Review of Anthony Bourdain’s Get Jiro!

Food isn’t just the center of life – what we must have to survive – it’s also central to understanding who we are as individuals and as a nation.  “Tell me what you eat,” declared epicure Jean Brillat-Savarin, “and I’ll tell you what you are.”

In Get Jiro!, Anthony Bourdain’s first graphic novel, where one eats is as revealing of oneself as what one eats.   To emphasize this point,  Bourdain imagines a dystopic Los Angeles (much like present day New York City), where where and what one eats are the ONLY sites for identity building.  Forget sporting, music, dance, and academic events. In this lunatic world, they’re no longer relevant and have largely “fragmented and died.” Eating out is the only opportunity for people to express who they are, to accumulate the cultural capital necessary to maintain and improve social status.  That’s why the people in this world are willing to kill to get a table at a certain restaurant.

The city is ruled by two rival gang of chefs — the cosmopolitan modernists and the localvore hippies.  Cosmopolitan modernists ship in the best ingredients from around the world and rely on post-modern technology and narratives to create, for instance, molecular gastronomic experiences such as eating whole (bones, innards) ortolan, “a small, delicate eurasian songbird, endangered, all but extinct” with “diner’s head…covered by a cloth napkin allowing the diner to inhale all the roast bird’s rich, earthy aromy.”  (Think Mistral Kitchen and Bisato in Seattle, or Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago).  Localvore hippies insist on only the freshest “local” produce harvested by “a very nice, very conscientious farmer.” Animals must be “happy, free ranging, fved organically and by hand — the same feeder each time.” (Think Thrive, Local360, Tilth, all in Seattle).  Caught in the middle are old school chefs like Jean Claude, who serves simple and rustic French food in a shanty space in an impoverished “outer ring” neighborhood dominated by obese citizens and bad fast food; Jiro, a sushi chef whose humble establishment is also located in such a neighborhood.

Get Jiro! is a rant about and a primer on today’s food politics, how it’s a reflection of socio-economic class fault lines too few food critics are willing to openly discuss.  Bourdain is angry at both the Cosmopolitan Modernists and the Localvore Hippies, accusing the former of greed and selling out, while declaring the latter as being too narrowly focused to be practical and as ultimately the more dangerous of the two.  Both, Bourdain discerns, prey on people’s fears and insecurities, are narrow-minded and fail to communicate to its audience (customers) an adaptable and flexible love of food, especially food cooked simply.  In the end, Jiro inspires people take to the streets and the revolution begins.  Heads of gang leaders are on stakes and people are free again to enjoy food without an overwhelming sense of fear and guilt.

The graphics, to me, lean more on the realistic side (as compared to characters on South Park) so the (gratuitous) violence and gore — there’s a lot of that — may be difficult for some.  There’s murder, torture, a few gratuitous sex scenes and food porn. The storyline feels rushed, it was like a 30 minute read for me (but I didn’t focus much on the graphics), and I was left wanting to know more about, for instance, how we arrived at this dystopic world ruled by competing faction of chefs.  Or how some main characters became who they are.  Perhaps Rose, leader of the Localvore Hippies, became a hippie nazi because of childhood trauma, where her father punished her by beating to death her beloved kitten.  Or she was forced by a group of bullies to eat 30 hot dogs.  I wanted Bourdain to get inside the head of the characters, to explore what drives them to believe what they do, and not just use them as straw men and women to be derided as out-of-touch and maniacal.

In spite of its lack of depth and numerous distractions (gratuitous sex), Get Jiro! is worth reading for those unfamiliar with but interested in contemporary food politics– the basic, basic pros and cons of each argument.  The story is accessible to most who can handle the gore and hopefully will get people to think about their relationship with food instead of mindlessly sampling each style of cuisine without understanding what’s at stake.

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