Two distinguished gentlemen, trim and silver-haired, stepped onto the stage at Symphony Hall Friday night. It was almost a full 10 minutes before the first F-bomb dropped.
It fell from the lips of one Anthony Bourdain, host of Travel Channel's "No Reservations" and author of books such as "Kitchen Confidential" and "Medium Raw." He was here with his friend Eric Ripert, chef of New York's Le Bernardin and host of PBS show "Avec Eric," for an evening they were calling "Good vs. Evil."
Who was good, who evil? Well, Bourdain is a champion drinker and cusser who appears to delight in the possibility of pissing people off. He has famously ranted against the Food Network, vegans and vegetarians, organic food crusader Alice Waters, GQ critic Alan Richman, and the list goes on. Ripert heads up one of the best restaurants in the world (Le Bernardin has three Michelin stars and four from the New York Times), works for charitable causes, and has a French accent that, it turns out, makes even expletives sound elegant.
The pair kicked off two hours of freewheeling conversation by interrogating each other, one standing, the other in the hot seat at the center of the stage. Bourdain asked Ripert why he's spoken out against "Kitchen Nightmares" host Gordon Ramsay. "I'm scandalized by Ramsay's treatment of people," Ripert said. "At home or in work or in your car, who likes to be insulted? Who likes to be humiliated?" Bourdain tried to get Ripert to reveal who wins "Top Chef," on which both men appear as guest judges. And he begged Ripert to "explain your unholy love for Guy Fieri," the Food Network host.
Then it was Ripert's turn. "Do you think maybe the drugs have confused your critical abilities?" he asked.
Replied Bourdain, "No. Chefs are in the pleasure business. I just know my subject better than most." The line drew applause. So did almost all of Bourdain's lines. With an audience of food obsessives, this was a love fest.
Settling finally into a pair of orange armchairs, Ripert and Bourdain batted back and forth issues about which they're passionate.
Ripert pushed for sustainable seafood; Bourdain said he would eat the last bluefin in the ocean. Both laughed at the concept of "farm to table." ("Where else are you going to get your food? What else are you going to eat it on?" Bourdain asked.) They agreed molecular gastronomy pioneer Ferran Adria is an artist, discussed good food vs. cheap food, and talked about meals that make them angry. Bourdain railed against fake Italian and Mexican fare, a la Olive Garden and Chili's. ("Macaroni Grill? Who grills macaroni?")
And, of course, they talked about Boston. Ripert gave a shoutout to friends' restaurants: Clio, Radius, Pigalle, and Bistro du Midi, where former Le Bernardin executive sous chef Robert Sisca heads the kitchen. Bourdain was hissed at for being a Yankees fan, cheered when he said he cried like a baby at the Red Sox' winning the World Series. And when he said he wanted to eat at Cambridge's Craigie on Main, the crowd went wild. "Get the burger!" yelled someone from the balcony. (Bourdain also said he wanted to go to Craigie on Main when he was in Boston filming "No Reservations" in January. It must be like "Waiting for Guffman" in Tony Maws's kitchen every time that guy comes to town.)
"Good vs. evil," it seemed, referred more to Bourdain and Ripert's opinions on the subjects they debated than the men themselves. And these guys have opinions. Friday, the two were always funny, often thoughtful, with an easy rapport. Some of the best moments came during a too-short, slightly disorganized audience Q&A, when the stars of the show were on less-trodden ground. This audience of people who follow chefs, restaurants, food trends, and food television probably already knew why Ripert was down on Ramsay and Bourdain was down on just about everyone else. They had watched Ripert employee Jennifer Carroll lose her cool on "Top Chef" and Bourdain eat warthog rectum in Namibia. It didn't matter. They just wanted to hear the two talk.