No Reservations: Did Bourdain Come out of the Les Halles Fires as A Chef?

He may act like he doesn't give a crap what you think about him, but that’s the usual approach cool guys take when they really care a lot. Last night's final episode for this season of No Reservations proved that Anthony Bourdain wants us to know he still has it in him. He's still got chef cred. So don't question his judgments of other chefs!

In recent years -- most notably since he started doing guest judge stints on Bravo's Top Chef, unashamedly doling out wicked insults to sub-par cheftestants' culinary attempts in the process -- he has been under fire on the Net. Several chat room commentators have called Bourdain a sell-out, saying that he has become too much of a celebrity icon and not enough of a chef. After crowning him "Eater of the Year" for 2007, Endless Simmer mentioned that many voters for their online poll protested his eligibility, saying that Bourdain "is already so over." A writer by the name of Holly Hughes had this to say about Bourdain: "... he was just a chef folks, and not a particularly distinguished one at that."

Well, in the introductory voice-over for last night’s No Reservations special "Into the Fire," Bourdain let us know he wanted to test himself over a stove once again. Because, as he put it, those "Internet geek insults" get to him on some level: "... somewhere deep inside I’m thinking it myself."

And so after eight years of sitting at the front of the house and judging the food put before him, Bourdain returned to his roots. At 8 am on a Tuesday in December, our boy arrived at Brasseries Les Halles in midtown Manhattan, his former professional home, where he still holds the distinction of "Chef at Large." After touring the newly expanded restaurant, which has twice the tables it did when he last cooked there in 1999, and discovering a new area for butchering meat and prepping food in the basement, Bourdain took his place in front of the sauté station. He laced up his requisite white apron, tied a skull cap around his head, sharpened his knives, and tried to mentally prepare for the 16-hour double-shift that lay ahead of him.

The verdict? He still deserves to be called a chef, but he's not the spry young guy he used to be.

Bourdain's willingness to be honest and vulnerable truly came through last night. We saw him straining to read the tickets on which the meal orders were listed, as any 51-year-old who refuses to wear reading glasses would need to do. Because he couldn't read the tickets, he lost track of some orders; he had a pork dish returned to be "refired" (it was undercooked, "allegedly" he claimed); he moaned every time we saw him kneel down to grab ingredients out of a dark, low fridge; he winced when leaning over to pull skillets out of the oven; he was bummed that he couldn't set up his "mis en place" 'cause the kitchen already was too hectic when he arrived. All this happened before the dinner crowd had even arrived. Promptly at three o'clock, or what Bourdain called "beer o'clock" (between lunch and dinner prep), our guy slipped out for a pint. When he returned he was revved up for the dinner shift. Give this guy some alcohol and he's ready for anything. (I wonder if he had an off-camera drink before eating that warthog anus in Namibia?)

I would have complained too if I was out of practice and hadn't been in a kitchen for eight years. I give the guy credit for stepping up to the plate, showing us how it's done, and honoring the countless, nameless cooks in the world as a result.

This episode showed those of us who have never worked in a kitchen what a complex and precise yet chaotic world lies behind those double doors. Using nifty diagrams, Bourdain outlined the various stations in a kitchen, showed us the degree of prep work necessary (as in mounds of sliced garlic and massive bricks of butter cut up), and the amount of manpower that goes into the construction of one entrée with all its sauces, meat components, and sides. The amount of steak, pork, and scallop orders that Bourdain had to navigate was astounding; at one point he had sauté pans stacked up on top of each other because he only had five burners to work with.

The true comedy gold was when Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernadin, arrived to help Bourdain on the line. This guy had likely never worked a sauté station like this in his life, as his career has been in upscale, dainty French restaurants, not the hearty brasserie-types of institutions like Les Halles. But Ripert's dishes were never returned, and, a few times, Bourdain's were -- Ripert was clearly outcooking Bourdain, and our bad boy of cuisine didn't like that. By episode's end Bourdain and Ripert sat down to drown in some margaritas together, looking exhausted and relieved that the shift was over. I, for one, just might tip better, as Bourdain urged viewers to in the closing words, now that I really understand what happens in the kitchen after I order. (This explains why my friends who've worked in the restaurant industry tip 30% or more!)

If you missed last night's show and still want to see it, you can purchase the episode on iTunes now, or scan the Travel Chanel schedule for repeat airings in coming days.

Kids, we'll have to wait until summer for more new episodes of the fourth season of No Reservations. Bourdain and crew are currently on the road filming these adventures; some episodes to look forward to: Tokyo, San Francisco, Uruguay, Columbia and Laos. I'm most curious how the episode with a fan of Anthony's will turn out. Until then, eat well!

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Joanne Hinkel is a frequent contributor to the TV section of Film.com. She has no reservations in thinking that Anthony Bourdain can be both a great television personality and a great chef.