The Jew And The Carrot

Anthony Bourdain's Big Israeli Disappointment

By Devra Ferst

  • Print
  • Share Share

I have a confession — a somewhat unacceptable one for a food editor — I do not enjoy food television. Thank you very much for your food porn shots of gem-like amuse bouche and towering cakes, but I’d rather be cooking than salivating in front of my computer.

I have one significant exception: anything containing Anthony Bourdain. The foulmouthed but insightful former chef’s shows are must watch events for me. Part entertainment, part essential culinary education, I’ve watched Tony travel around the world and try foods that have made me board airplanes and foods that no matter how evolved my palate ever becomes I will never want to eat (sorry, the fire-roasted anus of an animal in the Namibia episode was just too much).

But until this year (and tonight’s episode, the premier of this season’s Parts Unknown) Bourdain had never traveled to sample the cuisine I know best — Israeli food. In 2011 Rob Eshman at the Jewish Journal wrote an open letter urging Tony to take a trip to the Holy Land, around the same time a Facebook group called “Send Anthony Bourdain to Israel” cropped up.

Well, it took 11 seasons, but Bourdain finally arrived. What could have been a spectacular episode focusing on the emerging food cultures Israel and the Palestinian Territories turned into perhaps the most disappointing Bourdain show I’ve seen.

The segment starts with Tony, in his typical fashion, pondering aloud: “It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world…and there’s no hope, none, of talking about it without pissing somebody if not everybody off.” That may very well be true, but instead of embracing his patented “Fuck-You-I’ll-Say-Whatever-I-Want” attitude, Bourdain spends the episode looking physically uncomfortable and trying desperately to cover his bases and not, as he says, piss anyone off.

He divides his time between the Kotel and Old City, a West Bank Settlement, an Arab refugee camp and even Gaza, trying to provide something for everyone. So intent on discussing politics and daily life he overlooks how religion impacts the region’s food and nearly misses the meal served to him on a visit to a Palestinian cooking school in the West Bank. And, most significantly, he leaves out any discussion of what defines Israeli cuisine and West Bank Palestinian cuisine.

Commenters and bloggers long criticized Bourdain’s delay in filming the show, saying he shied away from addressing the politically charged conflict — a claim that likely has some truth to it.

Initially, however, I was thankful for the delay. Israel’s culinary scene has developed immensely in the past few years both domestically namely in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and abroad thanks to the international bestselling cookbook “Jerusalem” by London-based chefs Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi (who joins Bourdain for a part of the show). I hoped the time would allow Tony to get a real taste of what’s being served on tables around the country. But, he barely scratches the surface and spends scant time discussing food with Ottolenghi, who is arguably the most significant Israeli chef in the world.

The wait did, however, pay off in one significant way. Bourdain’s recent migration from the Travel Channel to CNN was likely what allowed him to gain access to Gaza. By far the most interesting segment of the show takes place in the congested territory with Palestinian-American cookbook author Laila el-Haddad who breaks down Gazan food into three distinctive cuisines — the dishes of 1948 refugees, spicy Gaza City specialties and the seafood heavy cuisine of the coast. But, besides this scene and a stop at Majda, a restaurant co-owned by a Palestinian husband and an Israeli wife in the Jerusalem foothills, the episode is shockingly devoid of food.

The episode had its entertaining moments: a shot of Bourdain donning tefillin at the Kotel is priceless and his crass joke about “What Would Jesus Wear” after spotting a crown of thorns got some laughs from my fellow viewers. But — perhaps in an effort to not offend some viewers — the episode was noticeably short on his signature one liners. Oddly cut, I fear much of the crew’s filming ended up on the editing floor creating a dry episode lacking an engaging story line and frankly some pertinent food shots.

Bourdain has in many ways built his fame by acting (and talking) like a restaurant chef out of the kitchen, saying what many are thinking but would never say. His comments are bound to offend some, but when he keeps his mouth shut, everyone loses.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: parts unknown, no reservations, israeli food, gazan food, anthony bourdain

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.