Chef and sustainable agriculture pundit Dan Barber is fond of starting his talks by boasting that “the future belongs to the foodies.” Barber means that big agribusiness is destroying the very natural resources upon which it depends. It will fail soon, he promises, leaving “the foodies” in charge. Anthony Bourdain’s graphic novel Get Jiro! turns Barber’s statement of hope into a forecast of imminent doom, mocking the idea that “the foodies” will be better shepherds of the planet they inherit. Bourdain, along with coauthor Joel Rose and artists Langdon Foss and Jose Villarrubia, presents a vision of a post-apocalyptic, near-future Los Angeles, a walled megacity on a planet with soil and oceans that are nearly depleted and with traditional foodways that are undermined—but where the chefs, by some inexplicable twist of history, stand at the top of every social hierarchy. However, they are far from pillars of virtue, and their base desires for money, power, and fame rise to the surface. Like kung fu movie antagonists refracted by the lens of gastronomic pop culture, they attack one another with boning knives, meat tenderizing mallets, and maguro bōchō, the long knives used to cut tuna for sushi.
Two foodie gangs dominate this Los Angeles. One is led by Bob, a slick, power-hungry figure interested in technique and technology and who makes no bones about sourcing his ingredients from all over the world. The other is led by Rose, who preaches the gospel of local and organic ingredients so dear to present-day Bay Area restaurants such as Chez Panisse. However, she turns out to be no less ruthless than Bob, and Bourdain (an outspoken critic of the Bay Area foodie scene) delights in presenting her as an hypocrite: she will call ingredients “local” as long as they are local to their place of origin and integral to its cuisine. All restaurants are controlled by the slicksters or the neo-agrarians, and all of LA’s denizens spend their days phoning, texting, and surfing the Web in a desperate bid for reservations. In the world of Get Jiro! “sports, film, the recording industry have all fragmented and died,” leaving no desires save for food and sex (p.2). As in so many post-apocalyptic tales, those who control a precious resource—water, power, information, or in this case, high-end cuisine—control everything.
Into this cesspool, comes Jiro, an enigmatic ex-Yakuza foot soldier and sushi chef who runs a sushi-ya in one of the dingy corner minimalls typical of LA’s urban landscape, where much of the best ethnic food in LA can be found. Jiro’s technique is impeccable, but it is his temper that brings him to the attention of the gangs: he kills with impunity the first patron to insult his sushi by eating it the wrong way, dunking it rice-first in wasabi-saturated shoyu. Because the customer is a produce importer, the supply chains of the fancy restaurants are disrupted. Notably, the police who record the incident seem to be on Jiro’s side, shaking their heads at the lack of respect. The plot, from here on, is predictable to someone with even a passing familiarity with the last few decades of Hong Kong cinema—perhaps especially Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery—or with Japanese samurai films. Jiro is courted by both gangs, and they fight a bloody battle over him. When he refuses to join them, they kill his best friend, a Frenchman who runs a kind of culinary underground. Jiro then reveals his own Yakuza-trained muscles and fighting skills and decimates their ranks. There is, however, a logic to all this rather adolescent comic-book bloodshed. Bourdain loves to style himself the bad boy, and he is true to his punk roots in using violence to satirize the pretentions of our culinary establishment.
More importantly, Get Jiro! pokes fun at contemporary visions of the future of food—most prominently, the one promoted by pundits such as Dan Barber, Alice Waters, and their followers: a future of organic, community-driven farming will somehow save both our food system and the planet, from utter devastation, as if the small scale can overcome the truly massive scales on which Big Ag operates. Not that Big Ag and its infrastructure is unrepresented: Bourdain’s LA is an island of relative affluence (there is a rich inner ring in the city, surrounded by increasingly immiserated rings) in the world Big Ag destroyed. In one fight sequence, Jiro, wielding his maguro bōchō, faces off against his antagonists in a high-rise building devoted to “vertical farming,” floors devoted to grain and pigs. This vision of the future of food, celebrated by many, clearly does not produce enough to meet demand. However, the point of Get Jiro! is not to present a more constructive vision of how we might eat in years to come, rather, it is to show that “foodie” culture is often its own deadliest foe.