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.)