Web: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
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Beef on Weck Buffalo Chicken Wings Television West Seneca
Up until recently, we were fans of Anthony Bourdain - we've read his books, watched his TV show No Reservations, and enjoyed his "we'll do things differently" attitude. He's the sort of guy who likes to cover a city like Seattle by deliberately ignoring Starbucks, and instead going to the Russian bakery a few doors down. So last January, he came to Buffalo to tape a segment, and today, he released the episode titled "Rust Belt" several hours after posting a blog post on what was to come: "tonight's episode celebrates that particularly American character," he said, "who proudly survives and thrives in places like late era Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo." What exactly was that supposed to mean, we wondered? The show is "about places where the American dream has fallen a little short," explained the Manhattan-based Bourdain, calling all three places "fine, noble and deeply troubled American cities" in his blog. Then the show started, and he expanded upon this point: they're "three of the most f'ed up cities in America," he said, several times in different variations, each with the profanity bleeped. Deeply troubled? "F'ed up?" We can't speak for Detroit or Baltimore, but Buffalo? Really?
In past shows, the sense of Bourdain as Mr. Cool - the ex-junkie chef gone good - has been cultivated with exotic backdrops, knowing glances, and team-ups with people who guide him to places supposedly regarded as the best in town. This episode felt oddly different to us, though as a friend from Chicago suggested, it's illustrative of what a No Reservations show feels like when your city is being visited. In the Rust Belt episode, Bourdain and his single sweater didn't actually stop by any of Buffalo's best places. Instead, the show had a cinematic objective: after that withering introduction, it was going to show the rough parts of three cities in mid-winter, then end each segment on an upbeat note.
Thus, the second-largest city in New York appeared in the third of three segments, described as the "frosty, mostly forgotten end of New York State." Opening his coverage on Buffalo, Bourdain initially made several hopefully insincere references to the person who brought him here, Nelson Starr, as "kind of disturbing" and apparently crazy, punctuated with a slo-mo of Starr calling himself "your biggest fan, man." All in good fun, right? Then, as noted in our prior articles, he stopped by Ulrich's Tavern for some liver dumpling soup and - less than enthusiastically - chicken wings, inexplicably took a snowmobile ride to a pig barbecue, and in his only real local culinary discovery, praised the egg nog and Beef on Weck at Schwabl's. Why Schwabl's? Because "most Buffalonians agree that the best Beef on Weck is to be found at Schwabl's restaurant," he says. Not really, but that doesn't matter, right? It's just television. He then closes the segment with a visit to watch Starr perform at a nightclub, enthusiastically praises both working man Starr and Buffalo's nice people, and exits the club to a gathering of groupies who heard that he was in town. Why did he visit these places? Because he was brought there. That's Buffalo. And that's enough of Buffalo for the show.
As we're familiar with Bourdain's writings and television shows, it's easy to understand why he feels a city like Buffalo merits "Rust Belt" style coverage. Based in Manhattan when he's not roaming the globe or hunting for a house in Vietnam, he is unapologetically in love with an old, pre-Giuliani New York that has been slipping away, and hates modern chains - "TGI McFunster's," among them - which his punk rock TV persona has blamed for sanitizing everything from the former cesspool Times Square to the city's old ethnic neighborhoods. New York may be called "the City of Broken Dreams," but Bourdain thinks it's God's favorite place in America. And sure, the hot dogs may be laughable, but it's a nice enough place to visit.
That said, we wouldn't want to live there. Western New York may share with Baltimore and Detroit "the wreckage of a million Horatio Alger stories," as Bourdain put it in this episode, but Buffalo and its suburbs today are home to hundreds of thousands of happy Americans - ones with big and small success stories of their own. People here get to raise their families in actual homes rather than the apartment complexes Manhattanites scrape for. We have cars, because we want them, love the freedom they bring, and can afford to park them where we live. And we love our food. Buffalo's wings are internationally famous. There are a dozen other local specialties here - food and drink alike - that aren't as well-known, but should be. Plus, we have the best supermarkets in the country, nationally rated as such, and enough money left over in our budgets to actually shop at them.
Maybe one of these days, Mr. Bourdain, and hopefully sooner rather than later, you'll get a chance to visit again. Perhaps at that point you'll realize that at least one of the cities you visited isn't any more "deeply troubled" than the one you live in. Every city - even yours - has rough neighborhoods. Some are more impacted by them than others. And very few cities are as large as your home. Buffalo is amongst only a handful of American cities that prizes both its indigenous fare and its ethnic restaurants. It also has an appreciation for all things mom and pop that has helped small family businesses to survive here at the same time as they've fallen to the wrecking balls in Manhattan.
So yes, our faith in No Reservations may have been undermined by this episode, but there's good news: we get to wake up in the morning in a place that we love, warts and all. Some might call such enthusiasm apparent craziness. That's probably because they've never lived here. Or maybe they just haven't seen the right places yet.