Anthony Bourdain’s planned market in Chelsea will sell food as authenticity. That leaves little room for the democratization of cuisine he promises.
CHEF-TURNED-MEDIA personality Anthony Bourdain has made a career of bringing far-flung food culture onto our most closely held screens. He has built his brand by articulating the anti–Olive Garden for viewers anxious about the authenticity of their culinary practices. The hidden treasures he reveals on his shows—the best Vietnamese street vendor’s pho or delicate Colombian arepas—are difficult to access, the menus of the restaurants to which he treks look intimidating to his anglophone audience, and the food itself often doesn’t even seem appetizing—all the better to foment his brand’s air of exclusivity, always the handmaiden to authenticity.
Now, as Stephen Werther, Bourdain’s business partner, told the New York Times, “people want Tony’s show to come to life.” Never mind the fact that Bourdain does go to real places with live people in his show. What Werther is describing as “coming to life” is not any single thing from a Bourdain show but the relationship between subjects of the show and Bourdain’s seal of approval that holds it all together. Bourdain Market, set to open in about two years on Pier 57 in Manhattan’s Meat Packing district, purports to deliver exclusivity and democracy at the same time by putting remarkable food vendors all under one roof, thus consolidating all the hard work of curation and discovery and saving consumers from having to do any of it.
Up until his decision to open a market, Bourdain’s entire business had been capturing exotic dining experiences for television. Bourdain Market, like the World’s Fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries, will invert this business model by bringing people from around the world to a humongous food court so that they may “do” culture. It will provide what Bourdain calls a “democratic space open to and used by all,” a place where “wealthy and working class alike” can congregate in what promises to be the largest food hall in the city. Patrons will munch on prepared foods from both world-renowned and obscure restaurateurs on common tables and select the finest meats from butchers and fisheries. “Think of an Asian night market,” Bourdain tells New York Eater, as if that is a stable and widely understood reference for Americans, before clarifying that it means “eating and drinking at midnight”—something that could just as easily be said about a TGI Fridays. It will be a place that is “transparent and authentic”—unlike, presumably, the nearby Chelsea Market, once a public market by and for New Yorkers, now mainly a tourist destination.
AUTHENTICITY, from the Greek authentikós, meaning original or first hand, is also related to authént, which ostensibly means DIY. When referring to something like an artwork or first-edition book, authentic is a relatively straightforward signifier: This artwork was definitely made by this specific person. Authentication, the process by which professionals discern whether a given artifact comes from a specific source, is not categorically different from the way we might seek out authenticity in our food or even our conversations. We seek, in our present experiences, some sort of connection to a past or an elsewhere. “The quest for authenticity,” writes Baudrillard in The System of Objects is also “a quest for an alibi.” The elsewhere or else-when, like an alibi, is only as credible as the teller and one’s own ability to cross-reference and confirm. Bourdain acts as our authenticity detective, ferreting out the provenance of food and dragging the perpetrators onto his show and, now, into his market.
Authenticity, like democracy, transparency, and openness, is something that often feels in short supply. Clear and discernible origin stories are deeply comforting even if they are, as Baudrillard says, “located somewhere short of reality.” But reality is anxiety-inducing, especially in the wake of protracted economic stagnation, unresponsive and corrupt government, intrusive corporations, and digital networks that invite us to mediate our identities in new and complex ways. We express anxiety about our historical moment in all sorts of ways, but we take it out especially on our food.
Food is intimate but also eminently commodifiable, and so our dinner plates are a predictable place to augment our present reality with the sublimely authentic. This may also go toward explaining why we are also currently fretting over such matters as the impulse to photograph our food, the travel distance of food, how long a meal takes to prepare, and whether it was eaten by our paleolithic ancestors. Bourdain is comforting because he projects authority in many of these areas. He can tell us which consumption habits will deliver us into authentic living while also staying true to democratic values that say anyone should have access to such an experience.
Authenticity is, for marketers and some cultural commentators, what objectivity is for scientists. It masquerades as an absolute, ascertainable quality inherent in situations when in fact it is a function of many contingencies, including subject position, social structure, historical happenstance, economic forces, and cultural norms. While objectivity relies on the expertise and training of scientists who follow certain procedures, authenticity is a product of cultural expertise with its own set of semi-arbitrary rules. Cultural experts are ordained with the power of finding and selling authenticity on the assumption that it exists somewhere, outside the self, and with the right training it can be discovered.
Just as adherence to objectivity is a necessary prerequisite for scientific “truth,” authenticity can seem to anchor taste judgments in some pure transcendent realm beyond the influence of social strategy or economic expediency. Though the aura of authenticity may seem like a matter of the aggressively unique thing in its “real” place, as when Bourdain boasts of tasting exotic foods that “you can’t find anywhere else in the world,” it is actually created in the space between the consumer and the consumed. For Walter Benjamin, aura is born of our desire to bring things closer, to experience the original outside the bounds of technological reproducibility. This desired closeness is two-fold: spatial and emotional, measured in distance and human connection.
Authenticity-as-commodity is difficult to pin down for just this reason. It bridges the gulf between self and other, known and unknown, and fills a nebulous in-between space in ways both strange and satisfying. In Ethnicity Inc. anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff observe that “to the extent that the commodification of culture is refiguring identity, it is doing so less as a matter of brute loss, or of abstraction, than of intensified fusions of intimacy and distance, production and consumption, subject and object.” Such culture commodities blur the boundaries of belonging and are thus engineered not for efficiency or usefulness but for optimal alterity. The perfectly stirred cocktail or the well-balanced soup broth is not the end product of scientific trial and error in some food lab meant to impress you. Rather, the authentic culture commodities invite you to believe you have found something that is indifferent to your existence—the food culture of some far away community—and in that moment when you successfully purchase them, you feel as though you have been invited into a cherished tradition. In other words, authentic goods are produced through the manipulation of social context, rather than some purification process.
When the ethno-commodity in question is food, the identity fusion these goods bring on appear as a kind of transubstantiation. Inserting something into your body so that you may absorb it into your flesh, literally making it a part of you, is one of the most intimate acts imaginable and the most literal act of consumption. Food also has the benefit of being portable, whereas kinship rituals and origin stories are not. This makes food the vector by which the obdurate “realness” of those traditions of alien cultures can be absorbed, and since all it requires is money, it bears the veneer of being “open” and available to anyone who can afford it.
But authenticity, which requires an arbiter of authority, runs counter to openness and democracy. Bourdain’s strategy for resolving this tension is to foreclose the moments of openness, restricting democracy to picking from among what he has already painstakingly curated. This sounds less democratic than dictatorial, but Bourdain is interested in “democracy” conceived as a matter of broad access, not decision-making: He wants the market to be a public meeting place for working and wealthy alike, but he can only accomplish this by taking most opportunities for decision-making off the table. Bourdain’s name and reputation assures the quality his fans have come to expect.
It remains suspect as well to expect a class-blind blend of wealthy and working-class New Yorkers to travel to Chelsea, where tourists have already rendered the nearby Chelsea Market into a Disney facsimile of what Bourdain envisions. One may even go so far as to say that Bourdain Market could not exist without Chelsea Market as its foil. Whereas Chelsea Market is for the undiscerning tourist, Bourdain Market will tell us that we are in an environment where our individual tastes and finely tuned curatorial powers are driving the experience, not the manipulation of marketers and brand managers. We can certify to ourselves that we are having an authentic experience, and that we ourselves are authentic. If you like the communal seating and fresh Mexican tostadas at Bourdain Market, you have been discerning and worldly in your consumption habits. Authenticity recognizes authenticity.
By intentionally keeping their rhetoric of transparency, openness and democracy as vague as possible, the creators of Bourdain Market let us fill the discursive void with our own desires to be the authenticators. Thus we can quickly conflate individualism and consumerism with openness and democratic ideals.
Comaroff and Comaroff ask whether “those who seek authenticity and meaning by commodifying their identity” are “dupes of the market and its mystifications.” But does the market-based creation of a reified authenticity cut both ways? Does it validate the supposed “realness” of a practice not only for the consumer but also for the seller? That is to say, are the vendors hand-selected by Bourdain just as naive in their understanding of authenticity as their patrons? Are they both equally in thrall of the idea that some pre-existing authenticity exists that can then be sold? Have they “sold out” and bought into the capitalist ruse that says nothing is real until it is sold as such?
These are old questions. One answer to them comes from Raymond Williams, who chastised academic Marxists in his 1958 essay “Culture Is Ordinary” for ignoring the gains in living standards that the industrial revolution brought for the working class, a material fact that was sometimes overshadowed by elitist concerns over supposedly lost authenticity. Comaroff and Comaroff argue that those who sell their ethnicity and identity do so “with a good measure of critical and tactical consciousness.” Thai fishmongers know they are part of Bourdain’s and his hand-picked managers’ painstaking curation process. Their own business acumen is what made them findable. Anthropologists have long since demonstrated that exploitation is not simply imposed top-down; participants are often aware of ethno-tourism’s implicit power relations and choose to go along with it in exchange for a living wage or access to services like education.
Bourdain, as an elite who peddles authenticity, is not curating a market so that he may preserve his favorite restaurateurs, thus shielding them from modern technological reproducibility. Rather, like the financiers of past World’s Fairs, he is hoping to preserve the idea of authenticity itself so that he may continue to profit from his place atop the status hierarchy.
PIER 57, the future home of Bourdain Market, is a strange place to anchor a multimillion-dollar argument for the absolute existence of authenticity. The market will be connected to the High Line, a park built on the raised railroad tracks that once carried freight around the docks and shipping piers of the Meatpacking District. The High Line represents a new kind of fun complex that preserves past industrial history as a quaint tourist destination, in which the pieces of decommissioned track compliment the native flora. Bourdain himself, in his latest show The Layover, gives the High Line a minute-long commercial where he calls it “distinctly strange and beautiful,” but he says it with none of the passion and romance he reserves for a well-constructed hot dog. The High Line, through plaques and tour guides, informs visitors that what they are seeing is simultaneously a conscious selection of flora that was endemic to Manhattan Island prior to urbanization and the nostalgic preservation of an industrial infrastructure prior to New York’s latest wave of gentrification. Both of these combine in a mise-en-scène of New York City through different scales of time. There is even a small amphitheater suspended above the street, so that visitors can stare at unfolding city life as if it were theater.
This is all antithetical to Bourdainian authenticity, which he frames as a matter of direct accessibility and individuated distinction. In his shows Bourdain has nothing but disdain for the carefully posed and self-consciously displayed. Everything that, for him, is contained in “the hipster” is a profane act of showmanship, not craftsmanship. To have a truly authentic experience one must identify something as authentic and then take the leap of faith to literally consume it. You put your trust in a local with whom you can imagine you have some sort of noncontractual relationship. Those relations are authentic; tour guides are irredeemable.
But what is Bourdain to his shows’ audiences and the patrons of his future food market, if not their contractually hired tour guide? If Bourdain Market is supposed to make the content of his show—the authenticity of hard-to-access food—“come alive,” then what it will sell is more about the proximity between products (I get to sample elk meat right before finding out what a papaya tastes like) than the food itself. Yet if this is the case, then anything in Bourdain Market must lose a portion of its aura, as papaya and elk are not endemic to the same region, nor the hinterlands of Manhattan. The authenticity of any particular product is negated in favor of sustaining the authority of Bourdain as judge, jury, and executioner of authenticity.
By making it physically possible to access foods from around the world, Bourdain Market will let you choose the scenarios for your own food-centered reality TV show. And just like a reality TV show, Bourdain Market will run roughshod over particulars in its restaging of the real. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the New York Times article that announced the project, a short writeup that required three corrections, including one for the artist’s rendering of the future market that contained fake Chinese characters.
As Benjamin and Baudrillard warn, it is impossible to consciously create an authentic experience. The friction between Chelsea Market, the High Line, the conceit of Bourdain’s own shows, and his new market reveals the hypocrisy of the entire project: Bourdain Market is as authentic, transparent, democratic, and open as basic cable TV.
In fact, if any TV personality is capable of delivering democracy and authenticity, it is the Food Network’s Guy Fieri. Fieri’s constant and unironic celebration of not only humble food but of eclectic fusions and juxtapositions produces edible commodities that are of their place and time. The Waldorf Chicken Salad Sandwich served at Fieri’s New York City restaurant has more in common with the High Line than a carefully selected Moroccan curry shop. Both the sandwich and the High Line reflect an imperfect remembering of a romanticized past, transmogrified into a readily consumable, modern New York experience. They recognize the porousness of culture and practice and the tendency of humans to be nostalgic but also wildly creative. What could be more authentically New York than celebrating the tension between those two extremes?