That Time Anthony Bourdain Scared Kids with the Gay, and I Laughed

In 2009 I got an email, kind of tentative in tone, from a TV production company, asking if I knew a lot about taco trucks in Oakland, California. I did—I'd spent a month that year eating from 40 of them; I wrote about it. The production guys had seen my story, obviously. Would I be into helping them scout a location for a food and travel series they were working on?

Through all the reticence to say exactly what the show was, I could tell they were talking about No Reservations. They copped to it: Anthony Bourdain was coming to San Francisco to tape a show for season 5, and he’d make a detour across the bridge to Oakland.

I spent a few hours on a Saturday taking a location scout to four trucks in East Oakland. He looked around a lot, asked me detailed questions about the food and how it was made. At my favorite Michoacano truck, he asked, “What kind of chiles would you say are in this salsa?” I gave him an educated guess; he walked around the truck to ask the guys working it if I was correct (I was). I thought, “Cool, this guy’s thorough.”

The scout ended up liking my wild card, a Salvadoran tamale truck with good visuals (it parks in a little lot, backed by a mural and an outdoor produce market). Production was going to happen in maybe a month—they kept the date hazy, but promised to ping me the day before so I could come watch the taping (they’d asked me to recommend somebody who could be on camera with Tony; I hooked them up with a local truck organizer).

On the day of the taping I got to the truck and waited. Bourdain and the crew were coming from the Ferry Building across the bay; they’d been held up. (Meanwhile, Eater and other bloggers were trying to trace Bourdain’s movements.) They arrived, finally, guerrilla style: the director, a cameraman, a sound guy, and the scout, who stayed with the truck a block down Foothill Boulevard. Mr. Bourdain was polite, dressed in a craggy gray pullover that sort of matched his hair. We chatted about Alice Waters, he asked what he should order, and the taco-truck organizer arrived for her on-screen.

I noticed three boys maybe 13, maybe 12, stopped on the sidewalk. They’d spotted the camera. Bourdain was standing maybe 6 feet in front of a wall, delivering the script. One of the kids snuck in behind him to execute the classic videobomb. The director indicated to keep going, the cameraman shifted to crop out the kid, but a second kid sidled in, huge backpack straps on his shoulders, throwing peace signs. The cameraman shifted again; kid number three moved in.

The director called for a cut, and Bourdain—in a way that seemed practiced—turned to them.

“Boys, this is a gay show. We’re making a gay show here, and everyone who sees you is gonna think you’re gay.” It worked, amazingly well. The kids scattered. Filming resumed.

I laughed—how great! The very thing to get junior high boys freaked out, tainting them with the gay. Brilliant.

For a couple of years I told that anecdote—it was the highlight of my Day I Met Bourdain story. Then this one time, a woman at the table said, “That’s kind of fucked up,” and I realized that it was. Me, an actual gay guy, had been blind to the casual homophobia of it.

Now, I know that Mr. Bourdain isn’t homophobic any more than I’m homophobic—just last week, the Human Rights Campaign released a video in which he offers his support for marriage equality, part of a celebrity campaign. But it shows the pernicious nature of prejudices like homophobia, the way they’re fused to the culture. You have to stop, think about them, peel away the strands of prejudice from ingrained habit, and carry on.

Photo by Flickr member Lwp Kommunikáció under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.