Thursday, May 26, 2011

Adrian and Tony come to town

Both Adrian Anthony Gill and Anthony Bourdain were in Sydney this month for the Sydney Writer's Festival. Any of  the writers who were in town must have thought they had died and gone to heaven - the weather was perfect, gentle autumn sunshine everyday, the venue (down by the harbour, in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge) is gorgeous and there were huge crowds of people milling around ready to hang on their every word and buy their books. For me the Festival is an opportunity to put a person to the face you've only seen on television or to the voice you've heard on the radio or perhaps just in your head. And there seem to be precious few opportunities to hear interesting people talk about food so I was a presence at several of the  Gill and/or Bourdain sessions.
Adrian was just as eloquent and angry in the flesh as he is in print, although perhaps even more arrogant and uncompromising and dare I say it somewhat rude and ungenerous, both to his interviewers and his audience. I know his raison d'être is to be provocative but constantly playing for the laughs and the boos wears a bit thin after a while. They both appeared relaxed and confident but Adrian seemed more like a clever school boy compared to Bourdain who was suave, urbane, patient and polite. Both of them were however very honest and Gill spoke quite freely about his alcoholism and his dyslexia while Anthony certainly has made no secret of his past.
As is nearly always the case with interviews the interviewer rarely asks the questions you might want to hear answered and you can't help but feel sorry for 'celebrities' who have to come up with some sort of answer never mind how inane the question, however there were one or two exchanges which were at least worth thinking about.

1. One of Gill's criticisms of Britain is that it is a nostalgic country, that there is a general feeling that the best is in the past and therefore that the past has to be preserved. So the modern is just a reworking of what has worked before which is debilitating in contrast to countries like Australia where there is a general sense of optimism and looking outward rather than inward and backward. It struck me that this is exactly the contrast between what say Blumenthal is doing at the Fat Duck, and more particularly his London restaurant Dinner, and Redzepi is doing at Noma. The food that Blumenthal presents is often grounded in some historical precedent, as though it needs some sort of justification, although it uses modern techniques, whereas Redzepi and Adrià don't appear concern themselves with the past at all.
Both Gill and Bourdain think Adrià is a genius but at the same time they were scathing about interminable degustation menus, restaurants serving food which has to be explained and the notion of a landscape on the plate. Would that someone had asked how they reconcile what appear to be opposing views - the menu at elBulli is interminable, many of the dishes need to be explained and the appearance of the food on the plate is highly contrived. The answer I expect lies in the notion that Adrià knows/understands what he is doing whereas lesser mortals don't and are just being pretentious, but I'm not so convinced myself. However I can't claim to have actually eaten at elBulli so herewith an excerpt from Gill's review which appeared in The Sunday Times on September 28, 2008 (which you can access here)
This is just very, very good cooking: intense, and obtusely original, in the sense that it’s not rooted in history or region or culinary orthodoxy or fashion. It certainly isn’t Spanish. It manipulates a worldwide variety of ingredients. We were given 38 courses that came without fuss or fanfare, at intervals dictated by how fast we ate, not how slowly the kitchen could cook. Most of it was eaten with fingers in a mouthful or two. The combinations of flavours and textures and methods are challenging, but never overpowering, and often astonishing. I’m loath to describe the ingredients: they sound comical or disgusting. Food on paper is only ever an approximation of food in the mouth, and it relies on a shared experience, and if you haven’t eaten here, you haven’t had the experience.

2. Both men were asked on more than one occasion to comment on organic food. There was a consensus that the 'movement' was more of a marketing campaign than anything else since 'organic' does  not necessarily have much at all to do with quality but  has everything to to with creating feelings of guilt and promoting a two tier food system. Whilst a general concern about food politics and food policies, about the provenance of our food, should lead to improvements (more options, more variety) for all (food consumers and food producers)  anything which promotes elitism and snobbery ('farm to table' for example is a bit of a nonsense since all food comes from some sort of farm) is antithetical  to good eating.  Bourdain  in particular argued that the chef is not in the business of politics but the business of pleasure, his concern is deliciousness so, for example, he wouldn't use animals which had been mistreated because said animals wouldn't taste good.

3. On the ethics of eating or at least on the ethics of eating meat it appears that the current criterion is whether or not you would be prepared to eat human flesh. Well it goes without saying that Adrian would and Tony seemed to think that it made sense in the right circumstances, given that both of them had to admit that there wasn't much that was edible that they hadn't  already tried at some time. But Gill went on further to suggest that food is all about eating other people, that is their fresh air, their labour, their water, their land and their culture. Is this a profound statement or just more Gill-speak?  He also said that he didn't much care if animals did suffer, reasoning that we should be giving our time and attention to human rights -his example being that most Ghanaian dishwashers are treated far worse than the geese force fed to make foie gras. We should be more concerned about the welfare of people who work in kitchens (and by extension the people who produce our food at all levels) before we started worrying about animals.

4. Both also agreed that eating is less about what we eat and more about who we eat with. Gill makes the point that humans are the only animals who can make eye contact while they eat signifying that we can eat together without being competitive. Which might be true (more Gill-speak?) but humans do use food to demonstrate status - both intellectual, cultural and social - so eating is to some extent competitive albeit on a more sophisticated level that actually snatching the food off someone else's plate.

5. Adrian Gill also had some thought provoking things to say about electronic media. Not surprisingly he remains a staunch advocate of the free press, by which he means printed newspapers.(He does work for Rupert Murdoch.) He spoke particularly about the discipline involved with print, the editing and peer review, the attention to quality which was, in his opinion, not evident in most of the material churned out on the internet (in particular by bloggers whose opinions are worthless  - he called the internet a virtuous circle of self-satisfaction!). More particularly, and this from someone who is regularly in trouble for his caustic comments, he doesn't like the tone of the internet, the indiscriminate anger evident in the anonymous comments people make, going so far as to say that anonymity is offensive to humanity.

So I wouldn't invite A. A. Gill home for dinner (well he wouldn't come anyway because he doesn't go to dinner parties - not since he sent the food back at the last one he was invited to) but he certainly isn't afraid of being controversial and contrary. He might be a bit smug and self-satisfied but you could never call him boring or predictable. The world would certainly be a poorer place if we didn't have people like him to make us think and question, to justify our own stance on food issues and face up to our prejudices, preconceptions and pretensions. Anthony Bourdain on the other hand could come round for dinner anytime, he would be much too polite to refuse the food on offer, but I doubt the conversation would be as lively.

The Food Fighters panel,  Gill and Bourdain 'moderated' by a hapless Tony Bilson (recorded live at the Sydney Town Hall on 19 May) can be accessed here


  1. Hello Alison
    I hate to break the pure virginal comments section but
    if you listen to it as a podcast as oposed to being there it sounded pretty strained from this end. Bilson made the mistake of blowing his nose too early with the hey i'm one of you guys i'm cool -- leaving gill an opening to get snarky really quickly. Bourdain quickly gets on to Ferran to try to steady the waters but no matter how hard Tony tried to bale out the bilge the ship was sinking from the word go. Its a writers festival not much said about words.

  2. You are absolutley right George. All in all the session with Bilson was a great disappointment. Caroline Baum attempted to discuss writing with Gill but he was rather more animated when he started talking about pornography. Jill Dupleix had an easier time with Tony Bourdain but still didn't talk much about 'food writing'. By far the most entertaining session was Chip Rowley with Gill and Bob Car talking about digital media. I couldn't help but think that Gill in particular, and probably Bourdain as well, just gets fed up to the back teeth with talking about food.