When I heard last fall that famed chef Anthony Bourdain was in town to film for his CNN show “Parts Unknown,” I was delighted. The food scene here has become quite interesting in the last two decades, and I was curious to see what this chef would make of the plates on offer.
The show aired this past Sunday after a month-long series of teasing, tantalizing trailers. It was what I expected and more. It was also less. Much, much less.
I expected Bourdain to be smart-mouthed and sharp-tongued. He is not known for pulling his punches and in this show, none were pulled. Bourdain also knows his food, and it was no small pleasure to watch him enjoy moose and bologna, sea urchin and fried fish, French fries and quenelles in equal measure.
Bourdain was accompanied in his adventures by Frederic Morin and Dave McMillan, the co-owners of Joe Beef, Montreal’s paean to cow. Originally the show’s plan had been to focus on St-Pierre-Miquelon, but Bourdain made the cuisine in this province the entrée and the culinary delights of the French islands offshore the amuse bouche, as it were.
In fact, the visit to St-Pierre-Miquelon was all too short, featuring the uncomplicated food of Maïté Legasse, a self-described home cook/baker and director of Ma P’tite Cocotte, an ambassadorial food project. It was my favourite and best part of the show, highlighting as it did authentic traditional cooking in the islands including what had to be the most amazing tart I had ever seen.
Of late, desserts in local eateries, both fine and simple, have been less a sweet indulgence and more a pale, lacklustre finish to otherwise tasty meals. So I was pleased to see Legasse’s tart on display since desserts generally get overlooked.
I was struck, too, by the obvious fact that Legasse was the only woman featured in an otherwise unapologetic homage to Newfoundland men in the kitchen excepting the short order cooks in the Big R. It was truly disappointing to not see Lori McCarthy of Cod Sounds in the show itself, but I am glad her work on foraging wild edibles is promoted on the show’s website nonetheless.
It’s a huge gap though since quite a number of women were already looking at food differently here in the 1980s and 1990s, including game. Anyone recall Kitty Drake’s book “Rabbit Ravioli” and her work at the Stone House? Bourdain himself has noted chef culture is overwhelming male, so it was a letdown to see this limited attention paid to women cooking differently here.
“Parts Unknown” was heavily driven by the food of Raymonds chef Jeremy Charles. He and his partner Jeremy Bonia take Bourdain moose hunting and introduce him to cabin life and shed gatherings. I dare say, though, most of us have not hauled armchairs out on the landwash accompanied by a bear skin rug, a substantial dining room table and a faux chandelier.
Still, the unexpected take on a few days in the country reflects in no small way the thoughtful yet still eclectic approach Charles takes in his kitchen when it comes to food. How else do we get smoked whelk, moose ravioli, cod sound chips, and chanterelle ice cream on our plates?
I’m sure there are watchers who looked askance as the chefs chowed down on fried bologna and liver with lashings of onions, cod tongues and crab strips, and Jiggs dinner, awash in gravy. But culinary traditions are not all about foie gras and Nova Scotia wine.
Could the show have gone further in focusing on food rather than bro culture? Yes, absolutely. Could Bourdain and his team of researchers have checked out the long-running debate on Screech-Ins? Easily. It’s clear from the articles complementing the episode that there was some thought put into sharing the unique nature of our culinary heritage in this province.
Still, Anthony Bourdain introduced the place I love most to millions of people, many of whom could probably not place it on a map. They can now.
Hopefully, a lot of them will be motivated to come check the food out for themselves.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.