Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Parts Unknown Mexico: Fear and Loathing or a Simple Misunderstanding?--Bourdain Indulges in the Worst Cliches

CNN's Part's Unknown paints a grimmer picture of Mexico than the Santa Muerte, or Lady Death herself

As a consultant, or source for Parts Unknown Mexico, I was of course eager to see how the episode turned out--that is to say I agreed to a phone conference with CNN's Mexico bureau to suggest where host Anthony Bourdain and ZPZ Productions should visit in Mexico, to reveal the unknown parts. In the half hour I spoke with CNN, I emphasized the importance of Tepito's food scene and about some other locations I feel have been underexposed that have tremendous cuisine. I was busy that Sunday and wouldn't see the episode 'til later that evening, but I saw a heartfelt blog written by Bourdain that made me feel very optimistic before I saw a tweet from Monterrey, Mexico's Chef Guillermo Gonzalez Berestain (Pangea), one of the founding fathers of Modern Mexican cuisine (No, he doesn't live in San Diego or vacation in Cabo, Mr. Bourdain), lamenting the shows content.

The episode was not the great show that had just done very food-centric programs in India, Las Vegas, and Lyon--perhaps the most food orientated show this season--instead it showed Mexico as a non-stop bloodbath, with everyone running for cover, and sort of glossed over the food. When it wasn't sensationalizing the drug war, it was doing ads for the Grey Goose of mezcal, Del Maguey, owned by a Texan, and doing the Fodor's guide tour of Oaxaca, visiting places that have appeared in practically every food show ever shot in Oaxaca. A viewing of your old episodes of Chef Rick Baylesses Mexico: One Plate at a Time would have done the trick. A surly Bourdain responded in the comments section to A Gringo in Mexico blogger Scott Koenig's Open Letter to Bourdain with a decisive dismissal of any concerns about Parts Unknown Mexico by San Diegans and Spring Breakers out to have Mexicans carry their golf clubs (the same ones that washed dishes at Les Halles). But why Mexico, at a time when the biased media has backed off of this story--was this an attempt to get ratings from low lying fruit, or was the show simply mistitled?              

Berestain said that it was a "pity that Bourdain dedicated 75% of the show to drug traffickers and the cartels. This country is much more than this", he added.

From the Valle de Guadalupe, chef Roberto Alcocer responded, "It's like that?"

One of Mexico's most important culinary power couples, Claudio Poblete Ritschel and Silvia Ayala agreed with Berestain, too.

On my personal Facebook page post on this subject, Mexico's chefs and food lovers from all over Mexico(Not San Diego) expressed outrage, and discontent with the show's content--it was clear that Mexicans, including myself, did not feel this was an accurate portrayal of Mexico, nor is it our reality.

Bourdain had this to say to Koenig:

Perhaps the basic misunderstanding here is this:
This was not a story about a COUNTRY–though it took place in one. As always, I did not seek to portray a country or its character in its entirety in one hour of television. That would be facile, impossible and unworthy of a far more complicated far bigger story. It was the story of a few ordinary but very courageous people, facing head in at great personal peril, a status quo that most are unable or unwilling to address.

That is all it was. To “balance” those stories–to make audiences more comfortable? To make a tourism economy more viable? Would be a betrayal of the people who spoke honestly with us at no small risk to themselves.

The points of view expressed on my programs by the way are mine. And only mine. Any suggestion that my network, or anyone else suggests, contributes, steers or influences that point of view or my choices of subject matter or even the editing process is dead wrong. Anyone who believes that doesn’t know me very well or believes in black helicopters.

Parts Unknown is produced independently by me and my partners at ZPZ production. CNN is the customer. We go where I want and tell the stories I choose in the way I choose to tell them. Period.

The problem is that this show wasn't titled Parts Unknown: The War on Drugs in Mexico, it's Parts Unknown: Mexico! Period. This is misleading and certainly not consistent with the rest of the shows, that are seem to be viewed through a Euro-centrist lens. Europe is about food, celebrity chefs and the good life, and Latin America is about drugs, prostitutes (that quip in Tepito, as if anyone gets prostitutes there), and violence. If Mr. Boulud was unhappy with the show I'm sure respect would be given rather than cracks about San Diegans--Sr. Berestain is one of the Bouluds of Mexico and that matters to me and the entire Mexican food scene--it should also matter to the biggest food rock star and biggest promoter of celebrity chefs on the planet. 

Yes, some of the individuals in Parts Unknown: Mexico are living a nightmare, especially Anabel Hernandez, who has chosen this courageous path, but the show didn't make any distinction between her reality--and others in the show--and the rest of the country. 

If Parts Unknown made a habit of exposing the social ills of all its destinations, we'd understand, and furthermore, there was no new ground covered here--the drug war has been covered ad nauseam; there are thousands of documentaries and programs that have done a far better job with more fair coverage. Newspapers in the U.S. including the LA Times had regular columns on the War in Mexico during Calderon's presidency. Your famous wit just doesn't get beneath the surface here--a friend says you're trying for an Emmy, perhaps?--well, I hope you get one, but this retreaded tale probably won't suffice. Maybe if you interviewed Celerino Castillo III?      

I don't golf, and don't vacation in Cabo or Cancun--Mexico has 31 states and a federal district--Cabo, Baja and Cancun aren't the only safe places in Mexico, and I've been through 28 states, plus Mexico City (that's why your people called me) and have never felt unsafe, nor have my friends, family, or myself been victims of the cartels. My family lives in Aquascalientes, Mexico City, Puebla, Jalisco, Baja California and this terror is not their reality. I was in Ciudad Juarez on a regular basis during the worst years of the crisis; I've been in Apatzingan, I've been all through Sinaloa, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, and Chihuahua without a film crew with or any fixers in tow. 

The worst root causes of the drug war are here in the U.S. where consumption drives the market (you should know), our weapons maintain the cartels (some even provided by the U.S. government), our banks launder the money, some Zetas members were trained in the U.S., and our prohibition laws keep the prices high on the street--lucrative for the cartels. We have our own drug violence here in the U.S. 80,000 killed in Mexico from the drug war?--more U.S. citizens have died in the same years from which these figures are derived from handguns--here at home. So, let's not make this about figures.   

Aside from time spent on the drug war theme at its most base level--which was also prominent in your Baja California show on No Reservations (oh, and some of the chefs featured in that show were surprised that so much time was devoted to the drug war), the time spent hyping a cult religion--Santa Muerte--a commercial brand of mezcal that's not even consumed in Mexico (you can find it in San Diego, though), and the missed food opportunities in Tepito, Cuernavaca, and Oaxaca, it really wasn't a good show--at all. It was not a representation of Mexico, it did not break ground on Mexico's struggle against the cartels--in a country that is still a top travel destination for U.S. tourists--how is that possible with the image you promoted?--yes, many are going to Cancun, but they're also in Colima, Nayarit, D.F., Puebla, Jalisco and Hidalgo--you'll be just fine in any of these places as well as the majority of the states. Oaxaca, too! Then, there are the huge population of U.S. retirees in San Miguel, Lake Chapala and Baja--should they sell the condos and make way for Cabo?

Yes, the war on drugs rages on--all over the world--it's a world issue that could end tomorrow through legalization here in the U.S.   

It's not about Parts Unknown just doing shows that drive tourism, although you did sell me on Lyon, and you did find time to shamelessly plug(by your own admission) your chocolate venture with Eric Ripert in Peru. I would just like to have seen a good show, and Mexico, it's chefs, and myself included, really love what you do--you are the most interesting man in the world. Mexicans know how much you love the food, the line cooks, and the culture, but Mexico deserved a better show from you, and Anabel deserves a forum where breakfast micheladas aren't one of the most memorable things in the show.            


Fnarf said...

Thank you for this. I was so looking forward to this; Bourdain has done excellent programs on so many countries, and with your involvement I was sure it was going to be special. Instead it was the same old cheap shot. And his response was worse. Very disappointing.

W. Scott Koenig said...

Bill, great post! I took Bourdain's barbs as classic East Coast ball-breaking. Though in San Diego, I've spent enough time in Mexico speaking to Mexicans to know that this level of reporting does more harm than good for them.

Bourdain came back to the A Gringo In Mexico comments last night and stated his position in no uncertain terms:

"A common reaction to the show was that the photos of bodies were unnecessarily “gruesome”, sensationalistic, focused “too much on the negative”.

"Americans spend billions of dollars on Mexican sourced drugs every year. My feeling is that they should see what they are paying for: dead Mexicans. If that’s uncomfortable or unattractive ? Good."

As a marketer (as well as a blogger), I'm not sure this confrontational approach will sell at all...but just instill more fear of Mexico here North of the Border.

Scott (El Gringo)

streetgourmetla said...

Scott-Ball breaking is fine, but if you're going to go that route and you're sitting at the 4 Seasons Lounge drinking Del Maguey, be prepared to take as you give.

My point was that it wasn't just a San Diegan.

Mexico's tourism is only growing so it's a non-issue for me. I'm not looking for a Parts Unknown that promotes Mexican tourism--that's the job of the Secretary of Tourism. I'm criticizing a bad show, and for the uneven reporting between Europe, which apparently has no social ills, and isn't involved at all in the drug war, and Latin America, which is a One Note Samba in a minor key--drugs, drugs, murder, and prostitutes.

It was such a weak food show, and when there was good food it was given little attention--less than Lyon, where a family tree came with the soup--the migas dish has a great story. Del Maguey? And the dead bodies were not a revelation, and the reporting was old news. This was just cheap sensationalism. Vice on the other hand did a great piece on the drug war. People in the U.S. who do illegal narcotics know where their drugs come from and don't really care what the results are. History Channel, Discovery Channel, etc.--this stuff is on every week--the unbalanced is the reporting on Europe in contrast to Latin America--just another gringo looking for a cheap thrill, though unintended.

Unknown said...

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Bill Esparza. The generalizations being spoke of in San Diego are sort of true too... but we are part of the Creative Class in San Diego, we do not fit in the mold of typical tourists that never leave the walled in compounds. We have ventured into Parts Unknown and we have identified them, photographed them, tasted them....... my brown fingers type on my computer here San Diego... but this is it: JUST SAY WHICH PARTS UNKNOWN! IDENTIFY THEM! This entire debate would not be happening if Bourdain would have just said "We are in Central Mexico" not just a blanket statement of "Mexico". We won't be decapitated if we go have an award winning beer in Tijuana. I will continue to escape, explore, enjoy my Mexico. With removal of my naive glasses, and my Mexican-French-Arab creative crazy blood pumping thru my veins, I can't wait to continue back on my dream of no border, prime coastline, wild horses, wine caves and the most sought after food, I feel, is on this Earth right now. The real crime is not to live! ! Salud ! Baja, Mexico.

streetgourmetla said...

You're welcome, Ursula. Yes, Parts Unknown La Tierra Caliente would have been different or the Parts Unknown Mazatlan to Durango Highway. Oaxaca, Tepito,and D.F. aren't even the high activity areas for the cartels--Oaxaca--not at all.

patrick bateman said...

it's very sad to me your column reads like one long whine, "why CAN'T I dooooo a show on CNN???"
"why doesn't anyone listen to MEEEEEE?"
"i know SO MUCH MORE than these guys about MEXICOOOOOO"

bourdain nails it in his response to the blogger. he told the story he wanted to tell.
if you don't like the title of the show, or don't think he's quite as "real" as you are, well, that says more about you than it says about him. it's like picking pepper out of fly shit.

i fully support your not liking an episode of television. there are lots of episodes of television i don't like.
however, bitching about what 40 some minutes about a very large and complex place doesn't show, how dare they show, just makes you come off like a bitter betty who, y'know, doesn't have show.

i found the episode very entertaining. watching that female journalist cook and share a meal and tell her story was at least as compelling to me as hearing you tell me just how legit that special cabrito stall in el village muy pequeno, estado de obscuridad, el mexico de viejo, is.
you think the locations he picked weren't, let's see, "cool" enough for you? were you listening to the conversations he was having while he was at those disneylands, those chuck e. cheeses?
i don't understand why you, and people like you, continually try and make food, journalism, and telling stories a freakin' dick measuring contest.
why is bourdain under any obligation other than to tell the story about mexico he wants to tell?

different strokes, tempest in a teapot, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
making anything more out of this episode of television other than, "you didn't enjoy it" is hyperbole, pure and simple. which, if you think about it, according to you, doesn't make you any different than bourdain.

streetgourmetla said...

Patrick Bateman--If I'm correct, you're upset that someone would critique a Bourdain show? But, your sophomoric stream of sarcasm is okay, and racist undertones?--I'm not implying that's what you're about, but I can understand your run on sentences just fine without the mock Spanish (what are you, 12 years old? Bitter Betty?) Let's agree that EVERYONE is critical of something, and what's your interest in having no criticism of Bourdain? Are you a big Bourdain fan or just some lost Belieber?

And where in your life does saying "you're just jealous and bitter" have any weight? Shall I respond with "oh yeah--well you don't have any friends!"

I'm not going to ask you to read the post again, but this isn't about me, but the show.

I'm not here talking about what they should have done but specifically what the show did in the context of the series, and I believe the details have been explained already in the post.

The fact that Bourdain has been addressing it on twitter and in comments on posts means that there's more to this--it was important enough for him to write a very long response on Scott Koenig's blog.That's because the negative reaction to the show has been far reaching

But practice what you preach--next time all you need to post is "I disagree with you."

Anything public can be subject to criticism--Bourdain is a big boy, and can handle himself. Bourdain did what he wanted and so did you and I here.

patrick bateman said...

it's funny you question my age and maturity when your main response to my post is to insult me personally.

i'm sorry you don't like the way i write -- i love your food recommendations, but i don't like the way you write, either and who cares -- but it would have been nice if you had actually read and attempted to understand what i wrote.

why does anything i wrote have any weight? fair question. here's why:
because your screed isn't honest with yourself and isn't honest with your readers. and anyone who can read can draw that conclusion easily.
if you had written, "they asked me for rec's and didn't use them. so why did they ask me?" THAT would have been honest. that would bug me, too.
but instead, you have to blather on about why isn't the show well rounded, why did they eat there instead of here, how dare they show what they showed, the title of the show is bad, ad nauseum.
if you had written, "i don't like bourdain shows that don't show him eating and talking about a lot of food," THAT would have been honest. if that's the show you enjoy, more power to you for coming down on this particular episode.
but instead, you blather on about "context of the series" and how important your FRIENDS' criticism of the episode is. that's petty.

i have no problem with anyone criticizing an episode of television (that's the second time i've written that, by the way). it's just your poorly written criticism doesn't tell me anything about the program they aired, and your refusal to own your own opinions makes it a little hypocritical.
there are episodes of bourdain shows i don't like, there are bourdain books i don't care for. nothing wrong with that.
however, if someone asks -- and darn it, they never do -- i explain to them why, and i don't give my c.v. to do it.
i find it off putting and weird to read or hear a review of something that seems to focus solely on what's not there and what could have been shown. to me, that's like saying, "casablanca would have been so much better with tits and automatic weapons fire."

and someone like you calling me racist is comedy gold. let's be honest: unless someone passes your weird form of the paper bag test, they just don't GET to talk about mexico or mexican food, do they?
your targets are as obvious as your intentions, and your petty jealousies -- yes, to me, it comes off as jealousy -- take away from whatever message you're trying to send.

that's my opinion. but i guess although you're "allowed" to criticize bourdain all you want, no one gets to criticize you. if bourdain has to be a big boy, why don't you?

i think we can both agree our definitions of "far reaching" are different. this 40 odd minutes of televison, you and your friends' criticism of it, and bourdain's response to that criticism, will be mostly forgotten in a week or so.

until you stop complaining about messengers and start focusing on the message in a less defensive and pretentious way, i'm afraid, to paraphrase gore vidal, you have nothing to say, only something to add.

streetgourmetla said...

Patick Bateman--Welcome back, I recognize you know, I believe you've had a like/dislike relationship with this blog--and I believe you've even emailed me before? You are allowed to criticize me--I'm the one who allowed your impassioned flow to post here.

I'm saying, the your jealous thing, etc., it's a waste of our time, and I accept your insults, but there's no need for the mock Spanish--it's racist--I didn't say you were--pay attention.

Let me be clear about my consulting because I thought I indicated that I merely took a phone and made suggestions. What do you not understand there? I spoke about cities and states--I strongly suggested Tepito and Migas La Guera, other than that I spoke generically about a few other places and disagreed with a few places on their list. It was pro bono, so I didn't want to do much more for them. They went to Tepito and Migas La Guera based on my rec and probably double checked with the several other sources they used. And that's it--beyond that, I have no vested interest in it, and matter of fact, it's to my benefit that they didn't really dig deep into Tepito--I'm actually pleased. This is a separate issue and not the cause of my criticism.

To simplify, this was an easy ratings topic and a direction the show has been going since No Reservations, but every political topic is on the surface level. I'm not interested in hearing Bourdain talk about these topics because it's not done well--the Palestinian Israeli show was boring as many of his shows are--I liked Lyon, Punjab, and Vegas was fun--and so was this Mexico episode another dull attempt at journalism--it was the least interesting drug war show I've seen, and I've watched many and keep abreast of what's happening since I'm in Mexico each month, practically.

It was poor tabloid, in the midst of a bunch of very food oriented shows, and it was the overindulgence of tabloid fare to the point of being insulting.

Chef Berestain is not my friend--I've eaten at his restaurant, but have never met him.

My posting of Berestain's comments and those of many other chefs was to refute Bourdain's claim that only a Gringo (hello Scott)in San Diego had a problem with the show. The criticism was strong and had many that participated--I share those same feelings about the episode. It affected important people in the food scene--Bourdain desn't tackle these subjects when hanging with Andres, Boulud, etc., so we find that to be unfair.

My post was based in the show and Bourdain's response to Scott Koenig.

Bourdain acknowledged that their was a misunderstanding in his comments, so that has justified everything in my opinion. He also tweeted that there will be more positive stories about Mexico in the future, and to have been a small part of the many voices that have caused him to ponder the content of the episode, even if he's standing his ground, I'm content. That was the goal--and--mission accomplished.

The rest of your droning on about my motives?--knock yourself out and draw your own conclusions as I am indifferent.

streetgourmetla said...

Patrick Bateman--indifferent to that aspect, the rest I'm happy to engage and I do appreciate critics, both high and low.

In order for you to continue posting in this manner, please use your real profile--it might make you focus a bit more--maybe.

My real name is here--I own it all for better or for worse.

Unknown said...

A viewing of your old episodes of Chef Rick Baylesses Mexico One Plate at a Time would have done the trick.