Anthony Bourdain is on the phone, talking about the live show he’s bringing to Portland in November and how fans in the audience will be able to ask him anything they want.
“I like hard questions. I like confrontational questions,” he said. “To me, the worst-case scenario is I get the same old, ‘Gee, what’s the grossest thing you ever ate’ question. Or ‘Where are you going to eat after this?’
“I’d rather get somebody who really disagrees with me and challenges me.”
Sensing an opening, it seems a good time to broach a touchy subject that people around here are still grumbling about: The Maine episode of “No Reservations,” which Bourdain filmed in January 2010 and aired later that year on the Travel Channel. Bourdain visited J’s Oyster and Street and Co. in Portland, then headed up the coast to Conte’s and Primo in Rockland and a bean supper in Milo.
If comments on social media are any indication, Mainers sure know how to hold a grudge. While some loved Bourdain’s view of Maine through the eyes of his cameraman Zach Zamboni (who grew up in Milo), many others are still wondering more than a year after the show aired: Why wasn’t Portland more prominent in the show, given its growing reputation as a food town? Why didn’t Bourdain go to (fill in the blank) restaurant in Portland? And why was he so mean to restaurateur Dana Street when they were having dinner at his Portland restaurant, Street and Co.?
Bourdain apparently gets this kind of reaction a lot.
He’s sure he missed a lot of great places in Portland — he always does — but he’s not in the business of featuring the “best” restaurant in town or doing any kind of comprehensive overview of a city, he said. The Maine show was a personal essay that “was about Zach and Zach’s favorite places, and his view of Maine, period.”
“Whether I was fair to Portland, of course, I wasn’t,” Bourdain said. “I’m not making a show that any tourism board is going to be happy with because it’s incomplete, it’s point-of-view. It comes from how much I had to drink that day and who I’m with, and in this case, is was the Zach Zamboni show.”
Bourdain fell head over heels for J’s Oyster, where he held court with the staff and scarfed down steamers dipped in butter, a treat that he said is getting harder to find in New Jersey and New York. J’s, Bourdain said, is the kind of place he wishes he had in his own neighborhood.
“To me, J’s Oyster bar is a place that I loved within two seconds of walking in the door,” he said. “I loved the people there. I loved the people who worked there, I loved the crowd, l loved the food, I loved the look. I loved everything about the place. I wanted to move in upstairs.”
So, what happened at Street and Co.?
IN A CRANKY MOOD
In the show’s voice-over, Bourdain called the restaurant’s atmosphere “kind of dull, actually. Why Zach brought me here, I’m not sure.”
The next scene shows Bourdain at a table with Dana Street and his fishmonger. A female server walks up to the table and says, “Welcome to Street and Co.”
Street quietly replies: “You keep saying that. You said that three times already.”
Bourdain’s voice-over returns: “After two minutes with this guy, I can already tell it must be difficult to work in this place.”
Bourdain said it was his impression that Street was “less than polite” to the server, even “dismissive” of her, and it rubbed him the wrong way at a time when he was already feeling “cranky.”
He also didn’t like the fact that Street’s pasta dish (which was in “some kind of watery-looking sauce,” according to Bourdain) was served in a saute pan. “That pissed me off too. I married an Italian,” Bourdain said, laughing.
For the record, Bourdain said on the show that he loved the Maine shrimp he was served at Street and Co., and he called the cuttlefish “sublime.”
But the damage was done. People who know Street felt that Bourdain disrespected the man who has had a hand not only in Street and Co. but also other Portland favorites, including Standard Baking Company, Fore Street and Two Fat Cats bakery.
“I’m not in the business of giving people the respect they deserve,” Bourdain said. “No rap on him. I don’t know why anyone should care one way or the other what I say. They can take it or leave it.”
Dana Street, speaking publicly about the experience for the first time, says he did indeed feel disrespected, and considers Bourdain “not a well person.”
Street said the server in the scene was someone he’s known for years. She was on her third take saying “Welcome to Street and Co.,” and he was just joking with her.
“I’ve never been mean or bad to anybody who’s worked for me, ever,” Street said. “Was I offended? I was incredibly offended You spend a lot of time talking somebody into something, and then you diss them like that.”
Street said he doesn’t watch television, so he barely knew who Bourdain was when “No Reservations” came calling. And he doesn’t like being filmed himself. So he kept saying no, but the producer kept calling. And his manager told him that everyone watches “No Reservations,” including many of the people in his own kitchen.
Street was under the impression the show was going to be about Portland and its history as a food town. But when Bourdain came in, he came in “grumpy,” Street said, and did all the talking. He didn’t ask him any questions.
“It was a real negative experience,” Street said, “and I feel very poorly towards that guy, I’ll tell you that. That was like a trap or something.”
Street was worried the episode would hurt his business, but he said he actually got more customers in the restaurant during the year that followed.
Bourdain’s 2010 trip was his first to Maine, and the episode of “No Reservations” that he got out of it was “one of the most fun shows ever.” He rarely duplicates locations, but if he ever comes back to do another show in Maine, he would visit another part of the state, he said.
Bourdain will be back in Portland Nov. 3 for a live show at Merrill Auditorium with chef Eric Ripert. The show grew out of Bourdain’s book tours, which kept getting bigger and bigger until he started booking corporate events and conferences. Eventually, he was approached by promoters who wanted to start setting him up him in theaters.
Bourdain does 30 to 40 of the shows in a year. He said the experience is like stand-up comedy in the sense that he has to phase out old material and work in new material over time. He’s now trying to do a full hour of new material, plus another hour of questions and answers with the audience.
And, um, where is he going to eat while he’s here?
“Honestly, I’m going to be in and out of town,” Bourdain said. “When I’m doing the speaking gigs, I usually fly in in the afternoon, do my gig, and by the time I’m done, everything’s closed.
“So if I get a tube of Pringles out of the mini bar, that will be a good day at the office for me.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]