Gill v Bourdain at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Evening Standard // 23 May 2011

My Australia blog for the London Evening Standard:

Now, I’m not one for fisticuffs but when I see something advertised as “Food Fighters”, I want to see a fight. Of sorts.

So you will understand my disappointment when, last week, this lacklustre Sydney Writers’ Festival chaired session puttered to a weak little close, the previously buoyed punters around me affecting a collective shrug instead of the double thumbs-up we had expected. We were left both hungry and bored and without a glimpse of blood, guts, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

It was, you see, AA Gill versus Anthony Bourdain. And the topic was food. And the venue was the wonderful old Sydney Town Hall. A recipe for success, you’d have thought.

But when you have two huge egos, deliciously verbose descriptions, third-degree ADD, mouths like building site dunnies, competitive Alpha male DNA and more than a thousand pairs of eyes on you, even the most slam-dunk, air-tight, hermetically sealed recipes for success can go, well, a little floppy. Overegged and undercooked.

Sorry, event MC Tony Bilson, Australian chef and culinary legend in these parts, you may be a “Godfather of Australian gastronomy” but you were poorly cast. You were a lamb to the offal-obsessed, one-tracked slaughter. The event ought to have been compared by a comedienne, a feisty woman who could mock, flirt and belittle with a raised eyebrow. Gill 1, Bourdain 1, Bilson nil. I hope you have recovered.

Now that I have got that out of my system, I can report that the SWF, was, by most accounts, a gleaming success. The sun shone in true Sydney style, flaming autumnal colours mellowed by a lovely soft light. In spite of the Food Fighters flop, “AA Gill is here” was a highlight for me, the theatre of mostly grey heads twittering (in the old sense of the word) to his filthy tales of dildos, anal sex and one-night-stands. It was all suitably hammed up for the antipodean audience, Gill’s cut-glass accent a get-out-of-jail card for any offence that he may have caused. Anyone who can tell a theatre full of grannies (whom he had already insulted several times) that “if you want to use a cucumber for a dildo, peel it first” has my vote. Psychopath or not, I’d wager the man knows how to make a lady of any age blush.

There’re too many plum one-liners to list here, but there were moments of serious, anthropological-ish reflection amongst the self-serving smut. The main differences between England and Australia (and Australia’s only redeeming feature) according to Adrian Gill? Australia is always looking forwards whilst England nostalgically mourns a lost, supposedly better past.

As for his shameless Aussie bagging, though, I had to laugh. “You and I come from very different places.” Long pause. “Obviously.”


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