The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 199 | Comics Confidential: On Anthony Bourdain’s Get Jiro!

Leaving Proof 199 | Comics Confidential: On Anthony Bourdain’s Get Jiro!
Published on Thursday, August 29, 2013 by
Author and chef Anthony Bourdain skewers “foodie” culture and the modern restaurant industry in Get Jiro!, but the resultant satire’s message is somewhat muddled. ALSO: Links to some very interesting and thought-provoking (non-comics) articles.

Kitchen_ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain, globe-trotting “celebrity chef” and the mastermind behind the culinarily-themed TV travelogues A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, quite literally wrote the book on cool when it comes to the restaurant business. His unvarnished chronicle of a career working in various New York restaurant kitchens since the late 1970s, the best-selling Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, has become compulsory reading for anyone wanting to learn about the hard, harsh truths about life as a cook and chef in the cutthroat culinary hotbed that is New York City. The memoir, with its frankness and profanity and sordid accounts of drug use, helped establish the outspoken Bourdain as the closest thing the restaurant industry could have to a rock star and made him the inspiration for more than a few aspiring young cooks. By unapologetically presenting the grimy reality of the chef’s life, Bourdain imparted upon it “street cred,” a punk authenticity. That kid with the multiple facial piercings and the full-sleeve tattoo working the flattop in your town’s most popular food truck? Chances are he or she is a Bourdain fan.

Get_Jiro_001Get Jiro!, originally published by DC/Vertigo in 2012 as a hardcover and reissued earlier this year as a trade paperback is Bourdain’s first graphic novel, co-written by Joel Rose (La Pacifica, Big Book of Thugs) and featuring art by Langdon Foss (Big Book of the 70s, Warrior Nun: Black & White). Set in a near-future Los Angeles where chefs have supplanted movie stars and athletes as the biggest celebrities, the book’s overall plot structure is based loosely on that of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo (or the 1964 spaghetti Western remake A Fistful of Dollars, if you like).

Locked in a bitter dispute over territory are two rival factions of chefs and their cronies. On one side are The Internationalists led by “Bob” (perhaps a not-so-subtle jab at Food Network general manager Bob Tuschman?), a corporate assemblage of high-end chefs concerned only with the pursuit of the most luxurious, decadent, and exotic cooking and dining experiences, the laws governing the ethics and economics of the common man be damned. On the other is side is the Vertical Farm, a loose confederation of locavores, vegans, and assorted sandal-wearing “foodie activists” led by “Rose” (who looks to be a pastiche of organic food movement pioneer Alice Waters), trend-chasing eco-hipsters who would think nothing of sacrificing taste and proper culinary technique as long as they can use their cooking as a platform for half-baked political and social agendas.

Caught between the two organizations are the small restaurateurs and earnest street food stall operators whose businesses are at the mercy of the food price trends dictated by the Internationalists vs. Vertical Farm conflict. One of these small restaurateurs is Jiro, a laconic ex-Yakuza gang member-turned-sushi chef who is absolutely fanatical about the art and craft of sushi. Just how fanatical is he? In the book’s opening pages, a trio of transparent Guy Fieri stand-ins waltz into his establishment and one of them dunks his nigiri in a mush of wasabi and soy sauce while another one has the gall to order a California roll—Jiro doesn’t hesitate to decapitate one of their number then and there for the breach in dining and ordering protocol.

It’s a scene that’s good for a few laughs (I say this as a person who is simultaneously appalled and fascinated by Fieri’s pop culture niche), representative of the over-the-top satirical violence that regularly punctuates the graphic novel and a demonstration that Bourdain isn’t above parodying his own strongly-held views on food and cooking to a ridiculous extreme.

As with Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, Get Jiro!‘s hero engineers a ploy to get the rival factions to destroy each other by pretending to work for both of them. Where Get Jiro! falters however, is in the lack of a redemptive arc (or any sort of notable character development for that matter) for the protagonist. In Yojimbo, the nameless ronin begins with a patently selfish motive, hoping to make money off of both sides of the conflict while he works for them at the same time, only to find out that his provocations have put people he cares for in mortal danger—he then grows from a character driven by greed to one motivated by a sense of guilt, responsibility, and even altruism. No such change occurs with Jiro because his rationale for doing what he does is somewhat inscrutable, beyond “the plot calls for it.” It seems from the outset that his goal is to protect himself and other independent L.A. restaurant and food stall operators from the competing machinations of the Internationalists and the Vertical Farm and that doesn’t change throughout the book, making for a flat narrative trajectory that avoids becoming totally humdrum only because of the morbid humor and spectacularly gory action set pieces.

Get_Jiro_084Some readers may also find slightly troublesome how Bourdain portrays the most prominent women in the book as either sexually frustrated harpies like the Vertical Farm’s Rose or sex objects like Jiro’s favorite masseuse/prostitute and Bob’s young sous chef. Likely intended to serve as a comment on the problem of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry as well as the foodie media’s obsession with marketing certain celebrity chefs based on their sex appeal, the portrayal of Bob’s sous chef as a scantily-clad sexpot whom Jiro eventually takes under his wing can also be interpreted unironically as a 60 year-old man’s ribald fantasy. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it’s a needlessly ambiguous element in a book that, at times, really struggles to make it clear why the hero’s actions are in any way that much more defensible than that of the villains. Get Jiro!‘s ultimate message seems to be that authenticity and a respect for the art and craft of cooking is what really matters in the culinary field, and everything else—the socio-politics of ingredient procurement, the money and celebrity that come with becoming a successful chef—is just ancillary bullshit. But that message is muddled because everybody ends up looking bad in this book: The Internationalists are amoral hedonists, the Vertical Farm are nothing more than clueless hippies, restaurant patrons are sheep mindlessly shoveling food into their mouths to the point of obesity, and Jiro comes off as an emotional cipher and a homicidal extremist who makes Seinfeld‘s Soup Nazi look reasonable and sane.

Odds and sods

Because man does not live by comics alone, here’s a rundown of some of the stuff that I’ve been reading these past few days:

  • Piracy and Movie Revenues: Evidence from Megaupload: A Tale of the Long Tail?, an academic paper by Christian Peukert (Munich School of Management), Jörg Claussen (Copenhagen Business School), and Tobias Kretschmer (Munich School of Management/London School of Economics & Political Science), examines the effect last year’s closure of illegal file-sharing site Megaupload has had on movie box-office revenues. The summary: Most movies did not see an increase in box-office revenues after Megaupload’s shutdown, and mid-market movies even saw their revenues decline. The researchers suggest that the positive “information-spreading effect” of sites like Megaupload might have outweighed the negative economic impact of piracy.

 

  • Author and philosopher Roger Scruton has been writing a series of thought-provoking essays on modern democracy for the BBC’s magazine these past few weeks. In his first essay, Is democracy overrated?, Scruton argues that democracy does not guarantee freedom nor a protection of basic human rights, and that the popular notion of Western-style democracy only works if political and institutional mechanisms for ensuring freedom and the protection of basic human rights are in place: It’s not enough that a nation’s people are given the ability to vote for their leaders, safeguards should exist to prevent those elected leaders from acting against the people’s best interests with regards to their rights and freedoms. His second essay, Why it can be good to give in to your enemies, proposes that a key element necessary for democracies to work is cooperation and the recognition of legitimacy between leaders and the opposition. His third essay, Democracy and Islamic law, looks at the importance of the separation of church and state and how a Muslim-majority nation like Turkey has so far been able to exist and even prosper to a degree as a relatively stable Western-style democracy even as Muslim majority countries in North Africa and West Asia such as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria have undergone radical upheavals.

 

  • Obesity clinic internist Karen Hitchcock is frank (sometimes brutally so) in expressing her frustration with the growing problem of obesity and obesity-related disease and mortality in Australia in her essay, Fat City: What can stop obesity? An excerpt:

“If longevity and the avoidance of disease remain among humanity’s aims, we should try to prevent ourselves from getting very fat. Forget obesity as a disease; it’s a ruse. For whatever reason, the majority of the population can no longer say ‘I have had enough.’ For whatever reason, the majority of human beings respond to advertisements inviting them to enter a pleasure state by eating a day’s worth of calories in one sitting, again and again. In the face of this, we are stuffed. We could say, ‘You are free agents, totally free, so pay for your own consequences.’ We could make people pay at the point of choice, via a food tax, or we could limit choice. The other option, always unspoken, is: let us have our cake. Let’s just eat and eat, get fatter and fatter, and work out how best to live with it. This is where we are heading now: fatness, outside of morality, as an accepted consequence of the world as we have made it.”

  • I’d never advocate running or biking outdoors with headphones on (an awareness of one’s environment is a vital component of safe exercise) but a recent study published in PLOS One (Activating and Relaxing Music Entrains the Speed of Beat Synchronized Walking) by Marc Leman, et al, suggests that listening to “activating music” (music with little variation, constant loudness over several beats, and a “downbeat” emphasis) like songs in the “pop-techno” genre can increase the speed and rate of exercise activity. It sounds like a fairly obvious, common-sense conclusion that can be drawn from everyday experience, but the lack of variation and the downbeat are important: music that had more variation and an upbeat emphasis (music like jazz and reggae) didn’t have the same effect, even when played at the same 130 BPM (beats-per-minute) speed as their activating music counterparts. You know what this means… here’s a scientifically-approved, 130 BPM-minimum, activating music playlist for your next workout:

The Chemical Brothers – Out of Control

Bran Van 3000 – Astounded

Basement Jaxx – Bingo Bango

Outkast – B.O.B.

Daft Punk – Around the World

Fatboy Slim – The Rockafeller Skank

SBTRKT – Sleep in Tokyo

The Bloody Beetroots feat. Steve Aoki – Warp 1.9

Peaches – Fuck the Pain Away

Chicane – Offshore

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