Academia x Bourdain

When the Worlds of Culinaria and Academia Collide

Food-lovers, adventurers, and food-adventurers alike are deeply affected with the passing of Anthony Bourdain. As a catalyst and major driver for food media, Bourdain shifted the way we conceptualize kitchens and cooks with a literary voice that commanded our attention and a director’s eye that sated our appetites. But in the wake of his passing, we are confronted with the shudder that comes with any sudden and unexpected void: what can we learn from this, and how can we prevent this from ever happening again?

I write from the perspective of someone who views chefs and academics as communicators. Both are content-producers, influencers, and experts of a particular field who transform things into a digestible (ideally delightful) manner. And, from my view, there are uncanny parallels between kitchens and universities: they cordon people off by specialization and organize themselves according to hierarchies of power. These hierarchies are further justified by a need to serve a steady supply of customers and consumers, often for explicit profit. Perhaps most disturbing is that both kitchens and universities have normalized the way such power structures operate, relatively unquestioned, under the guise of ‘business as usual.’

Overworked, under-acknowledged, and coupled with a heightened sense of sacrifice, it seems that work-life balance is achievable only for those who can afford it. Perhaps we need a radical adjustment, like a chiropractic alignment, that places those who feed us (with food, knowledge) at the level of everyday care and empathy.  

The World of Culinaria

The restaurant industry has grown, exploded even, because of an underlying mentality that people — human resources — are expendable. Shifts end late, prep starts early, and work is divvied up by sections for the sake of efficiency so that time and energy are maximized at minimal costs. But costs, like those of mental health, are not necessarily quantifiable, let alone visible. And, some have already pointed to the dangers of glamorizing a celebratized, rock ‘n’ roll version of chefdom. Even though kitchen hierarchies whip up enough pressure to inspire the writings of Bill BufordGabrielle Hamilton, and Michael Rulhman, we still dine out and we still buy their books.

Part of Bourdain’s work was showing both sides of that mentality, exposing the lived realities of the line cooks inside ‘the culinary underbelly’ when he wrote Kitchen Confidential back in 2000He rendered the culinary industry as one where misfits could call home; its insularity was both a balm to the normalcy of the outside world and a cage that festered its own toxicity. Arguably, Kitchen Confidential singlehandedly mobilized an entire army of chefs-to-be, which also inadvertently relegated the status of line cook to an unpopular career prospect. Job precarity was (still is?) part of the occupational fabric of the cooking world.

Nowadays, there is a reported shortage of highly skilled cooks, in Washington DCChicago, and New York. It’s something that the world of culinaria has seen coming as early as 2015 but was out of sight from the customer’s dining experience. The parallel with academia is that much of the educational foment currently taken place happens outside the view of the students’ learning experience.  

The World of Academia

In the world of Academia, institutions are churning out more doctorates than the world of higher education can employ. As a result, overqualified PhDs are flooding the job market to the point where potential graduates are encouraged to plan their ‘alt-ac’ careers (short for ‘alternative academic,’ or alternative to professorship) years in advance of their graduation date. At the base of this paradigm is one that champions output, to the point where hiring decisions are often characterized by the sentiment “They’re all good: so who is the most exceptional overachiever?”

Academic precaritynow a coined term, has forced people out of institutions in ways that make continuity and solidarity near impossible. In a way, even the students are being shortchanged because contract-to-contract instructors cannot write recommendation letters or develop a consistent rapport for trust or mentorship.

While there are some efforts to highlight the need for self-care, they focus on individual merit instead of the systemic problems that prioritized productivity over personhood.

In the Wake

Though the personalities of chefs and academics may be different, the culture of overwork resonates in all kinds of places, university and otherwise. In the wake of his passing, Bourdain leaves many questions unanswered on what to do about the toxicity of production-first labor practices and those who are invisibly suffering from it. Who is being habituated into overwork and how are we surreptitiously keeping a broken system up and running?

Despite his early macho days, Bourdain did elucidate us on some ‘unappetizing truths,’ including the messy aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Especially in recent years, he vehemently lashed out against sexual aggressors in the culinary industry and considered himself a feminist.

At the same time, his platform was one that was normative nonetheless: white, hetero, male. He had a particularly privileged vantage point of seeing the world this way, which, Tunde Wey describes as “a partisan gaze posing as impartial.’ Echoing the words of Ruby Tandoh, we should reexamine how we — as media and food consumers — police the tone and language of women and people of color who may not be emboldened by the swagger and ‘sweariness’ of Bourdain.

To be sure, hotlines and imperatives to ‘reach out’ should be duly publicized, and we should always and definitely be looking out for one another. But if the underlying ideologies of our work spaces fail to change, we might just do ourselves in. We may never know why or how Bourdain came to his decision, but perhaps his approach to changing things — through a kind of generative friction — can be applied to other worlds. Who is the Bourdain of the academic industry? If nobody can afford to be such person, then we need a radical shift in how we imagine empathy, kindness, and agency within institutionalized power. We need to pay attention to whose voices get amplified and listen especially to those whose voices get muted or are outright silent.