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Jane Silver: Bourdain’s Berlin

R.I.P., Anthony Bourdain. What did America's foodie hero do on his last-ever visit here? Jane watched Sunday's "Parts Unknown" and has some thoughts.

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David Scott Holloway/CNN

I’m an American, I eat food and I’ve written things about it, which means that of course I was fucking devastated to read about Anthony Bourdain’s death on Friday. And it was an even bigger gut-punch yesterday to switch on VPN – er, I mean, CNN – and see the man strolling the streets of Prenzlauer Berg with Anton Newcombe.

Yes, the first episode of Parts Unknown to air after Bourdain’s death, and the third-to-last episode to air ever, was filmed right here in January. It was his second trip to Berlin, the first being in 2008 for No Reservations when he ate currywurst at Konnopke’s, parroted the claim that Hasir invented the “donner kebab”, ate Eisbein with Gregor Gysi and forever put Rogacki on the tourist map. This time, he dove a little deeper (and seemingly followed in Exberliner‘s footsteps). Here’s where he went:

  • At no-frills Warschauer Straße meat shop Fleischerei Domke, he chatted with former King Size bouncer Frank Künster about the Berlin club scene over schnitzel and Bouletten.
  • At the Michelberger Hotel’s hipster locavore restaurant, he had lunch with BPitch Control’s Ellen Allien.
  • He hung out with Newcombe in the studio (featuring a cameo from new Brian Jonestown Massacre drummer Sara Neidorf); at his Prenzlauer Berg flat where he cooked lamb for a crowd; at Mauerpark and at nearby German Kneipe Zum Schusterjungen.
  • He discussed Weimar culture at Charlottenburg’s Grosz with a group of tour guides and reenactors that included Kabarett der Namenlose’s Le Pustra, and talked Bowie with West Berlin music scene photog Jim Rakete.
  • Billy Wagner, owner and sommelier of the Michelin-starred Nobelhart & Schmutzig which I myself reviewed for Exberliner back in 2016, invited him for a currywurst and “donner” wine pairing over a screening of Metropolis at the home of our monthly EXBlicks film series, Lichtblick Kino (in what comes off as a forced production choice: were the other moviegoers all extras, or did they pay for a ticket only to end up with a camera crew in their face, döner smell spread across the pretty-tiny theatre and Bourdain and Wagner talking through the whole thing?).
  • Finally, he dared venture south to Kreuzberg for a drink at Bellman Bar with photographer and filmmaker Miron Zownir – a man we’ve had quite a bit of involvement with ourselves, from retrospectives and covers to our beloved Rummelsnuff trailer.

I’ll be honest: even as a devout Bourdain worshipper (he was one of the two reasons I got into food writing in the first place; the other being my pseudonamesake), I think he ought to have done better. I’m disappointed in him for going to the same party-arty-Weimar-Bowie well so many have gone to before; having an Ellen DeGeneres-level conversation about the club scene with a bouncer who best knows it from 20 years ago; mispronouncing “döner” again and again. And it was a shame that the man everyone’s now eulogizing as a hero to marginalized and immigrant communities spoke only to well-off white people, mostly white men, for the entire episode.

Obviously, in Bourdain’s eyes, Berlin never held the same attraction as Hanoi, Rome or Tokyo. But there’s so much that he – and by extension, the legions of American viewers who see the world through his eyes – missed out on. I would’ve liked to see him eating baklava at Sonnenallee’s Konditorei Damaskus, talking to, say, the Syrious Look co-founders about the refugee community three years on. He could’ve had a bowl of his beloved bun cha at the Dong Xuan Center with Duc Ngo (Berlin’s own Eddie Huang) or gone for Vokü (sorry, KüFa) and a conversation about gentrification at one of the last remaining squats. Hell, he could have shown where that kebab he and Wagner ate at Lichtblick actually came from.

He concluded that first No Reservations episode with the following: “I was always under the impression that I was only getting a part of [Berlin’s] story – that whole worlds existed just beneath the surface, close but out of reach. I could only get so far, and no farther.”

Maybe, in a future episode, he would have scratched below the surface. But now he won’t.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, the Berlin Crisis Service (Berliner Krisendienst) offers telephone and in-person help in English at nine centres throughout the city: www.berliner-krisendienst.de/en/