Food & Drink

Why Anthony Bourdain's NYC Mega-Market Looks Like a Massive Let Down

<a href="" target="_blank">Instagram/Bourdain Market</a> / <a href="" target="_blank">Flickr/Lwp Kommunikáció</a> (edited)

In case you missed the news, America's sweetheart Anthony Bourdain has plans to open up a new Blade Runner-inspiredpseudo-street market adjacent to the Hudson River in NYC by 2017. ​The ballyhooed Bourdain Market seems like it could be a food destination unlike any other in America... but it also seems like it could be the embodiment of everything the man has ever mocked about the commercial culinary world: the over-the-top, tightly branded showmanship, the grandiose marketing build-up, being referred to as "ballyhooed" by Internet writers.

As a Bourdain fan I'm excited, but also worried. I'm worried Bourdain's bastion of hot food in a hip setting will end up as hollow as the empty Pier 57 facility that's currently waiting to be rebuilt, rebuffed, and stuffed with vendors and at least 300 Edison bulbs. So for now, I'm keeping my hype-boner firmly tucked into my waistband, because this might be some next-level Guy Fieri nonsense.


artist rendering of a portion of #bourdainmarket, art by @romanandwilliams #aleschart

A photo posted by Bourdain Market (@bourdainmarket) on

I'm worried because it sounds too good to be true

The Roman & Williams-designed space will capture the essence of humid, exotic cities. It will be planned chaos, open late. It will be NYC's largest food hall at 155,000 square feet. It will have a butcher and fresh fish counter and host karaoke nights and film screenings. It will be the proverbial cherry on top of Chelsea Pier's new Superpier -- and a pier-mate (?) of Google, and it's all coming within the next two years. How can anything that sounds this glorious possibly live up to the expectations? It sounds like the best thing to happen to New Yorkers since we all found out Billy Joel was actually born in Pennsylvania.

I'm worried it will turn into a theme park

There's nothing wrong with Disney World. I like Disney World. It embraces its outrageous and commercially friendly image, and uses it to its advantage. It is, by nature, inauthentic, simply designed to transport you and your imagination to a different place. The moment you try simulate a feeling by carefully orchestrating an experience, you are entering theme park territory. Especially when it's done on panoramic scale.

I'm a little squeamish that Bourdain Market might join that kitsch-laden category. That it might become nothing more than a point on an NYC travel brochure, a nice way for wide-eyed tourists to fill a 2-hour-gap between the M&M Store and the Christmas Spectacular. How could anything that's Blade Runner-esque not be a little bit contrived? 

Picture a statue of Kurt Vonnegut holding hands with Mickey Mouse outside the Magic Kingdom, instead of Uncle Walt. It's kind of like that.

I'm worried this is a step towards losing what made me love him in the first place

I read Kitchen Confidential. I watched No Reservations. He embraces and cherishes the authentic. His whole freakin' show revolves around the intrigue and value of immersing oneself in a foreign culture and experiencing it first-hand. And he made his nut as the rebellious, CBGB-frequenting, dirty-chef-come-clean-with-a-knack-for-prose without any semblance of bullshit, censorship, or outside influence. 

The overwhelming sense I got from watching Bourdain traipse all over the world was that the only way to really experience the world is in the present tense. He was a sufficient surrogate and millions of viewers were able to live vicariously through his adventures, but I always got the feeling that our host was imploring the people on their couches to actually go out and do what he was doing for themselves, because there is no substitute for world travel. Not even Epcot. 

If the market turns out to be a plastic and fiberglass pastiche of "local flavors" from around the world, carefully stylized, with artificial ambiance, under the guise of a mega-market, it kind of sounds like a place the whiskey-swilling cynic I grew to love would avoid at all costs. 

Helga Esteb/Shutterstock

I'm worried about him turning into the guy in this photo

Not literally... I can't see Tony gaining 30 pounds, pouring bleach on his head, and subbing out his cool black tees for Hawaiian shirts. But I can see him going down the road of food personality caricature, and abandoning everything he's always railed against. “The man, the legend, the guy who just dropped a 500-seat deuce into Times Square... Look at this thing, look, look! It’s like TGI Friday’s and Nickelback fucked Giant’s Stadium, and out came this. Who put up the money for this?" Bourdain once said of Fieri's super-tacky Midtown Manhattan eatery. Is he writing his own fate? A project this size, with this much money at stake, risks being overly ostentatious, and overtly commercialized. It's almost unavoidable.

But in the end, I remain optimistic

I live in New York City. If Bourdain Market surpasses my expectations and ends up a year-round, open-to-1AM smorgasbord in a revitalized pier with street food, alcohol, and trendy events, this could make the short-list for "Reasons I Still Pay $2,000 a Month to Live in a Shoebox." Not to mention it might be another featured feather in NYC's always engaging food scene, and a jolt for the city's economy in general. 

I want it to be this. I think the city's residents, and food fans from all over the world do, too. 


scouting: hawker stall signs | photo by @caitlinflynn | #bourdainmarket

A photo posted by Bourdain Market (@bourdainmarket) on

I follow Bourdain on Instagram. I read about the foods he wants to have in the market. I remember he is the dude who said this. And underneath all my doubt there is a flicker of hope. All I can do is be -- to borrow a phrase from so many NFL coaches -- cautiously optimistic. Bourdain Market is delicious and ingenious, until proven tacky.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. You should probably check your blood sugar after reading this. Follow him @wilfulton.