Fascinating essay in slate by the formidable Paul Levy, lamenting the bad-ass school of food writing propogated by the commercial success of Mr. Bourdain. [Thank you Sam.] Is this long-time, highly-respected and oft-honored food writer jealous? Out of touch with Truth of the Zeitgeist? A pinkie-raising anglophile?  Or does he have a good point?  I found it compelling.  But I’m also skeptical.  He uses Buford as an example of machismo in the kitchen, quoting from Heat (which, yes, I read and found absolutely compelling)—but his choice of material from Heat is Buford whining about getting burned as he’s putting short ribs into a rondeau of hot fat.  That’s not machismo, that’s namby-pampy writer-boy complaining.  So I think Mr. Levy is little bit sensitive.  But who knows?  Bourdain, if you’re conscious and sober, or even if you’re working yourself back to life with the day’s first Hurricane, defend yourself.  Buford, you write too slow to waste any time reading blogs, but you’re taken to task here, as are your esteemed colleagues gopnik and mcphee.

Update: Coincidence or Bourdain backlash?  In my mailbox today I found an envelope from a foodie friend named Lee, living in the Netherlands, containing a clip from the UK’s The Mail on Sunday: scroll down to "It’s asparagus, not a Taliban raid, Marco." Not quite sure what’s going on here.


53 Wonderful responses to “Too much testosterone in the journaleesta stew?”

  • MRR

    I hardly think of Bill Buford as an example of machismo in food writing or the kitchen. Fortunately the parts of Heat that focused on Mario Batali and the dynamics in his kitchen were interesting and engaging. I found the rest his book tedious, overly detailed and therefore self indulgent. Too much focus on his own anguish and thoughts — hardly a macho characteristic. Is Anthony Bourdain macho? There’s a swagger there, but I think he’s just a pulp-fiction tongued, he-man wannabe metro-sexual of the most entertaining and lovable sort. On No Reservations Argentina he was shockingly upset about calves being separated from their mums for branding and castration and expressed it. This is not a guy I see putting in fence posts or fixing a car, and that’s okay. The macho is a transparent veneer. Come on.

  • jim miscedra


    The whining seems to be wholly that of Mr. Levy. Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is not about food, it is a memoir of one man’s experience working in the food industry. Buford’s Heat is of the same vein; one man’s journey… blah, blah, blah.

    Mr. Levy references his Ph D, which has little if anything to do with his essay. But, Gee Whiz I sure knew he was a smart fella’ from that point forward. As he continues, strains of Paul Simon crooning “where have you gone Joe Dimaggio” were wafting through my head. Ahh, the good ole’ days.

    A quote: “No, today’s market does not allow for food writing that aims to be allusive, playful, or elegantly simple.”

    Now, I have read all of your food related books and although they do not reek of the Queen’s English, they are extremely well written and even more thoughtful. Why were you not mentioned? Honestly?

    Back to Bourdain. The man’s adoration of Vietnam, China and Japan is some damn heartfelt writing and nary a cuss word included. To paint Bourdain and to lesser extent Buford with one brush and exclude your writing as well, reeks of selective journalism. Personally, I think Mr. Levy’s sour grapes smell like shit.

  • Vinotas

    I have to say this sounds like sour grapes more than anything else. Mr. Levy seems to take an inordinate amount of space/time to show off his PHD and knowledge of English Lit. But admitting to showing off can be a type of showing off as well.

    It also seems like he’s saying “This is the way I did it and it is the right and only way”, which as we all know is a crock of crap. If anything, food writing has come to the general public, and they don’t need him to explain things down to them to read and enjoy it.

    Bourdain’s memoirs are just that, his experiences while cooking in the hellish landscape that is NYC’s restaurant industry. Mr. Levy wouldn’t last 5 minutes in one of those kitchens (heck, many chef friends of mine have problems surviving it, and God knows I never could).
    There. Rant over.

  • Fear and Loathing in Milwaukee

    Wow… what a completely misguided, bloated and self-serving discourse on the state of food writing.
    Levy sounds a lot more like a crotchety old man regaling a board flock of grandchildren with stories past glory than an astute observer of the culinary writing zeitgeist.
    I’m having a hard time identifying the passage that turns me off most… the preening recount of his dominance at an inconsequential awards banquet? his resume proudly laid bare for all to gaze upon and be impressed? the ill informed, half hearted attempt to color current food writing luminaries as macho poseurs?
    The convoluted double-talk reaches its crescendo when he makes references to past literary icons yet fails to recognize that many of the great writers of the last two centuries were more than willing to serve their observations of the human condition with a heaping side of testosterone… Hemingway, Thoreau, Whitman, Hunter S. Thompson, etc… All far more crude and less polished than our good friend Mr. Bourdain.
    Hell, I’m sure if someone looked hard enough, there’s hours of B Roll on the cutting room floor that show Tony getting his bits waxed in Brazil, a pedicure in Paris, a brow trim in Berlin or a high tea and cucumber sandwiches with Gordon and Marco Pierre just off High Street.

  • bourdain

    Paul who?
    I guess he used to be some kind of important writer guy?
    His prose is redolent of old man stink.

    Macho? For fuck’s sake! I wore an apron and clogs and drew pretty pictures on plates for most of my life! And his confusing of Buford with his subjects is worrisome.

  • Sheryl

    Sounds like someone was bullied in the schoolyard as a child and has finally figured out a way of getting back at the tough guys.

  • Connor

    “A fruit that smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu” — that’s “macho” food writing?!? Funny.

  • meg

    Jesus! What is this high filutin’ War and Peace bullcrap?

    I’ll take ‘shit’ and puke’ over fragrant, thesaurus-inspired PhD-suffused prose any day.

  • Tags

    This essay starts out by complaining that food writers need to use words like “shit” and “puke” to be published anymore. The examples that follow don’t live up to the expectations built up by this statement.

    Paul mentioned testosterone dripping from the pen that wrote that “the taste of silkworm eggs reminds him of freshly dug graves.” I think he may have meant Toblerone, which would have surely melted under the heat of such fiery prose.

    John McPhee describes durian as “a fruit that smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu.” One might expect to see the word “prick” replaced with “prig” in his accounts of conversations with testosterone-driven lads, just as Joe Queenan (Red Lobster, White Trash, Blue Lagoon) pointed out Robin Cook did in his “Invasion.”

    Adam Gopnik asked “if we could taste the elephant manure residually in the food.” The answer was yes. Can you taste any testosterone in this question, or for that matter feel it, smell it, or otherwise sense it?

    Had Buford truly projected a macho posture, his account of burning his fingers would more likely have formed a string of small, shiny, jewel-like expletives, instead of an effusion of childlike wonder.

    I guess Mr. Levy needed to say “shit” and “puke” to be published.

  • Dave Glue

    What makes Bourdain so interesting (and endlessly entertaining) to me is the mix of bombast and humility (that sound you just heard was Ruhlman projectile vomitting). If he lacked the latter quality and stuck to his Kitchen Confidential dick-waving routine throughout all his prose, he would quickly become the gimmick he alluded to in the Cleveland episode, an abnoxious self-parody that would burn itself out more quickly than RR’s career. Oh, whooops – that’s just wishful thinking at this point. Come on Rachael, start hanging out with Britney. I’m sure she’d love your cheesburger salads (from the looks of her lately, apparently she has).

    Thankfully though, this gift of humility and introspection allow him to refer to the book that put him on the map to fame as “obnoxiously over-testosteroned”, and the section in “Nasty Bits” where he re-vists old columns to literally ask himself “What the hell was I thinking!?” illustrate this as well. Well heck, he’s funny – you can’t truly be funny if you don’t have humility, otherwise you’re Dane Cook. Despite my weariness near the end of AKC, all the cursing is far less obnoxious IMO than writing a column lamenting at how your PH.D food writing is no longer as well received due to all these knuckle-dragging luddites crapping on your honorable craft.

    Obviously, Levy never cracked the spine of A Cooks Tour either. There are truly some beautiful, heartfelt writing in there – and yes, heaven forfend, a few swear words and a taste in humour that veers more towards David Cross than say, Leno. As Meg pointed out, even the sparse offerings he gives as evidence of unbridled machismo are incredibly weak examples. “A fruit that smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu” – yep, that’s pretty much what you hear when a bar fight is about to break out in the bronx. I don’t know what world his man lives in, but I imagine it’s coloured in beige.

    _Ruhlman_: Question : The “Incident” at eastern european restaruant in Cleveland where Bourdain makes a crack about your book sales and you go off on him – playful, or had you truly had it with the snarky comments in that area? Can’t blame your disposition though after SkyLine Chili I guess. Oh sweet jeebus that looked absolutely terrifying.

  • The Central Scrutinizer

    I hope Mr. Levy didn’t sprain his pinkie while composing this silliness… I was not aware that he was such a delicate flower! Be sure to avoid using the word “shoot” in front of him – he could faint.

  • VMBrasseur

    It seems that Levy’s real complaint is not with Bourdain, Buford and the others so much as with the entertainment tastes of today’s America. This is the same America where a sequel is practically demanded for the first Jackass movie. An America where a lot one of the most popular (and recently defunct) TV shows takes place in a strip club…whenever the main characters are out capping or getting capped. An America where the “reality” program reigns supreme, with all the melodrama and staged catfights required to make the Nielsen numbers.

    With an environment like that, is it really a surprise that some of the most popular food writers also embrace this “cultural lowest common denominator” philosophy? It’s popular. It sells. In today’s America, Paul, people want to know that “Rover’s skin” is the most repulsive thing you’ve ever seen. Bourdain recognizes this and does a good job of capitalizing on it. I say, “More power to him.” The strategy at work here is “Give the people what they want.”

    This doesn’t mean that the market has dried up for Levy’s brand of machismo-free writing. The fact that we’re talking about the article at all shows that his work is being read. All he has to do is accept the fact that his audience may not be the same as Bourdain’s or Buford’s…and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Let them have their audience and their success. Levy’s best bet right now is to accept that his role is a valuable one and keep trying to write the best columns he can while letting other authors do the same.

  • fiat lux

    I have my own feminist reservations about the hyper-masculine world of cooking / food writing, but that said, Levy sounds like a whiner more than anything else.

    “Waaah waah, I can’t use my PhD in English in my food writing, it’s not popular! Those young whippersnapper editors want me to write short, snappy prose! Waaah! Gordon Ramsey talks about his d**k and I feel squeamish! Waaah!”.

    Sour grapes are not pretty.

  • Rich

    Oh please. His essay has nothing to do with food and everything to do with writing. Writers write for themselves. Some say they write for their audience, but their audience is usually much like they are. Bourdain, nor Buford, would never utter the words: “Some find the smell excremental, some find it reminiscent of sick.” So why would they write them? They certainly didn’t write their books for Mr.Levy.

  • Carri

    Yeah, I’d bet you anything Levy is a Billy Joel fan! hey, You can slam anyone but John McPhee…’Giving Good Weight’ is what really lit the fire in my belly! The guy is clearly trying to ride on the coattails of what is obviously an exciting turn in the world of food lit!

  • sorchar

    If Levy was any more of a pussy, he’d have monthly nosebleeds.

    I find myself saying this, in various permutations, a lot lately, about many different people – it works for “twat” quite well too. I think I’m getting bitchy in my old age.

  • casa

    I think there’s probably something to it. A Boudain as much as we may love him for his insight into endless food corridors and keen intelect, he still appeals strongly to a audience that loves him mostly for eating strange things, getting drunk and smoking. He’d be crazy to ignore that audience, but it detracts from his obvious achievements.

    Calling Levy a yada, yada, yada isn’t going to forward Bourdains cause. I think anyone who is a true fan of his work can take the article with multiple grains of tequila soaked salt.

  • realitybites

    I love the hyper-masculinity on display in the food world today. I find it to be extremely sexy, as do many other women–men too, I’m sure. Bourdain’s writing appeals to us commoners. Levy’s appeals to pretentious twits.

    Machismo is attractive as long as it doesn’t become misogynistic. Sorchar’s comment, “If Levy was any more of a pussy, he’d have monthly nosebleeds.” rubbed me the wrong way. While it is clever and witty, it also is insulting to women. I don’t recall ever reading or hearing Bourdain say anything that made the little feminist in me cringe.

  • realitybites

    Is Sorchar a woman? This doesn’t make that statement any less insulting. Women have done worse to get into the good ol’ boys club–referring to themselves as hos comes to mind.

  • latenac

    I think both writers are correct in there is a bit of dick measuring going with Bourdain, Batali, Ramsay, et al. They don’t call Bourdain Whoredain on Television Without Pity for nothing. But it becomes apparent when watching them that their strengths lie when they aren’t doing the machismo act. It’s also what makes watching Ramsay on Fox so depressing b/c the dick measuring is all they play up while they miss what really makes the shows on BBCAmerica worth watching.

    However, although there are valid points made by the writers, both articles seem to be written by people who feel their dicks don’t measure up.

  • Joe

    Poor Levy isn’t as elite as he once was. Now anyone with a keyboard and a few four-letter words in their vocab can abduct his readership. As a former music journalist, I liken this archaic criticism to the stodgy old goat who’d rather read Robert Christgau wax poetic on the cultural significance and musical dexterity (or lack thereof) of the Ramones, than Lester Bangs reminisce about drinking a bottle of cough syrup and going to CBGB. Not everyone can pull off that kind of writing (see the myriad Bangs-ian music blogs) but those who can deserve the praise and accolades that come with having a grasp on compelling journalism.

  • Skawt

    Stick Levy into a steel cage death match with Jeffrey Steingarten. I’d rather watch that than read anything from either of those two old women. I’ll be on the sidelines with Tony doing Jaegerbombs and betting on which one starts crying like a little bitch first.

  • Tags

    Writing or fighting, my money’s on Steingarten by a knockout. He’s the best writer on food in the universe, just as Michael is the best writer on chefs. (I was going to say cooking, but remembered Harold McGee just in time.)

  • Bob delGrosso

    Levy is reacting to something that is very real.

    Back in the day, most food writers were women writers who, in part because they had been shut out of careers in “hard Journalism” by the male establishment turned to food journalism. Also many of the male writers were gay men like who found this female-dominated sector of publishing much more accepting than other sectors.

    Something similar happened in the cookbook writing industry. Most early cookbook writers were women who found that the threshold of entry into cookbook writing was easier to cross. There were also quite a few gay men writing cookbooks, but only James Beard & Craig Claiborne come to mind at the moment.

    In addition to their “outsider” gender status most of these people all had one important thing in common: the were not restaurant cooks. Restaurants kitchens are very rough places and even today, are not very hospitable to women and gay men. (There are exceptions, of course, but I’m writing in generalities here.) So these early authors wrote from the perspective of someone who had come to their subject in a home kitchen.

    The 1970’s brought nouvelle cuisine to Britain and the United States and with it began the public fascination with French chefs.

    And all of them were male, mostly hetero and duh, had worked in restaurants. You can date the change in tone of food writing to this period.

    From the movement male heterosexual chefs began writing cookbooks in large numbers and appearing on TV, it all began to change as the language of cooking began to shift from genteel and feminine to the harsher, more masculine language of the kitchen.

    So there you have it: Pre-nouvelle cuisine the public dialectic of cooking is driven by Mimi Sheraton, MFK Fisher, Julia, James Beard etc and afterwards Bocuse, Batali,Bruno, Bourdain, and Ruhlman with healthy dollop of Alice Waters.

    This is a gross oversimplification, of course.

    BTW, if Levy is hanging out with the kind of people who go to the Oxford Symposium (or any food symposium) it’s not difficult to understand where he is coming from and where he wants to be.

    Most mass media sponsored food writing is designed to be entertaining and distracting not educational and heuristic. The folks who hang out at symposia are after something else entirely.

  • Bob delGrosso

    I forgot to add that since the language and culture of the restaurant kitchen is very rough it is to be expected that food writers that come out that environment will write in a manner that reflects that. Bourdain was one of the first to do this, and it never ceases to amaze me that Ruhlman does not.

  • Abulafia

    I’m not particularly a fan of Levy, or his writing style. But lets look at this another way.

    The real argument here is not really between Levy and, say, Anthony Bourdain.

    It’s about whats good writing and whats bad writing.

    Neither of them are Hemmingway or Joyce. Levy does have an impressive vocabulary. He’s got an ability to quote. He’s probably well read.

    But he’s not a good writer. And he’s not a good journalist. His prose is a little too clunky. It’s overly self aware. It trips up constantly over how good it thinks it should be. And it’s high opinion of itself is a little too obvious. I can take that kind of arrogance from H.L Mencken, but not from Levy.

    Neither is Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain is a good raconteur. I’d love to get pissed with him and roll through the streets of my city trying to get arrested. I’d hate to go on the piss with T. S. Elliott. But he’s not a good writer.

    And both Levy and Bourdain seem to have a common flaw. Their work is more about themselves at present, than what they are actually writing about.

    Kinda like the difference between The Great Shark Hunt and Songs of the Doomed.

    Are you writing about the world of food, or are you telling the world of food how lucky it is to have you. It’s the difference between being full of sound and fury that signifies everything, and just being full of sound.

    A couple of people in this thread seem to have forgotten that we are talking about food and writing here. And not cage fighting. Which I’m guessing nobody writing here, or being written about, is particularly good at.

    It’s also bizarre to hear grown men call other grown men vaginas. When you want to call someone an effete fucker, call them an effete fucker.

  • Rob Long

    Thanks, Chef delGrosso, for a pretty concise historical tour of American food writing. But I’ve got to say, as a professional writer and as a person who goes to the Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, and as a person who enjoys Anthony Bourdain’s writing, what we’re really talking about here is style. That’s it: style. We have more people writing these days about food, so we have more styles to enjoy. The idea that there’s a correct or “decorous” way to write about food and cooking, or that there’s a more authentic way to describe the plate sounds an awful lot like one writer envying the hell out of another writer’s faster-selling books. And it’s based on foolish categories, too. Who wrote more with more aggressive macho than Mimi Sheraton, giving a bad (though well-reasoned and principled) restaurant review? Who writes with more (hilarious, genius) Henry James daintiness than Jeffrey Steingarten, especially about candy bars and potato gratin? And what about Richard Olney (the other gay food writer you blanked on, I think)? I never met him, but to me he sounds like a prickly bad ass, frankly — hanging out there in the Luberon before it was cool, eating fennel omelets with Bandol rose? Look, as much as I love Bourdain’s writing and television show, more often than not, he comes off as a tremendous pussy: a rail thin, hungover, citified former junkie shivering in the Tajik hills, or wherever. And that’s what I love about him. I guess my advice to Paul Levy, from one writer to another, is to recognize that the food-writing marketplace is competitive and getting crowded and filled with great, varied choices. But to get noticed, you really do have to write with style, wit, integrity, and a sense of fun. Like MFK Fisher. Like Brillat-Savarin. Like Bourdain. Like Ruhlman. Like Beard. Like Seymour Britchky. Like….well, like a lot of people, all of whom manage to stay on the shelves despite their manifest differences.

  • Carri

    All the snarking aside…We have to acknowledge what an unlikely phenom Bourdain and his bretheren have become…I’ve been a food reader for a long time, so read Kitchen Confidential the minute it hit the bookstore shelves,no suprises there…but then last weekend I’m sitting outside a sauna on a beach in Alaska talking to a guy who drywalls for a living and we start talking about books…whats he reading right now? Kitchen Confidential! He can’t get enough of this stuff! He doesn’t care about food…he just wants to be entertained! I love that about it, too…Though , truly, it must be weird to be this regular guy one minute and the next…everywhere! Everyone wants a part of you, good and bad, Crazy Man!

  • Skawt


    You’re absolutely right, this is supposed to be about food and writing. In that case, I’ll order some chicken wings and mozzarella sticks during the fight and make Tony pay for them. Then he can write about how bad they were the next day, after the pneumatic drill between his eyes goes away.

  • sorchar

    Actually, Abulafia, I’m a grown *woman*. I also call grown men “dicks” on occasion. I’m an equal-opportunity offender.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I am a reader of books that can add knowledge and facts to my already limited base. If I choose to read a book such as Heat, or the reach of a chef or bourdain’s book (whatever the title) at least I know I am reading the words of someone who has that knowledge and who has that expertise to expand my mind.

    Levy et al are entitled to their opinions of what is good writing and what is not, but what about these food bloggers who once were lawyers, and once stock traders but who couldn’t quite make it in theater and now reviews restaurants for New York newspapers, or who now write books without ever having worked in the industry?

    Are we becoming a nation of nincompoops? the dumb learning from the dumber?

    Michael, I know u disagree with me, u have told me. And your blog has given in the demands of ‘blog interviews’. But are you not concerned for your own livelihood, or that of your confreres who truly do have the expertise to practice what you do for a living.

    If this internet thing continues and youtube becomes our main source of finding information, we are all doomed to become idiots and those who should be taking a stand on this like the writers, the chefs, the restauranteurs are sitting back and letting it happen.

    It would never happen in any other industry…lawyers would never sit back and let chefs run a courtroom; dentists would never sit back and let their cleaner work on teeth, yet chefs sit back and let others take control of their reviews and food writers sit back and interview young’ens on their blog about books without credibility.

  • The Foodist

    My first thought when I read the article was:

    “Good grief is he being whinny!”

    As I read on it dawned on me that Levy wasnt seeing the fine detail of his situation. What he speaks of writting, and has been writting for years, is closer to the, and Ill use the term lightly as I cant think of a better way to explain it, Happy Homemaker crowd.

    People who want to know more about the food placed in front of them and the decor and feeling of a place then what goes on in the actual kitchen. Mr. Levy needs to realize that times, they are a changin’ (To qoute Mr. Bob Dillon). People are more interested as of late, thanks to the shared success of the storytelling by Bourdain, White, and yes even our own Mr. Ruhlman, in the nitty gritty ugly side of the kitchen.

    Food in general bores people now. Why do you think Rachel Ray has 4 TV shows, a daytime talk show, as well as a magazine that now rivals Oprahs? because people care more about the face then the food. Its like our fascination as a nation with VH1’s Behind the Music, or MTV’s Real World, or even Hells Kitchen. We want DRAMA! and what better spot to get it then from rockstar-esq cooks who spend their days yelling and throwing people out of kitchens then anywhere else?

    Mr. Levy should know how public interest changes.. he even hints to it in his own article. “But perhaps the women were right to protest: I was only one of the first fellows invading what had been their territory. Surveying the lay of the land now, the scenery has altered again.”

    Mr. Levy, news flash, your the ladies now… celebrity chefs are the new you.

    My suggestion, stick to what you do and dont complain about the world as it changes. Chances are it will come full circle again, you wouldnt want to be remembered as a whiner now would you?

  • livetotravel

    What is indisputable is the overall dumbing down of writing, especially that which deals with popular culture. TV, YouTube, blogs, books, etc dealing with food and restaurants are reproducing like rabbits. They have taken on such a sameness that the writer feels the only way to break loose of the warren is to be reductionist and alarmist. Pitty, it really does take the joy out of reading and viewing. I’ll take the Levy’s of the world any day, along with the Bruni’s and of course the Ruhlman’s.

  • Abulafia

    Fair enough sorchar.

    It’s a personal point. But pussy as an insult ranks alongside gay as an insult. It just doesn’t work in adult conversation. It made me think you were a 13 year old biy.

    It’s especially bizarre to hear people talking about the “masculinity” of a food writer based on what he has just written. One thing has got nothing to do with the other. And I guess that was my point.

    Either he’s a good or a bad writer. Calling him a pussy makes me think you haven’t left high school yet. It tells the reader m,ore about you than it does him. And it’s got nothing to do with his writing.

    Skawt. Thats kinda my point right there.

    Most people don’t read Anthony Bourdain because they want to know about food. They read him because they want to be entertained.

    And thats a damned dangerous thing for a writer.
    I can think of stacks of better writers who got caught up in that trap and it stopped them from publishing a decent word thereafter. There were very few writers who could handle the whole gonzo/new journalism “I am the story gig” even for a short while. And none who could do it the whole time. It makes for bad writing.

  • sorchar

    Depends on the adult you’re conversing with, I suppose, Abulafia. And I wasn’t referring to Levy’s masculinity. I was referring to his whining.

  • Greg Turner

    I think Levy should be glad to have more food writers in the market–and more food writing styles. For every 10 heavy-drinking, tattooed kitchen miscreants Bourdain lures into the world of food writing (and reading), Levy has a chance to skim one or two.

    People’s loves are usually narrow, but their likes are broad.

    Rather than poo-poo this new brand of food writing–just as, I’m sure, other writers poo-pooed the likes of Thompson and Bukowski–Levy should be welcoming it. It only helps the broader cause: to get people to pay more attention to what and how they eat and live.

  • Claudia

    Wnile I can live without Gordon Ramsay talking about his genitals ad infinitum – and, while I do agree with Levy that some food writing has become more testesterone- and vulgarity-laden, Levy’s tone in the article definitely sounds a twee . . . prissy, as if she’s shocked, I tell you – shocked! Or maybe he just wishes he was running with that particular macho pack?

    I don’t food writing NEEDS to be crude or overly “macho” – you, Michael, manage to do quiet well without indulging in that vein – but neitrher do I feel it is endemic to the whole field.

    As for a Bourdain backlash – well, he’s always had his detractors and, without trying to be an apologist for Bourdain, I have to say that Levy hasn’t quite nailed Bourdain’s style on the head. It’s true there’s plenty of profanity and porn references and a definite machismo in his written and spoken work, but it’s equally true that the bulk of what he produces tends to be more explorative and ruminative. (OK, so there WAS the Las Vegas episode!)

    For every Bourdain or Ramsay, there is still a Pepin or Ripert or Ruhlman – and plenty of women chefs and writers out there, too – for Levy to read. (On the other hand, in all fairness, I don’t ever think I’ve read or heard someone like, say, Andre Soltner or Alain Sailhac saying that a perfectly reduced jus or fabulous piece of lardo ever “gave them wood,” like it does Mario Batali.)

  • Kansas City rube

    It absolutely confounds me that anyone who takes writing seriously could not be impressed with Bourdain. His prose is incendiary.

    I may be a bit of a meathead but I find the intensity in his voice to be so refreshing. Levy sounds out of touch, old-fashioned, and–excuse the coarse and misogynistic term–a huge pussy. What he calls macho and profane, I call passionate and authentic.

    And both the critics and public were obviously ready for more in-your-face writing about food. Look at the success of this writing style. Levy seems to think it’s taking over food writing but there are plenty of people who are just as good at writing and have found success without the “machismo.” Not trying to take away from Ruhlman’s masculinity (and who could when he’s responsible for “Charcuterie”?), but he’s a perfect example.

  • lisa r

    Does poor Mr. Levy think that food writing should still be confined to the sections of a paper that wouldn’t offend a lady’s delicate sensibilities? (And that lady would be one who lunches). Even 30 years ago, that was beginning to be passe.

    One of the reasons food writing has become more read in latter days is because the prose is incorporating the vernacular, making it accessible instead of off-putting. No longer twee and precious, it can be enjoyed with the same gusto once only used by readers of the sports page.

    Mr. Levy wants to write “assuming my readers are an educated audience who would get (and smile or learnedly chuckle at) allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, or Damon Runyon” which puts him squarely in the 1950s rather than even 20 years later. Modern prose doesn’t resemble that of Jane Austen for a reason – we don’t speak that way anymore. He calls it coarse, I call it true to life.

    Not only that, but I think it’s glib to dismiss it as a masculine issue only. Prose has changed for both genders! I pepper my speech with the f-word and other assorted classics, and when I write, I tend to write that way (in my journal, at least).

    Bourdain’s writing captivates me because he writes as he speaks – literally. There’s no pretense to it, and damned little filter, thankfully. We get his thoughts about something unpolished, perhaps, but that makes them more visceral and easier to experience. There’s an honesty in his work. Oh, and it makes for entertaining reading, as well.

    Mr. Levy managed to bore me horribly with 2 short pages. So convoluted! So pedantic! Yes, he “unsplit(s) infinitives and unpick(s) clichés,” but he forgets to unlock the part of his brain that could relate to an actual human.

    Ah, well. His is the kind of style I’m not sorry to see go. Where food is something only to be experienced by the cultured elite, and where the grubby masses should be on the outside of the restaurant window, forlornly observing something they’ll never be classy enough to enjoy themselves.

  • chefwannab

    Lisa r said: “Bourdain’s writing captivates me because he writes as he speaks – literally. There’s no pretense to it, and damned little filter, thankfully. We get his thoughts about something unpolished, perhaps, but that makes them more visceral and easier to experience. There’s an honesty in his work. Oh, and it makes for entertaining reading, as well.”

    I could not agree more. Earlier this year I read an entertaining memoir called “Julie and Julia” in which the author challenged herself to make all 500+ recipes of Julia Child’s first volume of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” within a calendar year. She was encouraged by friends to blog about her experiences, her blog became popular, and the memoir is a collection and expansion on her blog entries. She got skewered on Amazon.com by many readers who were offended by the language she uses. Since we are talking about a female author here, I don’t know that her memoir could be classified as “machismo food writing” – but she wrote as she speaks and did not filter her words to become someone she is not. The readers who gave her a one- or two-star rating, just because they were offended by too many four-letter words, completely missed that her memoir was entertaining, clever, and funny, and are probably of the same ilk as Levy – just because they don’t choose to use such embellishments in their own vernacular doesn’t mean they have the right to accuse those who do of “bad writing”.

    More and more people are starting to relate to that kind of gritty honesty and “no-holds-barred” style of food writing and it obviously just pisses Levy off that that’s just not in his character. But I’m sure there will always remain a market for the softer touch. He should just keep on being himself and not trying to put down those who are different from him.

  • Alex

    I agree with the comments that recognize Bourdain as essentially “butching it up” for the cameras. I linked to a YouTube clip of his visit to Sokolowski’s in Celveland on my blog.

    He’s really trying to be tough and shocking. Having said that, I think I would like having a beer with the guy when the cameras are off.

  • Fillippelli the Cook

    Well, I wouldn’t have called the essay “fascinating,” but I suppose you’re just being diplomatic. It sounded more like my 5-year-old when he wines that my 2-year-old got something that he didn’t, even though he did get it, but had already eaten or dispensed with it.

    Can somebody please tell me how I can get paid to whine like an adolescent?

  • liz

    “Ah, Paul Levy. I love his radio show and the way he signs off every day by saying “Good Day.” That’s good stuff, America. Good stuff.”

    French Laundry At Home, I already read your exploits but now I find you completely hysterically funny.

    And now, for the rest of the story…


  • the_next_meal

    Sorry all you paring knife wielding tough guys and grrrls agressively scanning the foodie blogs (I’ll assume for new tatoo design ideas or a source for mail order durian yogurt) but he’s right. Like everything in the culture the vast oversupply of food related media leads to trends, sub-trends and sub-sub-sub trends. And whatever the category, inevitably one of the trends is a crasser, “rock ‘n roll” version of whatever it is…

    It’s all branding/marketing hype, by the way. Like just about everything in our consumer society. Usually informed by a kernal or two of truth (you get a clear sense of what Bourdain is like once the camera turns off,) but pumped up like a baloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade so the market “gets” it.

    Ramsey’s (hot and cold) balls and a panty-less Britney have a lot in common. Sorry.

  • Marco Collins

    Levy’s and Bourdain’s writing styles can be classified in an analogy as Front of House and Back of House. Levy is the FOH dining room with its hushed tones and genteelness enclosed in a bubble. They have a general idea of how dinner is made for a guest but not the mechanics of replicating that for 100-200 people. He is a customer to a restaurant whose culinary grasp comes from travels, reading and eating in restaurants. He has knowledge of recipes, ingredients and how things should taste, but primarily as a customer not a fabricator. If he has actually made a dish it was in the confines of his home at his own pace and not in a commercial kitchen.

    Bourdain is the BOH kitchen. The loud, hustling, steaming hot kitchen of clatttering pans and plates, of cooks screaming to each other over the music, other cooks, busboys and servers checking on the timing of orders, telling the dishwasher to bring more plates, their back-up mise en place, yada yada yada. Bourdain, as chef, as the maestro to this chaos, is the composer of the meals that the FOH consumes. His knowledge comes from the prepping and producing of the actual dishes.

    What he has done in his writing is to open the door seperating FOH and BOH to show the realities of what goes into making your entrees and the goings-on of the restaurant business. He pulled back the curtain and demystified the magic of how your meals are made, and did it with a sense of humor, albeit dark and sardonic. Levy wants to enjoy the end result, willfully ignorant of Bourdain’s labors; Bourdain wants to joyfully tell you how messed up it was getting there, then have a cigarette.

    Levy bemoans the vulgarity of too much testosterone. What else are you going to get in a hot, cramped kitchen filled with a group of guys using knives and talking trash, then write about your experiences in that milieu. I’m sure Levy and his male friends, when left to their own devices, degenerate into whatever level of boorishness is applicable.

    So the choice is whether you prefer the FOH or BOH styles, if you can split the whole of culinary reportage into those two camps. I like the fact that there is as many styles of food writing as there are cuisines in the world.