“Honestly, I’ve never even bothered with Philly…It seems to me it's a two-horse town: Starr and Perrier." I couldn’t believe the story when I read it, but those were the words of Anthony Bourdain- writer, traveler, and culinary icon. Here was a man who I admired so much, envied even, for his incredible work on his much lauded Travel Channel show, No Reservations. Here was the same man now bashing my city and minimizing its culinary significance.
It didn’t seem possible that someone as traveled, well-read, and all-around enlightened as Bourdain could believe what he was saying. The truth, though, was less in his words and more in the reality that as of today, Anthony Bourdain has yet to bring his iconic show to Philadelphia. But that sad reality may soon change, because according to Mr. Bourdain himself, who was interviewed at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, TX, “I’m looking to figure out a really good way to do a Philadelphia show… Philadelphia is an example of a city we’ve neglected.” Finally, after years of being ignored, Bourdain has come to his senses and realized that Philadelphia is far more than a city defined by Chefs [Stephen] Starr and [George] Perrier, and hopefully after shooting an episode for either No Reservations or The Layover, he will be able to show the rest of the world that we are so much more than just cheesesteaks and hoagies.
Anthony Bourdain, if you don’t know, is the executive chef of New York City's Les Halles, but he is better known as a TV personality with a passion for food, alcohol, expletives, and diverse cultures. Bourdain became famous after the publishing of his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and then internationally recognized upon the launching of No Reservations, now in its eighth season since airing in 2005. No Reservations has taken Bourdain and his audience all over the world, telling stories of the rich history of entire regions and spotlighting various eateries, both large and small, which best display the country or city’s past and its promising future. The show has also helped shatter stereotypes of foreign countries, cities and people and promoted meaningful empathy through cultural commonalities, especially a shared love of food. And now, after eight seasons, Philadelphia will hopefully finally have its turn, but what story would Bourdain tell?
In the same interview where Bourdain revealed that he wants to bring his show to Philadelphia, he was also quoted as saying he didn’t yet have an idea for telling Philadelphia’s story, stating, “I'm looking to figure out a really good way to do a Philadelphia show. Haven't done it yet. I'm still looking for a hook, you know, a way in, an angle.” So what should Philadelphia’s story be? For a city with such a deep, diverse history in so many respects, it is hard to narrow its narrative to just one. For all the changes, troubles, and successes Philadelphia has experienced and endured over the years, the city actually remains quite stable in so many other ways.
It is still a city of small neighborhoods. A city of blue collar ideals. Of rabid sports’ fans and cantankerous politics. A city of a changing racial, cultural, and economic complexion. It’s a place few people ever leave but new people constantly visit. Yet for all the consistency, the one area where Philadelphia has changed for the unequivocally good is its culinary expansion. It started small, in the 90s, in places like Old City and then spread to Manayunk, Fairmount, Northern Liberties, and South Philadelphia. This early revitalization didn’t immediately translate into world-class food, but it did begin the early steps of experimentation that is redefining Philadelphia’s food scene.
Amongst all the words that best captures Philadelphia’s changing dining landscape is experimental. It’s a city that is still redefining its food offerings, like many other large cities, but it is a city that is doing so far more aggressively and successfully. Chef superstars Stephen Starr, Mark Vetri, and Jose Garces have galvanized this grand experiment, pushing the envelope further and further and offering Philadelphians and visitors more and more incredibly diverse food. As a result, many other chefs have chosen Philadelphia as their home to find their niches and tell their stories. There’s the ever expanding BYOBs, the growing Seafood options, lead by Little Fish and Fish, an invigorated Food Truck alternative, and a renewed pub, bar, and beer scene that is unparalleled by other cities.
Unfortunately though, none of this really solves Mr. Bourdain’s problem of finding the right approach for visiting, traversing, tasting, and understanding all that Philadelphia was, is, and is becoming. But then again, maybe that’s the story, the one of ambiguity and reserved optimism. Not all experiments succeed and even the best laid plans of chefs and men don’t always last. Regardless of Philadelphia’s ability to keep writing this successful culinary narrative, there is still a story here now, and it’s worth discovering, so here’s hoping Mr. Bourdain does and is able to tell it right.
So it's official. Bourdain has made to Philadelphia to shoot an episode of The Layover. He's been spotted at The Italian Market, stopping by DiBruno Brothers for some cheese and Paisanos for a few sandwiches. He apparently filmed at The Mutter Museum and The Barnes. If you're in the city tonight, keep an eye out for him at some of the bars or restaurants.