When I called the number that Anthony Bourdain’s assistant gave me, Bourdain picked up the phone and said, “Hello.”
This wouldn’t be surprising if I considered him a normal human, but as the cult hero of Kitchen Confidential and the thinking-man’s basic-cable gastro-traveler who slips in Aguirre, the Wrath of God references while fending off hungry little monkeys in Thailand, I figured he might at least have a publicist screening his calls. But no.
Bourdain is really normal, says “fuck” as much as you’d expect him to and answers whatever you ask, including stuff about his new book (Medium Raw), his show on the Travel Channel (No Reservations), America’s food obsession and what it was like to get famous later in life (it’s extra nice, apparently, with fewer drug fatalities). He'll be in town Sunday for a one-man stand-up comedy/speaking engagement, “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain.”
CityBeat: So the big news is your new book, Medium Raw. In your own words, can you tell me a little about what the book is about?
Anthony Bourdain: Ten years after (Kitchen Confidential), looking at how my life has changed and more importantly how the industry has changed and the role of the chef has changed, which is to say a lot.
CB: In it you say, “I am not a chef.” But to the general public you present as sort of a triple threat: a TV host, a chef and a writer. Who are you really? How do you identify yourself?
AB: Ha ha. You know, I don’t know. It’s still a work in progress. I mean, I spent 28 years as a chef, so I think I’ve put in enough time that I’ll certainly always look at the world from that telescope, from the perspective of somebody who’s a chef. I think I earned the title. But as a practical matter, I am not a chef.
I am very acutely aware of the fact that what work I do does not leave me sore, aching and smelling of food at the end of the night as it did for the first 28 years of my working career. There’s a little discomfort with that. That’s something I try to come to terms with in the book: What is it that I do for a living? I’m really not sure.
CB: Do you lose your street cred after a time if you haven’t been putting the hours in, or is it really once a chef always a chef?
AB: Honestly, I don’t think about it. I don’t think about street cred, you know? I can’t think about those things. I didn’t have any cred at all. I was a nobody when I wrote Kitchen Confidential, so I didn’t think anybody was going to read it.
I try really hard not to think about how people perceive me, because that’s a trap. I’d still be walking around in a leather jacket with an earring making sure that I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth at all times if I was really wrapped up in that. That’s the road to madness and suicide, and I just never felt compelled to play by those or really any rules.
Things have been working out really well for me in that I’ve been able to get away with doing whatever the hell I want. Not giving a shit has been a good business model in the past, and it’s a business model that I plan to stick with in the future.
CB: Despite your claim of non-chefdom, it’s obvious that you’re one of our nation’s top food celebrities. What’s up with food celebrities? What’s our cultural obsession with watching people eat 20-pound pizzas or fermented bull balls? What’s at the root of this food mania?
AB: It’s a great question. I don’t really understand what the problem is or what might cause it. I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this with other chefs. Particularly in the early days of the celebrity chef thing, we’d look at each other. I’d sit around with Mario (Batali) and Eric Ripert (of New York’s Le Bernardin) and a few others going, “Why? What’s going on? Why do they give a shit about us now when they never cared about us before? What happened?”
There have been a number of theories. Dislocation. People moving away from rural areas and into the city. They watch Food Network as a form of nesting to remind them of home. Others suggest, I think it’s a good theory, they’re just not having enough sex. But I really don’t know.
Obviously watching people cook, watching people eat and eating in restaurants has become a major entertainment sector. I’m not going to ask the "who are" or the "why are," I’m just going to milk the phenomena for as long and as hard as I can. "Who better than chefs to put down a nice score" is what I’m saying.
CB: A lot of Medium Raw is centered around food values. You talk about teaching our kids to cook, ammonia in hamburgers, Jamie Oliver, but in your eyes what’s the most important food crisis Americans are facing today and what message are you trying to get across to readers about the current state of food in America?
AB: I’m not an advocate. I’m not Michael Pollan. I’m a very bad advocate. I’m very conflicted on most things. I think the Alice Waters chapter (in Medium Raw) is a good example of that.
I really don’t know whether I’m coming or going on these things. I hate to be orthodox about anything. Certainty is the enemy for me. But just looking out, just as somebody who travels around America, who has traveled the world, I think childhood obesity and the shape we’re in, our physical health. We’re just huge as a nation. We’re huge. We’re getting huger. We can’t move without difficulty, large numbers of us.
I’ve jokingly said in the past (that) it’s going to become a national security issue, you know, that should we ever need a fighting force we might have a very hard time raising one. The rate of juvenile diabetes alone is truly horrifying. So as reluctantly as I’m noticing these things I think you can't help walking through America’s airports noticing we are a land of slow-moving giants and that can’t be a good thing. If you require help getting out of your chair, that’s not a lifestyle choice, that’s a problem. And we clearly need help.
CB: So there is this food obsession. We watch people eating stuff, but it’s not the stuff that we ourselves are eating as the general American population. We’re going to get fast food or microwaving something and then coming home to watch people cook these home meals.
AB: Yes, and it’s troubling. I don’t know what to say to it. I like to think that some of these shows inspire people to eat out of their comfort zone, cook a little more, cook a little better. That was never my intention, but I guess in the back of my mind, you know, one can hope.
But I think you’re absolutely right. I think a lot of people, maybe even the majority of people who watch food programming, are watching it like pornography. They’re watching people do things on TV, on a screen, that they’re not planning on doing anytime soon themselves.
CB: So, following up, what’s a typical meal at the Bourdain household?
AB: There’s not that typical.
Often something really simple and quick and easy at home is preferable to going out to a restaurant, but all my friends are chefs and I live in the center of the restaurant universe. But a lot of times I’d much rather have a simple bowl of pasta or call out for pizza.
CB: Medium Raw is tagged as a “bloody valentine to the world of food,” but after reading it I kind of saw it as paying homage, revering the art and beauty of work and ritual, specifically in cooking. Like being in awe of perfection. Like the chapter about Justo cutting and sorting the fish at Le Berardin. It seems almost like Eastern religion-y. Can you talk a little bit about this quest or this attitude?
AB: It’s certainly a recurring feature. I don’t notice it when I’m doing it, but I clearly admire people who do a job well and take pride in it and do it day after day with relentlessly high standards. I know that I’m looking at something I haven’t myself always lived up to.
So I tend to admire it all the more whether it’s a guy making noodles in Hong Kong on my show or Justo cutting the fish at Le Bernardin or somebody with just a really restless mind and a nearly pathological need to be creative like David Chang. I find these people interesting and intensely admirable, and I like writing about them.
You see the whole tone change. I don’t know whether "worshipful" is the right word, but it’s somewhere in there. These are all things and skills and disciplines and people that deserve respect. I like cooks. I like chefs. I think anyone who cooks well or works at a restaurant or works hard and takes pride in their work deserves to be celebrated.
CB: It kind of reminded me of the No Reservations episode where you’re making a flower arrangement in Japan, I think. Things that seem so simple but there’s an art behind them. Like who would think about the art behind gutting and storing fish?
AB: I think like the flower arranging and looking at somebody, a really great craftsman, a fishcutter, I think I’m very aware of looking at these things as alternate lives, the road not taken. And I’m very aware it’s too late for me to learn these skills or do those things really, but there is a yearning or sense of wonder when I see them and I tend to reflect at those times.
Gee, I wonder — in my heart, of course — if in another life I would be the sort of person who could sit and stare at a flower for hours. I would be the sort of person who would dedicate himself to having knife skills like Justo. I would’ve learned to play bass like Bootsy Collins. But I did none of those things. I chose another path. I don’t regret it, but I can still gape from a distance.
CB: It’s a funny thing kind of because you’re put up as a celebrity and you’re famous for what you do. It’s funny to hear you vocalize things you could have been in another life or things you could have done.
AB: I’d give it all up in a second if I could play really great Funk bass. If I could have been the bass player for James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone or Parliament/Funkadelic, I would’ve cashed it all in a second.
CB: You talk a lot about post-Kitchen Confidential Tony and pre-Kitchen Confidential Tony. Obviously that book was a launching pad for your current career, but how did the book stereotype you? I mean, your press kit still sells you as the bad boy of cuisine. Are you still that bad boy?
AB: It covered three decades of my career. By the time I wrote it I was 44. I wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t a boy. Though I was at least a chef. So I never took it that seriously then.
I didn’t feel like a bad boy when I’d go into the kitchen every day. I was a hardworking guy who didn’t give a fuck and didn’t think anyone was going to read this thing. I was looking to entertain a few people in the industry. It was all going to be inside baseball as far as my intention, so I just never, fuck, I was 44!
Maybe if I’d written the thing at 28 and I’d had all of that attention and all that success happen overnight, yeah, I probably would’ve ended up in short order referring to myself in the third person, snorting eight balls of coke and I would’ve ended up in the pool at the Chateau Marmont with a couple of tranny hookers dead, but I was 44. That made a big difference.
I don’t know if I could say I was centered, but there were a whole hell of a lot of things I knew weren’t going to make me happy or make things any better for me and I managed to avoid fucking up in at least some of the usual ways. I just never took that seriously. I never felt obliged to be “that guy,” you know?
CB: When you were growing up, did you ever expect your life to turn out this way? To hit celebrity at 44 is kind of later in life...
AB: Ha. Hell yeah it is. It was exquisitely good timing, because my cooking skills were starting to really go into rapid decline. Yeah. When I was a kid I grew up in Kennedy era where we were all taught as a birthright we’d all live lives better than our parents. I think before I was even a teenager it was clear that that was very much in doubt, and by the time I was out of high school I was pretty much living the “live fast, die young” plan.
I think I say in the book I was very surprised to find myself alive at 30 after doing everything possible to not be. I feel like I’ve led a lot of different lives long before Kitchen Confidential. I mean, the short answer is no. I never in a million years expected anything like that to happen, that I’d ever be successful. I’d long ago given up any thought that I would ever even own a car or be insured. I just thought I’d be living the way I’d been living since I dropped out of college for the rest of my life.
CB: Well, now you’re successful and relatively recently married and have a daughter. How has having a child changed your life?
AB: It’s just not all about me anymore. That’s the biggest thing. Now it’s all about her. The minute someone enters your life you would unthinkingly step in front of a truck for, that you wouldn’t even have to think about it for a second, it’d be instantaneous, an instinctive reaction, that’s a huge, huge shift. And then of course, as I wrote about, there are just some things that are an embarrassment. That Dead Boys shirt is never going back on. No one wants to see their parents rock. It’s just fucking wrong.
CB: Does it affect your travel schedule at all?
AB: You’ll notice over the last year a suspiciously large number of shows in and around Italy, where my wife is from. I try to schedule a show like that every few shows so that I can take the family with me. My wife’s parents are typical Italian grandparents, and they will drive anywhere in Europe to be with their granddaughter, so we basically make it a family outing and at least I can sleep in the same bed with my wife and daughter after I finish shooting.
I try to be with them as much as possible, but it’s tough. I’m still shooting, last year, 175 days out of the year. Maybe they were along for 30 of those, 40 maximum. Then I do a lot of speaking engagements as well, and they can’t come along.
I’m trying to find a balance. I’m trying very hard to be a good dad. I tweak the entire shooting schedule of the show to my partners’ difficulty. It’s very hard for them, I’m sure. Our shooting schedule and voiceover and post-production schedule, a lot of that is tweaked in service to my family life.
CB: For viewers, I think there’s this element of escapism to No Reservations, and truthfulness. Do you feel that way? What has the show meant to you? What’s your goal with the show?
AB: Escapism, yeah, that’s a goal. I’d like to be able to disappear into an episode. I’d like people to be able to disappear into the places that we go. I’d like to make them feel the way I felt or the crew felt when we were there.
We look at it, me and my partners and the camera people I work with, we’re all very tight. We spend a lot of time together talking about what we can do, what’s possible, how we can make the show better or different or crazier or try new things. But really, in the best-case scenario, we’re trying to make a different independent film every week that looks different than one before it, that doesn’t fall into a pattern, that has its own stand-alone look, sound, editing style, camera style, lighting scheme.
Often before we even pick what country we’re going to we start with a movie that we love and start thinking about where we might apply that look. We just did a Rome show, but what determined Rome for us was we were sitting around watching a lot of Fellini and Antonioni and it was, “Oh! We’re going to make incredible food porn in black and white! Shoot an entire fucking show, letterbox it.” Most of the show will be dubbed, including me. It’s going to be an amazing, amazing looking and very creative show. I don’t know how popular it will be with audiences, but my God it’s gorgeous.
CB: I think people, viewers, can tell the effort that goes into the show and the fact they're all different.
AB: I’m proud of our failures. I’m really proud of our failures as much as I’m proud of the ones that are obviously home runs. We take a lot a lot of risks, and for all of the easy terrible conclusions you can make about television and television audiences the fact is we have a lot of fans, most of them outside of the country. Most of the viewers of No Reservations are in Asia, South America and Europe, but the people that I meet going around the country, they’re really smart and they appreciate the show.
We had a motto: “We’re not the other guy,” and I think when you’re channel surfing around our show looks different than other travel or food shows. And I have the luxury of telling the truth or manipulating the truth into some dark, nightmarish world vision if I choose.
CB: Your last chapter in Medium Raw is a follow up to KC with clarifications and some apologies. Do you regret things you wrote? Are you going to regret things you wrote in this book? What’s the point of talking shit?
AB: I can’t help it. It’s just that simple. I’m sure I’d be happier if I didn’t get angry. I’m sure I’d be a lot happier if I could just let things roll off my back.
I talk about it in the book. What’s my problem? Why do I give a shit? Why talk about Guy Fieri? It’s an irresistible impulse. For me it’s just how can you not make fun of the guy, on one hand? I mean, that goes back to second grade for me. I would have made fun of him then. And really nothing has changed.
It’s that same juvenile impulse on my part. You know, call it an attention-getting device, whatever it might be the desire to mock or the desire to point out this absurdity. The anger, I mean, I don’t know, but that’s the way it is. Will it fade? It ebbs and flows. I feel I’ve unburdened myself of some major bones. Some major obstructions have passed, let’s put it that way.
CB: You quote Neil Young’s “better to burn out than to fade away.” Which one do you fear more?
AB: Either one is fine by me. I mean, fading away sounds awful good. I like the way Marlon Brando checks out in The Godfather, you know? Running around in the tomato vines with his grandson. That looks like a good way to go, a good way to fade out.
Burning out? It’s less painful for sure. One minute I’m there and the next a blood vessel explodes in my brain. How bad could that be?
Life is good, really. I really feel like I’m on bonus rounds here. If there was ever any justice in this world, it never would have happened in the first place. I’m way into the extra points, bonus round, and I’ll take whatever I can get.
CB: Do you have any kind of life motto?
AB: I like Warren Zevon’s. I think he was diagnosed with cancer and somebody asked him if you had to give advice, now that he was facing death, I think the quote is, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
CB: What are we getting into when we spend “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain?” Will there be booze?
AB: Hopefully the audience will be a little liquored up beforehand. That always helps.
I basically come out and talk shit for an hour. It’s a work in progress. I slowly work out old material and slowly work in new material. If something pissed me off that day, I’ll talk about it. It’s very free form. It’s pretty much off the top of my head, and then we do a lengthy question-and-answer exchange for the audience.
CB: So do you think you’re worth the money?
AB: Fuck. What is anything worth? What are tickets to the Knicks worth? They’re not going to win anything. I don’t know. Ha.
That’s an awful question. If you’re asking me if deep down in my soul do I think I’m worth whatever is it, $38 or $40? I don’t know. Of course I don’t think so. I’m wondering why anyone would pay that, but I’m glad they do. And I’m grateful that they do.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN will be "talking shit" Sunday at the Aronoff Center for "An Evening with Anthony Bourdain," his one-man stand-up comedy/ speaking engagement. Get show and venue details and buy tickets here.