by us and gives us the finger.

We both laughed out loud. That, it seems, is some kind of snapshot of the absurd. First, the mere gesture itself, and the intent behind it, is inherently ridiculous. Second, reacting to it in anger is even more ridiculous. Laughter is like a great tonic of absurdity. Hard to be angry when you have this perspective.

It’s like Bourdain says, you really do win at the game of life when you stop caring so much about the outcome and just live free regardless… If fate strikes you across the face, smile back at it with a grin of broken teeth.


  1. Brilliant.
    My only wish is that more people in my life were of this understanding. But then I recall how absurd that is, smile, and go on.
    You guys sure know how to love life.

  2. I couldn't help but think of a funny analogy (it's a bit of a stretch . . .) inspired by this entry . . .

    I always found it amusing during the Winter Olympics (anti-absurd event!) when, after the "real" competition of the figure skating events is over (and the drama and tension and tears and such), there is an "exhibition" in which skaters then show levity, dress up in silly costumes (well, silli*er* . . .) and generally take the whole thing with a proverbial grain of salt. After all, the "serious, meaningful" competition is over at that point . . .

    My point? Why can't we simply treat our entire lives as one big "exhibition?!" The angst-ridden, anti-absurd notion of life as competition, well . . . better to smile with our broken teeth . . .