Food shows are ubiquitous; food discourse is esoteric. Which is to say I think that the Merriam Theater was packed full to see Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert talk because people like television shows about food. People are less likely to spend an evening out discussing whether the sustainable food movement is truly sustainable, hence why that packed full theater began slowly and painfully leaving about a half hour into the show. The exodus was distracting, but I got it -- a charismatic, cursing Anthony Bourdain talking about his mixed martial arts wife is one thing, but getting more academic about veganism in a global food economy, well, it's not a conversation for everyone.
That being said, I thought it was fairly interesting. Juicy parts were discussed first, including coverage of why Eric Ripert hates "Kitchen Nightmares" (no one should be insulted at work, even when the insulter is Gordon Ramsay) and why Bourdain likes Ina Gartner (she tells people how to roast a chicken correctly, throwing in a funny comment about her marriage). Both described what they liked about Philly food, naming Marc Vetri and Michael Solomonov for chefs, and Amada, Parc, and Rouge for restaurants. Bourdain described how fatherhood may have mellowed him and that he is, in fact, a little scared of his wife. Numerous references to Alice Waters (influential California chef and owner of Chez Panisse) were made, with Bourdain ultimately concluding that her goals are good if not realizable, and that she is hard not to like (despite her "last dinner" wish of the very not-PC shark fin soup).
Among the conversational tangents the two traveled included whether a chef should enforce his or her vision on their patrons, at the expense of the patron's own perceived preference. Ripert espoused customer service, emphasizing that the restaurant business is, first and foremost, a hospitality industry. That being said, he noted, it is ultimately a compromise between being true to the chef's own voice but making a dish accessible for its audience. For his part, Ripert serves his sea urchin topped with caviar. (I would order that). Bourdain chimed in that it's always a good idea to throw in caviar or shrimp on top of something new and different.
The two opened the floor for questions. They were a bit stymied when asked about the glass ceiling for women (pleading ignorance, but also suggesting women have equal opportunities in the kitchen) and why there were few minority chefs. They also successfully dodged a somewhat creepy invitation from a woman from Matyson restaurant in Philly, inviting Bourdain for pigtails and bone marrow. And on veganism, Bourdain noted how being a vegan is an unfortunate restriction in some parts of the world as it would prevent one from enjoynig some food cultures altogether.
Equally interesting was how truly charismatic Bourdain is. I was expecting the rough sarcasm, but he is a preeminent entertainer with an instinct for well placed wit and timing. Ripert is undoubtedly likable, with a sort of "oh shucks" Jimmy Stewart integrity of the food world, but he is a chef first. Even as a foil to Bourdain (and his best friend), his entertainment gravitas levels lacked.
Bourdain and Ripert appeared together at the Merriam Theater on November 2, 2011.