Food as Authenticity in Bourdain’s Planned Market, and the Little Room for the Democratization of Cuisine he Promises



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…. Like the World’s Fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries, the market will invert this business model by bringing people from around the world to a large 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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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.


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