Before November 2, the last time I had a tray on my lap I was a preteen eating a TV dinner. But a few weeks ago I found myself in the Roxy in downtown Manhattan, squished into a plush leather chair with a small tray over my knees. I’m precariously balancing four drams of Scotch that run from $40 to $400 a bottle. An Evian water — 330 milliliters in a glass bottle — is in the cup holder in front of me, and trendy caramelized popcorn is under my seat. I feel a passing sense of shame I didn’t read up more on the Scotch company that provided me my first glass-bottled water experience, but the shame is fleeting. I’m here, suffering through this second adolescence, to see Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain was in the Roxy Theater for an official screening of “Raw Craft,” Balvenie Distillery’s YouTube series. In the series, Bourdain talks shop with various craftspeople, reveling in the time it takes to create suits and shoes and books by hand. Each episode is around 10 minutes long, at the end of which the craftsperson and Anthony Bourdain share a dram of Balvenie.
That Anthony Bourdain is representing Balvenie is astounding. The handcrafted goods of the Balvenie series come dangerously close to hipster endeavors for the famously anti-hipster celebrity. He is also on the record calling beer snobs the “fucking ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.'” And yet, sitting in a director’s chair on the stage at the Roxy in a gray suit with no tie and a single dram of Balvenie next to him, Bourdain talked about how cool handcrafted books are.
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The event was particularly jarring for me because I happen to know as much about Bourdain as he’s willing to make public. Like the fact that he was addicted to heroin and cocaine, but he won’t relapse when drinking alcohol because his experiences were so awful. Or the fact that he’s (illegally) consumed an endangered songbird known as an Ortolan with the top chefs of New York. I also know that Bourdain has a virulent hatred of Rachel Ray, and Guy Fieri, and the entire Food Network. He’s a quote machine in the flesh, equally ready to deliver one-liner wisdom on hangover cures (spicy food and weed) as he is to reminisce about his experience of the 2006 bombing of Beirut, Lebanon.
This is the Bourdain I’ve dedicated huge swaths of my life to. I’ve followed his every publication, his every TV appearance, every headline with his name in it proclaiming that “you won’t believe what he said this time!” He’s always been the bad boy of food who is just as likely to get a new tattoo in the middle of a show as he is to deliver some previously unheard of euphemism for evacuating his bowels.
And yet, as an avid fan with a front-row seat that November afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice something no one – least of all Bourdain himself – seems willing to admit: The Bourdain brand has shifted. He’s 60 now, has a nine-year-old daughter and is in arguably the best shape of his life, thanks to jiu-jitsu. To top it all off, he’s representing a craft whiskey for hipsters.
There’s an easy explanation for all this — that Bourdain has simply sold out. Bourdain himself acknowledged a penchant for trading celebrity for cash back in 2010, when he called the first chapter “Selling Out” in his book, “Medium Raw.” “But what about week after week of smiling, nodding your head, pretending to laugh, telling the same stories, giving the same answers as if they’d just — only now — occurred to you for the first time?” Bourdain writes. “Who’s the ho now? Me. That’s who.”
But what if this latest movement in Anthony Bourdain’s life isn’t selling out at all? What if his Balvenie series represents a cunning move on the part of the celebrity to subtly shift his brand into a more-refined lifestyle brand, while still cashing in on his party-boy drinking image? In that case, the Balvenie series would be the perfect move — so perfect in fact that no one seems to have noticed the change.
My obsession with Bourdain started one long weekend in Alabama where I was in college at Auburn University. I had a bad case of the flu, and home became a plush reclining chair and a Netflix-armed TV mounted on the wall. Over the course of a single, feverish weekend, I binged full seasons of “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” I even watched two seasons of “The Layover,” probably his least memorable show. I was hooked. His demeanor and way of talking about food was so refreshingly different from the other shows you found on TV, shows perhaps featuring fetishizing, food porn guys with blond spiked hair.
Then came the books. Bourdain’s writing is about food, but it’s not for foodies. He sprinkles his writing with “fucks” and “shits” and not-so-subtle jabs at frenemies. Nothing is off limits, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining to read than the chamomile-tea writing the established food and beverage media dribbles out. I read those books and I thought: I want to write like that. I wanted his career. I wanted to make a living writing about food, drinks, culture and travel. If I could write like those essays in “The Nasty Bits,” I thought, I would never have to settle for writing high school football recaps.
But it was more than just the skill he possessed. In his shows and his books, Bourdain’s bad boyism is an easy sell to millennials like me. In his early shows, before his hair turned gray and when he had a little less ink on his arms, drinking was often the main event, and his drinking in the episodes is legend. In the Ukraine episode of “No Reservations,” filmed in 2011, he shares a bottle or two of Ukrainian vodka over a meal. He downs each wine-sized portion of straight vodka and chases with a quick shake of his head. In 2013, on CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain got blitzed past memory after a horrifyingly awkward fishing trip in Sicily. “I’m sitting in a nearby café pounding one Negroni after another in a smoldering, miserable rage,” Bourdain says in the episode. “By the time dinner rolls around, I’m ripped to the TV-bleep. Did I mention it’s my birthday?”
Bourdain got blitzed on camera last year, too, when he had an over-indulgent night in Seoul and ate Korean barbecue with businessmen. The episode’s structure is familiar: It starts out calm, but people start slowly getting more inebriated, and then come the fast cuts of taking shots before things start to blur, the camera spins, and words slur.
I came to recognize not just the rhythms of the episodes, but the fluctuations in Bourdain’s persona as he waxed and waned between his sober and drunk versions of himself. Bourdain’s drunk personality was a lighter, more penis- and poop- joke version of himself, compared to his equally funny but darker, more sober self.
It was this deep familiarity with his different personae that led me to the slow, dawning realization that after that first episode of last year’s season of “Parts Unknown,” we were really only getting one Bourdain, and it wasn’t the drunk one. Careful viewing left me with one incontrovertible realization: after he left “No Reservations,” he became noticeably more, well, reserved.
The season premiere of the latest season, season eight, is notably calmer, almost calm enough to be an episode of Balvenie’s “Raw Craft.” Sixteen minutes in, Bourdain announces that he’s going to “Happy Hour in Hanoi.” Here we go, I thought. But instead of getting drunk, Bourdain sticks to Bia Hoi draft beer, which is around 3 to 4 percent alcohol by volume. The scene quickly goes to commercial. The next time you seem him drinking alcohol, he gets through a gin and tonic before going up to the top deck of the boat he’s on, curling up in a ball, and “for the rest of the day trying to do as little as possible.”
This episode is probably an outlier, I thought to myself, because of the special guest: President Obama. But rather than an outlier, the slow-paced drinking style seems to stick. In Nashville, he eats with some chefs and has a couple of beers, and then some wine with dinner, reading glasses hanging from the neck of his sweater. Bourdain remains calm amidst drunken revelers in the Nashville episode, despite CNN’s misleading label, “Bourdain parties like a rock star in Nashville” with Jack White and Alison Mosshart. Maybe it’s because he “never much liked going to clubs and concerts,” as he recently told First We Feast. Or maybe it’s because frequent binge drinking isn’t his M.O. anymore.
The New Bourdain makes another appearance in the third episode in Sichuan. Bourdain’s friend is surprised when Bourdain doesn’t drink a beer with his spicy lunch, to which Bourdain shoots back, “Dude, it’s 11:20 a.m.! What type of animal do you think I am?” Indeed.
But Bourdain does get lit at the end of that episode. “Drinking culture is very important here,” he explains. “If you go to a meal your ability to drink lends to a number of assumptions about your general manliness, penis size, your worth as a human being.” Bourdain’s general manliness was put to the test when he had dinner with Baijiu, a distilled grain alcohol that is between 40 and 60 percent alcohol. Bourdain broke the trend of the recent episodes and drank three small shots, and then a shot with each of the eight people around the table. Out came the Bourdain that inspired top 12 lists about drinking.
Still, to someone as deeply involved in Bourdaindom as I, this was the exception that proved the new rule.
Balvenie didn’t pick up Bourdain for his alcohol expertise. He’s only tangentially connected to alcohol through his reputation for heavy drinking. More likely, it was his star power, and reporter’s curiosity, that drew the brand to Bourdain. The thing is, while the “Raw Craft” series is really off Bourdain’s Bad Boy brand, it’s also in a way very much on the changing, more refined Bourdain brand.
Look to “Raw Craft” and you see a glimpse of what Bourdain might be like when he gives up trying to convince everyone around him that he can still eat, drink and binge like people 30 years his junior. It’s a Bourdain that writer John Birdsall found when he interviewed Bourdain for a feature about turning 60.
Bourdain told Birdsall that aging is on his mind, along with a consciousness about disappointing people who wanted to party with him. “They’d get angry that I wouldn’t do a tequila shot,” Bourdain complained, but he just couldn’t anymore. “Because if I did a tequila shot with every line cook who wants to come up and high-five me, I understand what will happen,” he went on. “I want to live. I wanted people to know that. That I’m not that guy.”
He’s certainly not that guy in “Raw Craft.” In the fifth episode, a typical one, the first drink of whiskey appears eight minutes and 45 seconds in. Bourdain pours a dram of Balvenie (“My flair bartending skills have sort of diminished since the ’80s,” he apologizes) for each of the eight book crafters at the table. Before anyone drinks, the scene cuts to the book makers taking turns reading from hand-bound books with the Bad Boy of Food listening on. Finally, 10 minutes and 26 seconds in, Bourdain raises his glass for a toast. “Pour you some more,” he says enigmatically, before drinking down the tiniest bit of Scotch.
People haven’t really questioned the concept that a man known for taking metaphorical dumps on crafted alcohol is now a spokesman for the very same thing. The media hasn’t written about “Raw Craft” the way it writes pull-quote lists of other Bourdain shows. You can blame that on a lack of juicy, stereotype-enforcing quotes available, or on the fact that “Raw Craft” comes off a bit like episodes of forced product placement.
But I think it’s because the media isn’t ready to let Bourdain showcase his more nuanced, less click-baity lifestyle, and maybe, just maybe, Anthony Bourdain isn’t quite ready to force them to do so.
I didn’t get to speak to Bourdain one-on-one when I saw him at the Roxy. I’d been promised a 10-15 minute interview but it never happened, and I wasn’t called on during the tame Q & A that followed the event. I only had one question though. I wanted to present my hypothesis about the tightrope he is walking to Bourdain directly and hear his thoughts about it. Is the Anthony Bourdain brand changing to fit a new lifestyle, I wanted to ask, and will his success carry over? I sent my query over to Magrino Public Relations, which had “scheduled” my interview, but received no response.
The media for its part refuses to let the myth of Bad Boy Bourdain die, though I’m certainly not the only one to notice the shift. Suspicion has been popping up in various other quarters, as when Bourdain again admitted he’s a sellout in 2011, and then in 2013, when the now-defunct Grantland wrote about the “corruption of Anthony Bourdain.”
But brands like “Raw Craft” could help Bourdain shift his image subtly, keeping him in the spotlight while also allowing him to step away from a public anxiously anticipating the next drunken crash.
No matter how long that transition takes or where it takes him, I’ll still be watching.