Thursday, March 06, 2008

Anthony Bourdain Does Romania. National Scandal Ensues!

Poor Tony Bourdain. A week ago his show "No Reservations" aired an episode about Romania on the Travel Network. It wasn’t his best work, by a long shot, but seasoned fans of Bourdain are used to Tony traveling on an off day in an off place. The same honesty that made his book Kitchen Confidential stand out from the tons of available cutesy chef memoirs makes his TV series so convincing. Previously, No Reservations has seen Bourdain unhappy, tired, frustrated or in major culinary distress in locations including Iceland, Korea, and Scotland. Sometimes, as in the No Reservations episodes in Beirut or New Orleans, bad travel can make for great documentary TV film. But over at Bourdain’s Travel Network blog the responses to his Romania show are stacking up by the minute. So far, there are over 1200 comments, mostly from irate Romanians and Romanian-Americans ranging from perturbed to outright hate mail. Oops! Bourdain has definitely ticked off the Romanians. Most of the responses are along the lines of "Tony has let down Romania! Tony is a dumb American! Tony has blackened the image of all Romanians! Bad Tony! " Or, on the lighter side "I know where you can find a good tripe ciorba! You should have asked me!"It has even led to a news story in the Romanian newspaper Cotodianul, under the title "Scandalul Tony Bourdain" (The Tony Bourdain Scandal – I’m sure he’s never had to deal with a headline like that before) which claims that the Romanian ministry of Tourism paid the No Reservations crew $20,000 to produce the episode, which the Tourism ministry obviously expected to be a paeon to the wonders of mici and ciorba. Romanians are pretty touchy about their image - they have come a long, long way since the bad old Ceaucescu days when buying bread and oil meant standing in lines going around the block.Just about every East European country has a travel ministry that is naively willing to pay for positive advertising – Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland are really no different than Romania in this. In East Europe, sadly, all media and journalism is seen as up for sale, and it was natural for the Romanian Ministry to think that by helping out the No Reservations crew they could be buying their opinion outright as well. All of the post communist former Ost-Bloc countries have huge inferiority complexes which are addressed by vast ego-building overcompensation, usually in the form of Culture Ministry tourist campaigns extolling the amazing qualities that the given country can offer. Dracula! Peasants! More Dracula! (Hungary has tried just about everything. We are all waiting to see if they will try sellling Hungary as a ski and surf paradise next.) A look at the NR credit roll shows that the NR crew stayed at the Hotel Athenee Palace in Bucharest (as expensive and posh as Bucharest can offer), and somehow were hipped to attend a Halloween night costume ball in Dracula’s castle in Poiana Brasov. (Sad. Brasov actually has some fine eateries.) Not what we would normally think of as classic "Romanian" experiences, unless of course you are a shady Russian buying up some hotels on the cheap... (oops... Zamir again...) Obviously somebody back at the Ministry of Kitsch Images had a hand in choosing the No Reservations itinerary. Put Bourdain in the middle of a Romanian Ministry of Tourism Kitsch-a-Thon and watch what happens! For the curious, you can see the episodes on Youtube beginning here. It is almost painful to watch. I felt bad watching Bourdain dipped in bat shit while caving in Jamaica, but watching him suffer through ciorba and mici at the bar in the market place in Sighetul Marmatei was almost as bad. I’ve eaten the mici there, too. Tony should have asked a local where to find the good mici. And you have to ask. A lot of the episode is exactly what many tourists encounter when they visit Romania. Outside of the Dracula castles, the touristic infrastructure has a long way to go. But hell... poor Bourdain stepped into a deep pile by hiring a Russian guide and taking official advice from the Romanian Tourism ministry to show Romania. (And he admits as much on his blog.) To be honest, this may have been the weakest episode of No Reservations ever – Tony’s old Russian guide, Zamir, pretended – badly – to speak Romanian and know what he was talking about, and eventually spent two thirds of the show drunk and finding new and uninspiring ways to fit the phrase "no reservations!" into his commentary. "Ah, now we will drink some "tookah!" (Tsuica…) I am amazed Tony didn’t shoot him. It would have made for unique TV history.Given the response comments on Bourdains blog, (and over at Chowhound) I doubt that Tony is heading back there soon to give it another go. To be honest, it was stupid to visit in October when all is gray and dreary. It was dumb to take a Russian as a guide and run through all the "End of Communism" cliches all over again. It was naïve to think that official ministry fixers would know where to find good food. Heck, I’ve worked as a fixer for the BBC in Hungary, and I can tell you no restaurant will let you waltz into the kitchen or dining room uninvited with a camera and film impromtu scenes. It’s just one of those Central European post-Habsburg control-freak quirks folks around here subscribe to. After 1200 nasty blog comments and a national "Scandalul Bourdain" to contemplate, that’s kind of sad. Bourdain deserves to catch up on what he missed. Like Nitsa, our Maramures friend who has recently reinvented the vocabulary of things one can do with lettuce, a previously unkown vegetable. And there is a peasant woman, Mrs. Derevlean, near Sucevita in Bukovina who runs an agrotourism pension who is – no exaggeration – possibly the best cook in Europe. You arrive, and husband goes into the barn and kills a calf or sheep for dinner. Home made yogurt, home baked bread. We went for an overnight stay and hung around for a week, the food was that good. Her secret? "I have never, ever, eaten in a restaurant in my life."And let’s give Anthony a break, after all, the guy grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, way out on the wrong side of the Overpeck creek swamp from Teaneck. He’s the same age as me, and he went to Culinary Institute back in the days when I was up there every weekend hanging with Chops McCoy and playing blues fiddle in the CIA’s old student-run burger diner and beer bar. Watch Bourdain’s NJ episode and see what happens when Tony is on his game in his own stomping grounds.He's good. Very good.It is sad. Bourdain is going to miss out on the donuts at Gogoasa Infuriata, the fried donut chain in Cluj that makes cruising for zeppoles in Hackensack on a Friday night look lame. A lot of the best food, as everywhere, is only found at homes. Mamaliga cooked as balmos in cheese whey in Transylvania. I didn't see him trying any sarmale, since few Romanian restaurants serve them, or anything besides fried meat and pizza. A nice Moldavian tochanitsa with mamaliga? Rare outside of family dinners. Not to mention the fact that thousands of Romanians have returned from working in kitchens abroad and essentially redefined and refined what goes on in some of the new restaurants you find in out of the way towns around Romania. If anything, Romanians have remade Italian cooking as the new Romanian cuisine – there is always some killer pizza to be found whenever you get tired of mici and ciorba, and they are learning to like Chinese and Japanese as well. (And, hey – I like mici and ciorba! And tsuica! Especially tsuica! That bottle on the table below wasn't apple juice, friends.)

22 comments:

traveler one said...

What a great post! I read the first paragraph and was going to write a comment trying to explain why it is dangerous to stir up the ex-communist countries but you said it so well! Having lived in Romania and now in Albania I am well aware how little it takes to make them defensive (understandably so)!

rs said...

Romania is not Disney World so I don't care about showing it like it is or not, but he completely failed show what really is interesting there. It was like the travelogue of an arrogant center-of-the-world new yorker touring the Romania pavilion in a past-its-prime nationalistic Russian theme park parody of Epcot. Man, that was a terrible show...they never should have aired it. And his "explanation" only made it worse and made him look even more arrogant and clueless.

Thanks for such an even-handed review of the issues with it. The guy really missed the mark.

rs said...

Oh, also, I don't want to sound toooo negative in my little comment there. Mr Bourdain was very diplomatic in handling the great NYC / Montreal Bagel debate in the Quebec episode.

Michael said...

Bourdain has to blaim his executive producers for this fiasco. On the other hand, I am really curios if the $20,000 claimed to be paid by the officials at the Ministry of Tourism really went to Bordain or his executive producers. I highly doubt it. I bet they paid their expenses and they were told to submit for reimbursment, but someone in Romania made some money with this film crew.

The hysteria in Romania is over the contention by some hack journalist at Cotidianul that Tony pocketed $20K for this version of Borat in Transylvania. Heck, very few people actually think beyond what the mass-media serves them daily...

IMHO, when you rub elbows with Ferran Adria and Marco Pierre White you don't look for working class eateries in Romania; or if you do, you prepare a little in advance, which is extremely hard to do for a non-native given the food culture in Romania, it's just a bit unsofisticated, and that's putting it mildly.

Dan Carkner said...

Haha! Great post, I had a good laugh.

Elisabeth Winkler said...

I love your blog! I arrived searching for why mussels are not kosher and ended up on this amazing journey through eastern Europe (the land of my foremothers!). I have never been to Odessa (where they hail from) and apart from watching the Battleship Potemkin, this is the nearest I have got - and feeling closer thanks to your lively descriptions and photos. Your comments on the Anthony Bourdain scandal made me laugh. Keep up the good work - you are now on my blogroll at http://realfoodlover.wordpress.com

afalewyn said...

I realize that this episode was probably the furthest from what the series is about...but it is my all-time favorite because it kept me laughing! Between the dracula hotel, the drunk russian, and the looks of shame from anthony...what a laugh. I'm sorry if it offended people but come on, lighten up! What were they thinking by airing this episode?!?! ;p

Seriously Romania said...

I've been enjoying your blog and this post in particular. Thank you for affirming my suspicions about what was missing from that episode, as well as teaching me a little bit more about what to look for when I move to Brasov in a month. Many thanks!

-Seriously

bathmate said...

very good posting. i liked it. :-)

bathmate

徐若瑄Vivian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I agree. If he ever does Hungary(doubt it since the "Romania Incident", as I dub it) I hope he doesn't do a repeat of Romania.

Anyways good luck with the blog and have a great day.

Tom Berlin said...

I love Bourdain, but this episode was not his best work. I'm pretty sure they quite using Zamir for afew seasons after this debacle.

I wish he would come to Budapest and do an Episode. This is a Foodie heaven.

Kiko said...

This was the most reasoned, well thought out comment I've read on the whole Romania disaster, including what Tony wrote. I occasionally watch that episode again for the comedy value; besides Tony has never represented himself as providing a comprehensive or even balanced view of the places he visits.

But it sure was nice to read the perspective of someone who obviously knows the country a lot better than a TV crew in-country for a week could ever hope to. If they ever attempt to do a Romania Redux (unlikely, I know), I am nominating you as their fixer!

Anonymous said...

Personally as an American having spent years in Romania I can tell you this episode was intended to show exactly what it depicted.

It all went wrong for Romania after they tried to charge Tony and his crew a fee/square meter to film in the opening sequence which is 100% Romanian. He even stated we pre-arranged our visit with the Ministry of Tourisms approval but somehow this paperwork was lost. I think you could see it in Tony's face and his reaction and then he was out for payback.

You reap what you sew Romania but of course not all of Romania is shady and they do not all deserve to be painted so harshly. He should have focused on the Orthodox Church...corruption, waste, greed and absolutely nothing is done for the people unless they pay including funerals, baptism, weddings and beyond.

Anonymous said...

I concur with the Anonymous comment above. It was obvious Tony was fed up when he was asked to pay an extorted fee to shoot in an historical district.

Also, Eastern and Central European food is challenging to make interesting and distinctive from one country to another. Tony hasn't even been to Poland or Hungary. Poland is also a large ethnic group in the U.S. The Germany, Austria and Czech episodes seemed to struggle with the food. How much sausage, pork and dumplings can you eat and film? Hell, he even went to a Vietnamese market/restaurant district near Prague to break it up. Ukraine wasn't much different.

Having said all that, I could have done with less of the Dracula Halloween party. For some reason, he decided to take Romania to task. It is one of my least favorite episodes.

Rachel Page said...

Bourdain is clearly miserable throughout the majority of the episode and because of this, his wit turns razor-sharp, which makes for the funniest episode of “No Reservations” there is.

rui said...

the car sounds like a lawnmower,and the exaust fumes coming out the passenger side is really a matter of which one will get you first, lol,and what about that kid peeling off a piece of a recently deceased pig, this show was hilarious

Paul O'Brien said...

Thank you.

MsOhhmg said...

Oh man..this episode is so dang hilarious!!! One of my favorites! Love Zamir!

Zack Eritz said...

I must admit, I enjoyed this episode for the wrong reasons. Though, I did cringe quite a few times...

Adrian Usturoi said...

i'm from Romania and i'm an american citizen since 1994. I know about cooking in my country a lot. I watched the romanian episode and i cried ! How is it possible that a man like you to go in a country whithout knowing anything about it ! Stupid, ignorant, and not interested at all in romanian cuisine. I think You should get in touch with GEORGE MIHAI , from channel D for an apologie to an entire nation. GO BACK IF YOU ARE A MAN ! This time you'll learn that Romania was NEVER A RUSSIAN PROVINCE LIKE MOST AMERICANS KNOW ! YOUR EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM SUCKS ! Your host would be a real ROMANIAN. You my have a FANTASTIC REVELATION ! I'll would like to give you and your crew 50,000 $ just like that, but unfortunately i did not hit the lottery . I'm retired with 598 $ a month !!!!! Thank You , only if You'll do it !!!!!

Mihai said...

Andrew Zimmern is a much better showman and a chef than you will ever be Bourdain. Besides Zimmern is funny and addictive to watch. Bourdain, you need a different job, perhaps at a mortuary.