My favorite form of television is anything that involves food. It could be the history of food, how to cook food, where does food come from, cooks competitively preparing food, food eating other food – it doesn’t matter. I’ll watch it. There is a definite outcome with this type of entertainment — in the end you see food. There are no story arcs or character development, just a succession of scenes depicting various materials as they go through the process of becoming food. This type of television is just as enjoyable with the sound off, as a parade of butchered meats and chopped cheeses and vegetables get tossed into pots, pans, grills, and ovens. Smothered fat and butter glimmer, the host babbles, blah blah blah. Ligament, tissue, marrow, cartilage – terminology of hospitals and torture films.
A top personality in this world is Anthony Bourdain, retired chef, writer, and host of the Travel Channel programs ‘No Reservations‘ and ‘The Layover,’ plus CNN‘s ‘Parts Unknown.’ To simply call him the host seems obscene and wrong. Anthony Bourdain is the show. Mr. Bourdain travels the globe eating the indigenous foodstuffs of each region while dispensing quips, truths, and insights about the various meals. Bourdain’s books are numerous, and I’ve read quite a few of them and what I find most interesting about them, and the television made by The Food Network and its offspring Cooking Channel, is that they have turned a regular, minimum wage profession into something desirable and worth celebrating.
I spent the first ten years of my working life in restaurants. At any given point you could have called me a dishwasher, prep cook, line cook, waiter, bar-back, busboy, ‘food to-go’ guy, or a last-ditch effort for a manager. In the positions that were not worthy of receiving tips, I made a dollar or two above minimum wage, meaning I made my money by quantity of hours worked, not by quality or any particular skill I had. For some, these are the only jobs available and for others, they act as entry point into the workforce.
Restaurant work is manual labor. Long hours with little pay and opportunity for advancement. I worked lunch and dinner shifts that were relentless, tables turned and so you hold steady at the grill, shouting at the waitstaff about the temperature of the steak and lost orders, you prep plates at the fire and in the end, you towel off, strip and clean the kitchen before heading home. What’s odd yet amazing is how the job has become a desired career path with commercials running daily for various cooking schools that proclaim to be able to set their graduates on a path into the upper levels of the food industry. This is not to dismiss the act of restaurant cooking, in fact, just the opposite. I love the fact that this important yet lowly profession is getting the accolades it deserves.
A hope is that at some point other blue-collar positions gain a status of similar prestige. The postal workers (famous only for their penchant for blind aggressive murder), the janitors, trash men, gas station attendants, toll takers, drug store clerks, receptionists, ticket takers, and street sweepers have yet to be as properly celebrated as the role of cook. They all toil as each of us does in our own way, in a great blackness, unseen and unheard. Nameless faces on the street. Anthony Bourdain has a clear link to this trench, yet he is far from it. He worked himself out of the muck and into the world of books and television, hefty paychecks and endorsements the hook in his mouth. Do the others in the field follow him? Should the other unseen professions demand a cameraman to follow them around? Does the network of shows around the kitchen enrich or exploit the industry? That is the great dilemma, for me at least, when your career is the grunt work, the unheard and unseen shadow play of modern American life — if what you do earns a low wage but is celebrated by the bulk of society, does the fanfare help with the rent? What gives a job worth when there is no respect inherent in the task and your paycheck fails to fully represent what you feel you put into it?
We look to fortune, or at least fame when sometimes all you really need is someone to tell you, ‘You did a hell of a good job. Thank you.’ Who doesn’t want to be told they did a quality job, even if your title is parking lot valet or grocery store clerk?