Beloved punk-chef and professional food snob Anthony Bourdain has revamped No Reservations for CNN this season as Parts Unknown, but I’ve got a few reservations.
This week’s episode (the second of the series) brought Tony to Los Angeles’ very own Koreatown. It began with a pithy overview of the LA Riots, during which Bourdain delivered an annoyingly elementary summation of the mood of Black Angelenos in 1992: “To say that people were angry would be an understatement.” Well, yeah, it would be. The offhanded nature of the comment would reflect the surprisingly shallow nature of the rest of the show.
African Americans are not heard from again in the hour-long program; their only presence is one of aggression to the Koreans who self-policed their neighborhood during the Riots. The message of the episode develops into one of selective multiculturalism: the melting pot portrayed seems to have quietly pushed certain groups farther East.
First we meet Ray Choi, owner of the Kogi truck and A-Frame in Venice. Choi is full of pride for K-town, and maintains that it has had a lasting impact on his life and business: “It’s kind of like I’ve got a huge Las Vegas hotel, but my hallways are the streets,” he remarks. But the cursory attempt later to tie Choi’s storyline and other Korean residents to nearby Mexican street culture didn’t convince me of a substantial or relevant alliance; the Latino street photographer profiled did concede that there are a few Korean lowriders, but he didn’t seem convinced himself.
Bourdain begins the show by highlighting a contrast between the ‘good Koreans,’ who want to be doctors or lawyers, and the bad boys who start restaurants and art studios. Bourdain unsurprisingly identifies with the bad boys, and his Pulp Fiction reference while eating an Aloha burger from the Jollibee (“that is a tasty burger”) is in character.
Yet I couldn’t help but question the ‘Bad’ premise of the episode when most of it is dedicated to a mogul (Choi) whose business model hinges on not being stuck in Koreatown. When Bourdain comments that Kogi’s food is affordable and “infinitely better than the King and the Clown and the Colonel,” does he understand that the truck most often leaves the neighborhood to find diners?
Later, he visits the Downtown studio of a graffiti artist who does murals for Facebook. When we are introduced to David Shoo, he is surrounded by young women dressed in bikinis, fawning over him, as he announces that he is “racist” against Korean women. The blatant glorification of offhanded sexism remains unqualified. It seems to be just part of the show’s exploitive paradigm: Bourdain gets a hip new portrait, and Shoo gets airtime, supporting the Bad image being sold.
Hopefully Bourdain’s move to CNN won’t portend a total jumping of the shark (I’ve always loved him!). In this episode, though, he was like an overwritten character, a corporatized punk playing an exaggerated, formulaic version of himself, palling around with other wealthy bad boys to boost the news network’s sagging ratings.
When Bourdain announces to a room full of locals that he’s just “a white boy from the suburbs,” the premise of Parts Unknown becomes as clear as its title is vague: as they say in the fashion world, blatant is the new black.