A Eurasianet partner post from Beacon
About 14 years ago, when Georgia was a just a charming little corrupt nation known more for kidnappings than its spectacular cuisine, my friend remarked that Anthony Bourdain absolutely must come to Georgia. We brainstormed itineraries for a Bourdain tour and then shelved our fantasies in that closet of fanciful notions we all have - or at least I did. My friend actually lobbied Bourdain over the years through various channels, including spamming his Twitter account with messages like “dude, you really need to come to Georgia.”
I don’t know what effect my buddy’s pestering had, but last October Bourdain’s producers contacted me for a brain-picking. Their show, Parts Unknown, was finally coming to Georgia.
I have seen clips from a few of his travel programs, but had never seen an entire episode of one. I know of Bourdain mostly through his book, Kitchen Confidential, a masterful memoir that resonates profoundly in anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen. I also liked his terrible mystery novel Gone Bamboo. I called my friend and told him Bourdain was coming.
His CNN producers called me by Skype. They were gathering as much background as possible from every source they could, including a friend who wrote a book about Georgia around 2001, but hadn’t lived here since. They said the writer would take them to the wine country and they would try to call me when they got in town and maybe meet for a drink.
That call came the morning of November 14, as I was in bed massaging my head, which smacked of dirty chacha, while my five-year old daughter was doing her fart in daddy’s face to wake him up trick. The voice on the phone told me there had been attacks in Paris and that the writer had to return home immediately, before they could shoot. “Can you meet us at Gabriadze’s?” Then I understood. I was going to have lunch with Anthony Bourdain.
My daughter wasn’t interested in seeing how TV is made, but then why would she be? We never watch TV. She wanted to play with her best friend instead. I dropped her off with him and rushed over to Rezo Gabriadze’s restaurant.
The writer chose this place to lunch with Bourdain and talk about Georgia for nostalgic reasons. Fifteen years ago it was the coolest place in Tbilisi. Gabriadze, a screenwriter and director of a puppet theater, created the cafe in a crooked old classic Tbilisi house. It was an entire work of found art and had good food with personal touches you wouldn’t find in other restaurants in the city. However, around seven years ago, Gabriadze’s lost its soul when the city gentrified the street and rebuilt everything in cinder blocks and synthetics. This is not where I would have brought Bourdain.
He was taller than I imagined and in great shape for a man tortured by years of blazing skillets and ardent drug use. I figured I’d break the ice by mentioning my chacha hangover. “Oh man, don’t mention chacha. We drank the hotel bar dry of its chacha last night,” he said. Tony had a way of looking everywhere but at me when he talked, which I found a bit disconcerting. “I really liked Kitchen Confidential,” I probed, but he was looking out the window, far from the present tense.
His sound guy wired me up and the director asked us to walk around outside. I had forgotten that I was called to talk about Tbilisi, my home since 2002. I was walking with a famous chef, one who knew Rick Tramonto, the last chef I worked for in Chicago, where I gave up cooking to paint houses and play the blues full time. I tried to bond with Tony by sharing my cooking background, but he didn’t come to Tbilisi to fraternize with me. He wanted to get through this segment and on to the next and then the next and wrap this up to get back home so he could do it all over again. But I plodded on with my cooking history anyway. This may have been his show, but it was my moment.
Bourdain found his stride and brought me back to Georgia. The director brought us back to Gabriadze’s. I haggled over our order with the manager. He insisted we order the chicken in raspberry sauce, but it was November, berries wouldn’t be in season for another six months. Moreover, nobody can come to Georgia without tasting shkmeruli, chicken baked in a courageous heap of garlic and sizzling creamy milk.
When the cameras are on, so is Tony, totally unprocessed, highly engaging. It was as if he actually liked me; such is the magic of television. Regrettably, I was having a bad hair day. I couldn’t meet his provocations with the facts that are at my fingertips when I type. “I look around the city and people seem to be doing alright,” he prompted. I should have said “yes, if alright is eleven percent of the population making less than two bucks a day and teachers making less than $200 a month, sure, things are great,” but I didn’t rise to the occasion. I grabbed my beer instead.
There was still plenty of food on the table when the lights, cameras and Tony went off. He stood up. “I need to go back to bed,” he mumbled and walked out the door. He and the crew were staying at a hotel down my street, yet I passed on joining them for some drinks later. I had had my moment. I called my twitter spamming buddy and told him where he could find Bourdain.
The show aired on May 22. The Batumi segment generated a bit of debate on social media, some thinking it was “weird,” glib and uninformative, while others pointed out that Batumi is a strange place to begin with. I was satisfied with the show and like most locals and Georgiaphiles, was thrilled to see a fun, honest, well-balanced portrayal of Georgia on one of the world’s biggest networks. Bourdain said he was “utterly charmed,” which is no surprise to anybody who has visited this crazy place. And I didn’t end up on the cutting room floor.