Food Media personalities Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain brought their two-man revue Good versus Evil to Macky Auditorium last Sunday night, playing to a packed house of students, foodies, and I suspect more than a few celebrity-chef wannabes. Loosely framed by the conceit of a police interrogation — each took a turn on a metal folding chair beneath a glaring lamp, while the other grilled him about real and perceived flaws in his character, professional credentials, and philosophical bent — the evening provided an entertaining hopscotch through American culinary culture via the lives of two very interesting cats.
For those unfamiliar with the main players here (I doubt there are many), Bourdain rose to prominence in 2000 with his memoir-cum-expose Kitchen Confidential, a guided tour of the dark sides of high end kitchens and his own adventuresome past. Since then he’s written a number of other well-received books and hosted television series on the Food Network and Travel Channel. Ripert made his name as Executive Chef of Le Bernardin in New York, taking that position in 1994 at the age of 28, earning a four-star NYTimes and a three-star Michelin rating shortly thereafter. Success has followed success ever since in his restaurant and media ventures.
I’ve been a fan (though hardly fanboy) of Bourdain since Kitchen Confidential first appeared. Only a few years removed from my own cooking jobs, I loved the guy’s no-holds-barred takedown of the glad-handers and glamour-fiends who had begun to cluster around the emerging “foodie” scene. The world he presented was not one of amuse bouches and champagne, but of foot-long tapeworms in the swordfish “special” and sweaty servers rutting by the dumpster during breaks. KitCon was a thrilling slap in the face of a boomer food community beginning to curdle.
As it turns out, while Bourdain is a decent (though rarely great) writer, and by his own admission about the same as a cook, he is a compelling and charismatic performer. Fans of his show No Reservations, not to mention executives at four networks (his new show The Taste airs on ABC and he has a docu-series on CNN), have long known the guy’s ability to play to a camera, and the show at Macky proved he is equally accomplished at commanding a stage. Loosely scripted — both Ripert and Bourdain read questions from index cards, giving the proceeding a semi-improvisational quality — the mock Q&A allowed both men to get in humorous jabs at their respective bete noires: Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, and Paula Deen for Tony, Gordon Ramsay and, of all people, John McEnroe for Eric. It also allowed them to air their own dirty laundry: Tony’s past drug addiction; Eric’s elitism. Granted, some semi-apologies had a self-serving gloss (“I was so happy that Emeril agreed to perform the part I wrote for him for Treme….”), but the tactic was well suited to the Good vs. Evil conceit, and supremely entertaining.
I have not said much about Ripert: this is partly because he is a less accomplished performer, less comfortable on stage and less confident about hitting his marks. It is unfortunately also due to the speaker failure that afflicted the left side of the auditorium for the performance’s first hour or so. Bourdain’s resonant voice easily carried from the other speakers, but Ripert’s heavily (French) accented line readings could not overcome the distance, and the entire show suffered as a result. Once the speakers were fixed, however, we could hear Ripert’s inflections, and his smart, funny, thoughtful, and seemingly humble personality came through. He seemed to especially relish getting Bourdain to admit he had never cooked at a genuinely GREAT restaurant.
Although several bits fell flat (“Chicken wings: bones in or out?”), more frequently a patently artificial set up yielded some genuinely interesting insights. The hypothetical “What’s more important: the ingredient or the cook?” was one such piece, with Ripert coming down on the side of ingredients 70-30 and Bourdain coming down on the side of the cook 80-20. Both had intriguing justifications for their positions.
After the main event, Bourdain and Ripert sat down together and — following a throwaway segment where Bourdain fed a blindfolded Ripert American specialties like Doritos and Cheez Whiz — took questions from the audience. In an event like this, I am always curious how Boulder will represent, and I found the questions ranged broadly from the thoughtful (“what advice would you give to a young aspiring chef?”, “how do you raise a child to eat healthily?”, “what do you think of urban gardens?”) to the absurd (“have you ever eaten at my friend’s restaurant X in Y city?” …. come on, do you really think the 1000 other people in the audience care?). Fortunately, Bourdain was more than up to the task, quickly dismissing the name-droppers, while engaging the deeper questions with verve, wit and a killer sense of timing. Ripert shone in this segment as well, thoughtfully addressing our food questions of the moment with a light, informed and happy touch.
I confess I was skeptical this event would justify a $65 ticket price and only ended up going when a friend had to drop out and gifted me a spot. But if you have any interest at all in the hip-and-hyped worlds of modern American cookery and Food Media, this show is an entertaining romp.