From his gruff, I’m-much-cooler-than-you exterior, you wouldn’t think celebrity chef, author and travel guru Anthony Bourdain has much patience with social media. But Bourdain, who calls social media “a big bathroom wall where anyone can write anything,” has become as adept with Twitter and Facebook as he is in a restaurant or touring obscure kitchens in Croatia.
He has almost 800,000 followers on Twitter, 181,000 people on his personal page on Facebook and more than 1.5 million fans on the Facebook page for his top-rated Travel Channel Show, “No Reservations.”
True, a lot of celebrities have Facebook and Twitter pages. But they usually have staffs of people to keep up their social media contacts and make sure they stay in the public eye. He posts his own tweets and status updates and interacts with fans personally, so if you see a post with his name on it, he wrote it — which makes a huge difference when it comes to what goes online.
He has a very good reason for that, saying in his customary blunt way, “We took over the Twitter handle so it wouldn’t suck.”
Food Pornographer or Social Media Genius?
Jersey-raised Bourdain got his start well before the days of social media, earning a name for himself in the rough and tumble New York restaurant scene with his restaurant, Brasserie Les Halles. But he really came to prominence with the 2000 release of his book “Kitchen Confidential,” a rambunctious, racy memoir chronicling his time in the surprisingly seamy underbelly of the culinary world.
Kitchen Confidential was a smash, leading to his first show on the Food Network, “A Cook’s Tour,” and elevating his profile in an age where chefs were becoming celebrities in their own right. The book contained the hallmarks of his persona: a commitment to rock star-like hedonism, adventurous palate, creativity with profanity and blunt and passionate honesty.
These traits have remained consistent throughout his rise as a public figure, and are intact in his social media presence, which boosts his prominence among Internet foodies worldwide, a subculture that both bemuses and fuels his social media fame even further.
Bourdain told CNN — the station his show will be broadcast on after this season — that he doesn’t understand why people snap pictures of all their meals and share them on blogs or through social networks, but insists he’s not a hypocrite.
“We are food pornographers ourselves,” he said of his popular shows and books. Bot “No Reservations” and “The Layover” follow him around the globe in search of authentic, exotic food, and have amassed thousands of viewers eager to see where the six-foot, four-inch tattooed chef will show up next.
And while he finds people who post photos of food amusing, he knows which side his bread is buttered on. On social media, as well as in jokes and show plugs, he posts pictures of food.
True, followers don’t always know what some of those photographed delicacies are, but that’s the charm of the posts. Somewhere in the world, whether it’s at a barbecue in Austin, Texas or in a fan’s small kitchen in Poland, he’s trying foods that most of us will never see, in the places most of us will never visit.
Catering to so-called “food porn” enthusiasts seems to be working, though. Despite the hundreds of thousands of people who follow him on social media, his television shows aren’t near the top of the cable television ratings. However, as more people follow him, his ratings have climbed, leading to the offer away from the Travel Channel and over to the more-mainstream CNN.
And you can’t argue with numbers: he posted a photo of fish tacos and got 13,000 “likes,” almost as many as a photo of him with actor Christopher Walken.
Is His Love of Social Media a Fluke?
Bourdain takes his social media seriously, despite all the jokes he tells. But as long as he’s involved in social media, he’s going to do it the right way, and that includes posting his own updates and connecting with fans.
“I didn’t want it to be one of those ‘Hey, everybody! Be sure to tune in!’ sort of things,” he said. “I’m a control freak. If you’re going to slap my name on something, I would like to control it. It’s personally important to me. I would be embarrassed if it wasn’t me.
“For the same reason I don’t want anybody out there saying that I endorse cheap pots and pans, I don’t want anybody out there using my name and in some way representing their work as mine,” he said. “I just won’t have it. It would be lethal to me to get the sense that you’re talking to a machine.”
He admits to tweeting while drunk on occasion, and jokes that he and his crew “were drunk most of the time” during their last season of the show, He says there is a science to doing social media the right way — and a lot of celebrities don’t do it well.
“Let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there who aren’t that bright,” he said. “It is sort of like writing haiku. There is a skill set involved, and you see among chefs or actors, some are really good at it — others, not so much. Some people have something to say. Others don’t.”
Some celebrities tweet too much, or not very well, which undermines their own star power. Some celebrities post too much and too often and alienate their fans, according to a survey by Bauer Media, which owns Q and Kerrang magazines. Bourdain, though, posts “entirely” spur of the moment, a huge attraction for fans who want to make a personal connection without learning too much uncomfortable-to-know information.
Social Media’s Good, Bad and Ugly Sides
Bourdain said his television shows are actually quite simple. “I go someplace, I eat a lot of food, I learn something and I go home.” Trips where “things go terribly, terribly wrong” bring the most compelling television, but social media has made those travels backfire as well. For example, he hates when tourism officials try to plan his visits and send him to the top five-star restaurants. He prefers every day ethnic places because he likes “hot, messy, dysfunctional countries.” But the attention social media draws to the trips often leads publicity-seeking people to push him toward places they’re promoting.
Instead, he said his shows rely on local bloggers when they decide where to eat, showing yet another way he uses technology. The show actively recruits bloggers as “fixers,” or people who help arrange what appears on shows. But promoting shows through social media is tricky. Restaurants, hearing Bourdain is coming to eat, would tweet the news to their own followers, and he and his crew would come in to find the place overrun with fans.
His production company now makes the restaurants sign confidentiality agreements because social media takes away from the spontaneity his visits used to bring. Bourdain said social media ruins the authentic nature of the places he loves.
“We’re always looking for the unspoiled, authentic neighborhood joint. I genuinely love those places,” he said. “And then we put them on TV and ruin them for all time. We destroy what we love.”
But the power of social media lies beyond sharing and building buzz.
“I think it’s completely redefined the way we watch TV,” he said. “I think it’s another step in the long process of the way people watch TV, the way people interact with their favorite shows.”
He enjoys a lot of what he sees on Twitter, particularly fake-chef accounts that make fun of rivals he’s skewered over the years, including Bobby Flay and Paula Deen. He also learns a lot about his fans through Facebook and Twitter. For example, No Reservations filmed an episode in Finland after finding out he had a huge fan base there. The trip wouldn’t have happened without interaction with fans, and they wouldn’t have connected with him without social media.
“If we have a few hundred thousand fans over there that seem to have a sense of humor, and they really want me to come and they’re working hard to make that happen, that’s something we’re going to respond to,” he said.
You probably don’t want to go out of control while tweeting, but Bourdain finds it helps his numbers. He said his drunken tweets boost traffic, so he’s not beyond hitting the send button when he’s had a little too much of the local liquor.
Keeping Up With Technology
Beyond growing his own audience, Bourdain has a finger on the pulse on how it’s changing television itself. He thinks social television will expand to “thousands of channels in the future.” He said the public expects to interact with the people they see on television, and it’s important for him to interact with fans. Television events like the Golden Globes used Twitter and Facebook to lure viewers to tune in, asking them to interact with their PCs and mobile devices.
“If you can’t interact directly with the people you see on TV, you should at least get some sense of who you’re talking to through their social media channels,” Bourdain said.
And he isn’t limiting himself to only Twitter and Facebook. He’s started a Tumblr site too, and wants to host video chats on Google+. The search giant’s site hasn’t gained a lot of traction since it started last summer, but if Bourdain can inspire other celebrities to hold “hangouts” on Google+, it’ll give the site an extra boost it’s been lacking.
He’s also testing mobile with “Layover,” an app based on his show that helps travelers find the best of cities they visit. It features TV show clips, maps, guides, timelines and more. Apple sells it for $2.
Learning From Bourdain
Bourdain has had an unorthodox life, including a history of drug abuse and personal and legal troubles. But much of what makes him an unlikely celebrity has made him a star on social media. He infuses his accounts with a brutal honesty — about who he is and what he’s doing, which is as good for businesses as his social media presence.
He’s takes over his tweets, which is a good idea if you want to improve your presence. You follow a Twitter or Facebook account because you want to connect with a person — not because you want to talk to a machine. Businesses that forget to interact with as people lose their followers.
He also remembers to have a sense of humor about his posts, which is essential in maintaining that all-important connection. He’s not embarrassed to tweet his mistakes and travel mishaps. Nobody’s perfect, and followers don’t like celebrities or businesses that sugarcoat everything.
If Bourdain can attract fans while eating a live cobra in Vietnam — well, that’s just icing on the cake. ♦
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