Fan Malcolm Jolley finds an online video that shows another side of the chef/author/broadcaster.
Since the events of last November, I have spent a fair amount of time on CNN.com, to keep abreast of the goings on in the republic to our south. CNN is the home of Anthony Bourdain’s travelogue with food show Parts Unknown, so while checking up on The Donald’s antics, I often see promotions for it on the network’s homepage. I mostly don’t pay much attention to them since watching Anthony Bourdain’s show is something of a Sunday family event in our house, and even if we miss an episode, we buy every season on iTunes to make sure we see them al. And often we’ll even watch past episodes together over again, because it’s the one show that every one in the household will agree to watch at any given time. Sufficed to say my family are fans, as I have been since my wife passed me her issue of the New Yorker after laughing out loud from reading an article about brunch nearly twenty years ago.
That article, other fans will know, landed Anthony Bourdain a book deal, which begat a TV show, A Cook’s Tour (old episodes of which are streaming on Netflix), and a decade and a half of success as an author, broadcaster, public speaker and producer of all things in the media, including a personal investment in Roads & Kingdoms, a website magazine that calls itself “an independent journal of food, politics, travel and culture.” Reading Roads & Kingdoms is a bit like reading a hipster version of Bourdain, and when the relationship between the two entities was announced in 2015, I imagine most people interested in the lifestyle media world thought it was a good match. I hadn’t thought much about that connection until recently, when I was on the CNN website and saw a promoting ad for collaborative website about Bourdain’s show, co-sponsored by Roads & Kingdoms, called explorepartsunkown.com. On that site I found a video series I had not heard of, produced this year and sponsored by Land Rover, called Return to Catalunya, starring Bourdain and Roads & Kingdom’s Co-Founder and Publisher Matt Goulding, which finds the two on a road trip (guess what kind of car they’re driving) in and from Barcelona to the Costa Brava and back to meet up with Ferran Adria. The series has seven episodes of eight minutes in length, making it just shy of an hour in total, and I watched and enjoyed it at once in one sitting.
One of the reasons for Bourdain’s success, I think, is that although he is not shy with his opinions, his focus is nearly always on someone else. Even the exception to this rule, his autobiographical memoir Kitchen Confidential, is strewn with stories and descriptions of the supporting characters from his career as a cook and chef. I have met and interviewed him a couple of times, and I have seen him do this off camera as well: he’ll answer a question, but quickly turn around ask his interlocutor a question back. I think his books and shows are so popular largely because of this innate curiosity. It’s not an act, he’s genuinely interested in people and their stories, and his shows always have other important characters in them, for him to interview and elicit questions from. This is the case whether he’s hanging out on camera with David MacMillan and Fred Morin from Joe Beef, or President (at the time) Obama.
What was really interesting about Return to Catalunya was the extent to which the usual dynamic of Bourdain asking the questions was reversed. Goulding married a lady from Barcelona and has settled there, so in the early episodes he plays host. But as they approach the Costa Brava and the meeting with Adria, the relationship pivots, since it’s Bourdain who has the deeper connection to El Bulli, having made (independently) the documentary special Decoding Ferran Adria, which eventually was broadcast as part of his No Reservations show on the Travel Channel in 2006. In between the city and coast the two journalists are filmed in conversation. Goulding, it turns out is an accomplished questioner himself and has learned well from the master. It’s fascinating, at least for a big fan like me, to see Bourdain open up, and acknowledge some of the private costs of his public success, like two failed marriages, and tell some war stories about his career in television came about and was shaped into what it is now.
Return to Catalunya also works, and is interesting in its own right as half a travelogue to Barcelona and half an exploration of what Ferran Adria is up to now. The master chef, who closed El Bulli in 2011, to concentrate on the laboratory in Barcelona he runs with his accomplished chef brother, Albert, offers some intriguing insight on his work then and now. But the real draw, at least for this fan of Anthony Bourdain, was the rare sustained look into the man himself. It’s must see TV for anyone who follows him and his work.