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Anthony Bourdain in Havana: Plenty Reservations

(La Catedral de La Habana, c. 2006)

Editors’ note: After watching Anthony Bourdain return to the tube with his premiere episode set in Havana, I anxiously called my parents in anticipation of the very response I received. Their opinion of the show was not too far off my own but more forgiving than mine. I asked my father, a journalist (of Cuban politics, mainly) of 40 years, for his candid thoughts. I wanted him to share his point of view, considering he lived through la Revolucíon, the guerrilla movement that left my parents no choice but to leave the island. He accepted my “assignment” and in witty prose, discusses the points Bourdain missed; and applauds those he nailed. His is the first of a 2 part series of our analysis of No Reservations: Havana. My take on the show will be next. Our hope is for you to see the Cuba we know, he better than I. [our images have been saturated for pure eye candy. The colors in reality are much flatter and not so vibrant.

By: David H. Fortún

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 – AD 180) is credited with a poignantly poetic phrase that described his vision of Rome: “There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

I will shamelessly borrow from and paraphrase the great emperor/philosopher: “There was once a dream that was …Havana.”

(my wife’s High School, now abandoned)

Watching this season’s premiere of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations from Havana brought back heart-wrenching, nostalgic memories of the dream that was MY city. You see? I was born there, and while I have not set foot in Havana in more than 30 years and thought I had shaken its spell, I found myself glued to the TV set through the whole episode. The magic was still there!

I’m an epicurean; some would even say a sybarite. Travel is my passion; good food is one of my loves. While not a die-hard groupie, in general, I like Tony Bourdain’s shows, and I’d be lying if I didn’t readily admit that I envy him big time: I’d pay big bucks to do what he is paid (handsomely!) to do.

But, enough with my digressing thoughts for an introduction; let’s get right down to it.

Did you watch it? Hope you did, otherwise my musings may not make much sense to you. For those who did, we probably can agree that the show was, well… interesting, colorful, even good, and for some it opened a window – however small an opening – into life in a country that international politics has kept shrouded in a fascinating mystery for more than five decades.

(courtesy of Travel Channel’s No Reservations) 

Anthony Bourdain knew that doing a show about food and travel in Havana would be controversial, to say the least, among many Cuban viewers in the US, and he said so at the very beginning; a clever way to both deflect anticipated criticism and entice viewership.

He was right, I mean, I don’t pretend to speak for all Cuban viewers, but as a cubano living in exile for the last 30 plus years, I do have my reservations about his glossy and grossly superficial depiction of life in Havana.

His is not a political show, granted. If it were, I would not watch it. I’m sick’n tired of politics. But for better or worse – and I say, worse- everything about Cuba is political … even a show about arroz con frijolescigars and old, vintage American cars.

(my wife with the video camera as a friend plays “chofer” during her last visit in 2006)

(more carros super viejos in Cojimar, Havana, c. 2006)

Anthony emphasized the non-political nature of the show right off the bat, and right there began my reservations. “This is not a show about communism, which I abhor,” I’m freely paraphrasing him here, so you know, but that’s what I kind of remember him saying. And then, this: “… or about Fidel Castro, about whom I have mixed feelings.”

Really? Mixed feelings about Fidel Castro? Give me a break. OK, OK, I will not launch here into a political tirade. Yes, I remember, it was not a political show. Why then mention Fidel Castro? Mixed feelings? Please! Would he have mixed feelings about Libya’s Gaddafi or North Korea’s Kim Yong Il?! I don’t know; everything is possible. Maybe he would. Whatever.


Luckily, the show soon progressed toward its traditional content. Aaaahhh, Cuban food, with its luscious, sensual appeal, its tropical colorfulness, its inebriating smells and its sinfully scrumptious flavors that make your palate gasp in orgasmic fits. Siin a nutshell, that’s Cuban food, and Anthony’s artful camera shots brought it out in full force. Kudos for the photography and video quality!

 (a card reader outside of La Catedral c. 2006)

And then there were the cigar-smoking, black old matrons dressed in full Afro-Cuban religion regalia, the patched-up, partially reconstructed with Cuban-modified Soviet parts yet amazingly preserved old American cars right out of the 40’s and 50’s; the baseball games, the passionate group discussions bordering on arguments about, what else, baseball, in Parque Central.

By the way, I’ll have to digress briefly because this came as a surprise even to me: Folks who gather at Parque Central to vociferously argue about who the best all-around player is, or whether the team manager was a dumb ass for ordering a “stupid” play, or how so and so would do in the Big Leagues, are officially recognized by the government with an ID that identifies them as baseball fans, so they can gather without fear of being mistaken for a political antigovernment rally! You’ve got to love it!…But Anthony has mixed feelings about Fidel Castro. Oh, well.

Back to the show… and the food. Both the food he showed and enjoyed at official restaurants and private Paladares (government-sanctioned, heavily-taxed, home-based, family-owned and run restaurants) looked and seemed to taste heavenly, and I don’t doubt it. I know Cuban food, that’s why I rarely, if ever, go out to a “Cuban” restaurant, at least in the D.C. area. I have the best Cuban food at home, every day. No one can compete with my wife’s skills in the kitchen; that’s for sure.

What Anthony failed to mention –and if he did it was so in passing that I missed it- is that 90 percent of the Cuban people do not have access to that food. As matter of fact, 90 percent –and I admit that my stats are not scientific- have to struggle day in day out to barely put anything on their table. That is the Cuban reality, and for Anthony Bourdain to have glossed over that hard fact, it was a disservice to his viewers.

This is a food blog, so I will spare you my reservations about his misleading statements merely parroting Cuban government propaganda about how awesome Cuba’s education and health care systems are. Fellow Cubans reading this don’t need me to go there. Many Americans are so enthralled with anything Castro that would not believe me, anyway.

But the truth has to be told: ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’ from Havana was nicely done as far as travel, food TV shows go. It was meant to be a post card view to promote not only the show but mostly travel to Havana under current, more relaxed US travel policy to Cuba. That’s fine; business is business. But it was sadly inaccurate and misleading in many ways.

As I watched and absorbed the strange, everlasting beauty of a dilapidated city that still awes its visitors with an almost tangible, magical charm, it brought me back to my first time in Rome, several years ago. As my wife and I landed at Fuimicino Airport, we rushed to our hotel and, without even taking a shower, rushed again to the Colosseum. I can still “see” both our expressions when we got out of metro right there, in front of the imposing, crumbling, centuries-old structure. I remember thinking: “Wow, what great city ancient Rome must have been!!”

True, there was a dream that was Rome… As Anthony Bourdain sat on Havana’s famed malecón and the last camera shot faded on a tropical sunset with my city as backdrop, I couldn’t help forgiving Bourdain, despite my reservations, and thank him for the show.

(courtesy of Travel Channel’s No Reservations) 

There was a dream that was Havana!

Writer’s note: To be fair to Anthony Bourdain, here’s a link to a brief interview on the show where he elaborates somewhat better about the situation in Cuba.

Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.

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133 thoughts on “Anthony Bourdain in Havana: Plenty Reservations

  1. I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the episode… slightly different from David’s (papi if you will) but still enlightening. Thanks for sharing this. Great, great read. You kept it real… well, nice, too! 🙂

  2. I have friends who left Cuba in the mid-90’s and they live here in Toronto and I understand the situation. Good post on Bourdain’s show but just think of it as a 1 hr. post card…they chose to show/discuss certain aspects. Many more will visit Cuba and show many facets of this remarkable country.

  3. A very interesting interview! Yes, I cannot imagine how one can have mixed feelings regarding somebody like Castro…

    I love Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation!



  4. Do I detect a Battle Royale between David and Anthony?

    Well, in either event, I cant wait to go to Cuba and the Dominican Republic …especially since my chillins ancestors are from there.

  5. I love Antony’s show but I haven’t seen it yet. It’s on my DVR. Can’t wait to see it now! Great post, btw.

  6. Bren- first of all- I love that your dad guest blogged on your site! How cool is that? His insight is vital. Love the photos and all the history and information here. Looking forward to the next post!

  7. This was amazing….thanks David for taking this time to share your thoughts. I must go watch the episode again, with your words in mind…

  8. Bren… what a wonderful article by your dad!!! My family is Cuban, as you know. I’ve never been there, mainly because I was always taught you don’t give your hard-earned US dollars to the regime that drove your family away from their country. Even though partly I need to thank that same regime for my parents actually meeting because my mom is from PRico and I was born and raised here.

    I have not seen the show, nor do I intend on watching… I am not tivo’ing it, that’s for sure. Because I knew, just like your dad mentioned, that whatever view Bourdain chooses to show of Cuba is a skewed one. A reality only real to tourists with money who spend to perpetuate an obsolete regime… but like they say, hungry people can’t rebel against opression.

    I’m looking forward to your write-up and a day where I can visit the land of my dad and my family and be able to walk the streets of Havana and Guira de Melena (their town) and be able to sit at a table where everyone is free to eat and think as they choose without fear of prosecution or alineation.

  9. I am known as an “angry blogger” a title I embrace wholeheartedly.

    But I’ll keep my comments short on this subject because this strikes a nerve, and the rage is deep. “Mixed Feelings on Fidel Castro” really? See people who say things like that have no idea the atrocities this man has done to Cuba and it’s people. How many families he’s torn apart and destroyed.

    I wonder if Tony has mixed feeling on Adolf Hitler. News flash to all non-Cubans, Castro is our Hitler. Are you fuckin’ kidding me?

    Sorry B. I just can’t do this. Not tonight.

    This article here was expertly written and from the heart. I felt that reading it. As the son of a Cuban immigrants, I long to visit my family’s homeland. However, I am with my father. who escaped as a 12 year old boy, when he says “Hasta el dia que Castro y el comunismo se caiga, yo no voy a Cuba.” Agreed. I am with my old man there. If that means never, then begrudgingly never it is.

  10. Nice write up, Dad! Unfortunately, I missed the episode! But, I am so glad you and your dad are doing this. Cuba reminds me so much of Brazil! I swear looking at all the pix above, so, so similar!

  11. Agh! Stupid computer, I paused to do something and didn’t finish my post. I guess thats what I get for trying to multitask while taking people’s order at the restaurant! lol
    Anyways, like I said I didn’t watch the show, but it is a little confusing that Bourdain would say he has mixed feelings about Castro? I hope he meant a mix of anger and disgust…
    I can agree that this show was done for its business purposes…but I can feel you guy’s angst with knowing the truth behind what they’ve tried to portray.
    Can’t wait to read your thoughts!

  12. Great post! We all know that food has so many ties, connections, fibers that link back to larger community issues–social, financial, political, etc. It can be difficult to separate the heated issues from the light ones, even if all one wants to chat about is arroz con frijoles. No matter, your father does a great job yet again reminding everyone that not everything can be glossy.

  13. I haven’t seen Anthony’s show on Cuba but I do remember being in Havana. I was there for only a day since we rented a car from our hotel in the Varadero so can only speak from a tourist point of view. As a tourist I was charmed by your country and found the people to be friendly, helpful and happy. My travel dollars could still go far, the food fantastic, the beaches dazzling. We befriended a genteman who worked as a waiter making a better wage than he did as a teacher, and there were many other stories that I am sure you know already of life in Cuba. Would I go back…in a heart beat!!!!

  14. Fantastic POV Papi!
    I had NO idea that many Cubano’s go hungry :/ silly my small, american mind has been lead to believe that food grows plentiful in that land.
    So not surprising how shows like Bourdain’s somehow seem to conveniently gloss over that important bit of information.

  15. Tremendo! I was so anxious to see the show and have it on my DVR, I will sit down with my husband when he gets back from Japan and with your words in mind will definitely be another show than the one that I saw by my self. Gracias a tu papi por compartir su opion con nosotros 🙂

  16. I will admit I missed this episode, but will definitely try to catch it when it re-airs! My Godmother (also my great aunt by blood) is boricua and she married my Godfather who is cuban, so I’m no stranger to the politics, and know that Bourdain really does like to shake things up a bit and is good at enticing viewers, but what resonates with me most about your post, is that even after not stepping foot on the Island for 30 years, you still call it ‘home’. Great Recap!

  17. Thank you all for your kind comments. I hope you understand that my views, like anyone else’s, are a direct result of my personal experience, and no one is totally unbiased. I know you will find Cubans who will see things from a different perspective, Cubans for whom Castro is still God incarnate. What can I say! You can be sure, though, that, as my fellow Cuban “angry blogger Laz” easily perceived, I did write this piece from the heart. Glad you liked it.

  18. Wow – I won’t claim to know much about Cuba and wouldn’t dare get myself tangled up in talking about politics – but this essay was a thing of beauty. I stayed completely engaged from beginning to end. Loved it.

  19. As my good friend David wrote in his comments, we Cubans are all biased one way or the other. Have you ever read what a great man like the “Generalísimo” Maximo Gomez once said? Us Cubans either do not get to the line, or pass it; we truly have an issue with being right in the middle! And this applies to everything….mostly to Political views, which by the way, I totally share with David: don’t know how to have “mixed” feelings about that devil! And that comes from the heart too!

    I did not watch the show, so I cannot speak about it; I will try to watch it in the future and will get back with my own comments. Great article in a very nice site; let’s see when I can taste my friend daughter’s cooking abilities, which I heard are really something. Give my regards to mom and dad.

  20. What a lovely and thoughtful post. While waxing melodic about the country, the food, and the culture, you managed to clearly convey your own feelings, and the hurt and rage you felt at seeing injustices ‘glossed over.’ Beautiful piece, and I look forward to the next one in the series — and fantastic idea to do a father/daughter post combo!

  21. Papi, you are a poet! Totally agree with what you said! I did watch it and I will watch it again, just for the video…

    I will keep my cubanita-americana opinion short.
    I expected more of Bourdain, whom I have respected for being a truth-teller. His shows on Haiti and Peru were very real and very raw. I expected that.

    I also know it is television and I also know that if he ticks off the Cuban government enough, they won’t let him back in…so, he didn’t push the envelope. Maybe?

    I am sorry he fell for the health, education, blah blah they offer. Education? Yes, but only if you study what they want you to study.

    Cuba is a beautiful mess. After three visits there as a journalist, I totally get why my family, and so many exiles, are passionate for their isla.

    I am sorry you too lost your home.

    And thank you for your beautiful words.

    Un dia en la habana…if not next year.

  22. I saw the show. Liked the non political point of view of his visit. As Cuban, did not like when Anthony said he has mixed feelings about Castro, there are no mixed feelings; the Castros have destroyed the country.

  23. Wow! This is really excellent! Your dad is a wonderful writer and I can’t help but wonder if his career was in writing. Beautifully stated piece. Also, I love his observations and I’m not a fan of Anthony Bourdain or his often gritty, glossed over portrayals, but I absolutely obsess over any opportunities to spy a glimpse of precious Cuba. Someday, I hope to have a chance to visit, I just find it completely fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing this…and be sure to give your dad a thumbs up from us! 😉

  24. Muy interesante y consigo lo escrito por tu papa muy cierto. Yo como cubana me identifico con todo. Pero al mismo tiempo trajo tremenda nostalgia de ver mi pais tan destruido. Para mi, cuba sigue siendo un pais bello al menos lo que conservo en mi mente por que en realidad no es la sombra de lo que mi vaul guarda. De todos modos fue bonito viajar por cuba de nuevo.

  25. That was a FARSE!!! Mr. Bourdain should try eating with the REGULAR people. I’d like to read his review afterwards!

  26. I totally enjoyed reading Mr. Fortun’s enlightening review. It exposed me to another side of Cuba that was not completely evident after seeing No Reservations. I am really interested in taking a trip to Cuba and I plan to dig deeper into my history books to gain a better understanding of Cuba’s past. Thanks for sharing!

  27. Wow, Bren, your dad is a wonderful writer! I truly enjoyed reading this. Now I’m left really, really wanting to watch the episode. Hopefully I can catch a rerun!

  28. “There was a dream once…” tells it all. Because of my friendship with many Cubans and the love of the culture, I always said that it being closed in ’59 was ‘la lastima de mi vida’ and then I had the opportunity to visit in 2003. I wrote this piece when I returned which I added to the travel retrospectives sections of my blog: http://foodalogue.com/2003/11/cuba-emotional-and-education-journey.html
    P.S. I didn’t watch Bourdain’s show yet.

  29. Wow. I never watched that episode myself but I could see why it would be hard for your Dad not to express his reservations (no pun intended) on how Anthody Bourdain showed Havana. Makes you wonder if he needed to get some approval from the government with the footage he did show.

    It’s hard to get a true taste (again, no pun intended) of a country or city in a one hour show about food. Recently, I watched “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” when he went to Jamaica and he showed some things I never recognized, not only some foods but some sections of the country. I showed the same episode to my parents who were visiting from Jamaica and they thought some of it was interesting and funny. While not having the deep political issues that Cuba has he didn’t dig into the challenges that Jamaica has currently.

    Then again, these are shows about food. If you want to get into the politics of a nation there are other shows that will focus on that.

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