June 2006

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is looking happy. He greets me with a smile, all tan and rested. (“A few days ago I was in the Kalahari desert. I’m just happy my hotel room has a toilet,” he tells me.) Later that night at a book signing at the Michigan Avenue Borders in Chicago, he’s grinning and bemused at the huge crowd, opening up with “I’ll just do a short piece from the book, and then we can talk shit about Charlie Trotter.”

The happiness seems incongruous with his public persona: a macho, chain-smoking hedonist who at every public appearance is asked about the time he ate the still-beating heart of a cobra. That image was mostly fueled by his memoir Kitchen Confidential, and even he admits in Nasty Bits that it’s “obnoxious, over-testosteroned.” But with the success of Kitchen Confidential came the ability to retire from the kitchen and do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was to travel. A Cook’s Tour, both a book and a television show on the Food Network, followed him through places like Thailand and Minneapolis as he looked for truly great food. When the Food Network asked him to stop going to Asia because “they talk funny” there, he took his show to the Travel Channel where they let him make all of the decisions. No Reservations has just finished its second season and has been renewed for a third.

Now he travels almost the entire year, stopping back in New York only a few days each month. His latest book The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones is a collection of essays about his travels, nostalgia for the days in Les Halles’s kitchen, and why he hates Woody Harrelson. When we finally find a place where he can smoke indoors, he starts to talk about how all of the travel has changed him.

Your essay in “Nasty Bits” about raw food was almost polite. You’ve been much more mean to vegetarians in the past, but this essay talked about how every person finds their own path. You reserve your ire for Woody Harrelson. (In the essay, Harrelson refuses a meal in Thailand in order to stick to his strict raw food diet.)

Clearly I’m angry at Woody Harrelson. I’m okay with people who are horrified by cruelty to animals. I understand that completely. Who isn’t? Well, a lot of people aren’t, but I am. I wouldn’t hunt for sport, as I’ve said. I’m grateful for annoying gadfly organizations that embarrass or use any legal pressures to encourage people to not hunt. Same with fur. Same with cosmetic testing on animals. I don’t see any reason for that. As a comedian said, however, if you tell me hooking a chimp up to a car battery is going to find a cure for AIDS, I’m all for that.

What really got me as angry as I was... I think Charlie Trotter’s comments (in the foreword to his cookbook Raw) were pretty measured and I could kind of understand and even respect what he’s doing as an intellectual exercise or a creative exercise, but I was really furious at the thought of anyone lucky enough to travel to Thailand -- lucky enough, because I am aware at how lucky I am -- to turn his nose up at the food. So rude and anti-human and contemptuous of this planet and other nations and other cultures, and that’s where I get pissed off.

I thought the Charlie Trotter book was an interesting experiment on how to make raw food edible, because there are a few enormously expensive raw food restaurants here that serve, you know, salad.

That stuff is incredibly expensive. Someone did a cost break down of what it would cost you to survive on that stuff, to buy all that equipment and just load your refrigerator with vegetables and starches to be able to replace the protein intake. Highly extravagant and difficult. I see it in a way as giving succor and comfort to the enemy. I think that Charlie Trotter… if anyone is aware of the magnificence and importance of Charlie Trotter it’s Charlie Trotter. As he’s all too happy to remind us. On one hand I think it’s important to acknowledge how talented and important he is. On the other, when he comes out against foie gras, or he personally chooses not to use it in his restaurant as he prefers to say, he gives succor and comfort to the raw food movement, I don’t think he realizes he gives political cover to the very people that I personally see as the enemy.

You know it was just banned in Chicago.

And I blame Charlie Trotter. I think he really gave them, the idiots, cover. Of course it’s an irresistible issue for PETA, it’s a win for them. Who’s going to stand up and defend it? Who’s going to be pro-foie gras? What politician, who’s your constituency there? A tiny group of food nerds and rich people. And yet it’s a terrible thing, what’s happened.

It was a unanimous vote, too.

Gutless punks. Chicago is now emerging, just now, as an international food destination, just called the new Barcelona. And at this point these people are struggling mightily to give the impression that it’s a cow town. That’s awful. There are only two cities in America. This is one of them.

You don’t consider LA a city?

I look forward to going to LA. I don’t know I would say that I like LA. I always have a great time there, but it’s a sprawl, it’s not really a city. Who said there’s no there there? You know you’re in a city when you come to Chicago. It doesn’t suffer from an inferiority complex at all.

Is New York doing anything like the ban?

It’s inevitable. As I understand it, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the principle manufacturer, are lobbying to ban it in New York. I think they’re lobbying it themselves to ban it in seven years so that they have time to get across the state line. They see the future. We’ll see the last of it in our lifetime. Regrettable. The hypocrisy is awe-inspiring. These chefs who refuse the foie gras are happy enough to use the breasts, legs, bones, all the other parts of the same duck.

You seem skeptical of the ethical food movements – raw food, veganism, local food, that sort of thing.

I think an overriding philosophy or world view of political concerns, concerns about some kind of master vision of how clean your colon should be or just the way the world should be is an impediment to pleasure. Being a chef is principally being in the pleasure business. And I think it is an impediment to travel, to travel with an open mind and understanding or getting to know even in a small way the rest of the world and experiencing something that’s so fundamental to human behavior as feeding each other or sharing food. So yeah. Even my own weakly held views about the way things should be. I like to think that in the interest of being a good guest I would violate those principles.

Where are you going in the third season of No Reservations?

Sao Paulo, hopefully Tehran, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Moscow perhaps, we’re looking at Madagascar, maybe another LA show. We have in the can Korea, Ghana, and we’re about to do a Pacific Northwest show with Chuck Palahniuk, and Beirut.

How does one travel to Tehran, diplomatically? How do you get in?

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a problem. I can always go as a journalist.

Where else do you want to go?

I’m going everywhere. I decide the destinations. If there is a driving agenda, it’s how many Asia shows can I shove down the network’s throat. That’s really it. You think we can go to Vietnam again yet?

They’re pretty open to all of your ideas?

They haven’t said no to anywhere. They cut two words that I’m aware of. I’ve disagreed with them on one edit in the entire show.

What was it?

“Liquid doobage.”

They thought that was not appropriate? You’ve said some worse things.

I know! I don’t think they understood what “fisting a Samoan” was. But really that’s it. There are places I’m really anxious to get to or get back to. China. Mainland China. Vietnam, obviously. Laos, Burma. I’d love to do a Tokyo show. That’s just pure fun for me, and to be forced to learn every day. I’m always awake in Asia. Oh, and we have an Ireland show in the can.

I really like your travel show, just because it’s not like so many travel things, like, here is our resort at $650 a day with a great view and you never have to see anyone who isn't white.

What I’m proudest of the show is that it’s schizophrenic from week to week. There are happy shows, snarky shows, completely self indulgent, gee, let’s go and remake Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shows. They’re very different and even when we’re playing film students on the road and redoing our favorite movies and doing dream sequences, that is how I feel about these places. It’s always honest. If I think a place sucks, you pretty much see it. If I’m having a miserable time, or even if it’s a great country and I should be making a great show, I think that’s reflected, too. It’s not going to be that “Here we are! Honolulu! The best of!”

How did you hook up with Chuck Palahniuk for the Northwest show?

I’m a big fan. I just reached out to him after I read his Portland book and thought, who better? We just reached out through our production company. He certainly has a perverse streak, I wondered if he was perverse enough to come on my silly show.

I saw you blurbed Gina Mallet’s book Last Chance to Eat. What did you think of that book?

I liked it. I agreed with just about everything.

I know it was somewhat controversial with some chefs and people in the food industry, because she was saying that organic food is not the end all be all.

I really admired that. I admire that on one hand she’s saying none of you remember what an apple tastes like. Or real cheese. All of the organic or artisinal people are going to start feeling very comfortable, but she’s also saying, “I’ve had some greenhouse tomatoes that are better than organic.” I like that. It’s a clear-eyed look at the essence of what food should be. I don’t give a shit how it was made or who made it. Is it better?

You have a very hedonist approach to food.

It’s the death of pleasure when your waiter takes ten minutes to tell you the bloodline of your tomato. I don’t care. I’m already having a bad time. Is it good? It speaks for itself. It’s nonsense. Excess description, excess information. The truth’s in the dining experience. It’s as primeval as it gets, or it should be. That’s the way chefs eat.

How was Ireland? I lived there for a while and just loved the food, but there’s that stereotype…

I love Ireland. I love Irish food. I love Guinness in Dublin more than any other beverage. What’s going on there is what’s going on everywhere else in the English-speaking world. You get these wacky renegade cheesemakers, people curing meat, exploring traditional Irish food ways, cooking well. Irish food doesn’t have to be bad. Like Fergus Henderson in England with British food. This stuff’s good, just give it a little love and attention. If you don’t like Ireland as a country, if you don’t like the Irish, there’s no reason to get out of bed. You live in a very dark place without hope or joy or irony.

With all of the traveling and work on the shows, how do you get new writing done?

I write a lot for the show. I’ll double-dip a lot, like I’ll go to Singapore for the book tour, inevitably I’ll meet a lot of food journalists and chefs and we’ll get drunk until four in the morning with local chefs and cooks and ex-pats who have been out there a long time, they’ll show me around, I’ll go back and do a TV show, and then I’ll go back and write about it. And often do all of those things at the same time. I don’t even know what I do for a living anymore. I already wrote my whole life story. I’m not going to write Kitchen Confidential 2.

I write a novel every few years. I have a novel coming out next year. Some point after that I’m moving to Asia to write about it. To me, the travel’s good. It eats up a lot of time, but it gives me a lot to write about and think about.

Is the novel another mystery?

Well, crime novel. No mystery, you kind of know who did it from page one, and you don’t really care.

Where in Asia are you moving to?

Initially it was going to be two years in a fishing village in Vietnam. Now I’m thinking start out in Vietnam and work my way through some of my favorite places in Southeast Asia, and maybe end up in Indonesia. I just went to Indonesia for the first time, we did a show there. I really, really fell in love with Bali and Java. Just incredibly beautiful, and the food… I knew it was going to be great but I had no idea how good. I’m not a spiritual guy at all, but there’s something about in Java you wake up to the mullahs, the call to prayer. But unlike elsewhere in the Muslim world, first you hear the mullah calling, then wherever people are standing, sitting, or lying, wherever they are, they start chanting. So you hear person one, then two, then ten, then twenty, then a hundred, two hundred voices from all over this mountain range chanting. In Bali, they have a festival every three minutes. Some festival or religious service. You really know you’re not at home. I’m very taken with that.

Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to travel but is in that rut of not doing it? Because I’ve noticed with people I know it’s really hard to get someone from a state of not traveling to traveling.

I can only say to them that I understand how frightening it is when you first go to somewhere even like Tokyo. It’s really intimidating to even feed yourself. The moment when you finally overcome that, when you summon the will to walk into a place filled with people who don’t speak your language, stare at you when you come in, you’re going to be awkward, you’re going to order food and you don’t know what it is, you’re going to do things wrong. Once you’re able to successfully order breakfast for yourself, it’s a really, deeply satisfying moment. Being lost and disoriented is good. Learning little things. That first random act of kindness from a stranger offering you food or showing you where to go or telling you about a really great bar, those have been the most wonderful moments of my life.

All I can say is, do anything to get yourself into that position of being lost and letting things… like eating, travel should be largely submissive. As opposed to cooking, which is not that at all. Let things happen to you, good things and bad things. It’s almost invariably rewarding. And of course, avoid the hotel, avoid Western food, if you see other Westerners, run away. Avoid backpacks, maybe dreadlocks is not a good choice for you if you’re a white guy. Forget who you are. You’re never going to melt into Asia. They won’t have you completely. But that’s okay. You can love them, and you can love Asia, and Asia will love you back.

When did you start traveling?

Right after Kitchen Confidential. I hadn’t been anywhere. I’d been to the Caribbean, I’d been to Mexico for a week. I’ve been to France as a kid. That was it. I’d been to Japan for a week for the restaurant. I started going out for the book tour, then A Cook’s Tour, well, that was very much the idea. Maybe I could get away with the classic magazine pitch where you go in with, “Best Beaches of the World!” Yeah, nice try. They bought that book. The first show we did, me, Chris and Lydia, who are still my partners. We shot two Japan shows, two Vietnam shows, and two Cambodia shows. I think something happens.

Something really happened to me in Vietnam. I think I instinctively knew it, and I think a lot of people around me knew it, but Asia ruined me for going back. Vietnam in particular ruined my whole life. My expectations for what I see when I open my eyes in the morning, or even little things like the condiments on the table when I sit down. That bar just went so high and so different that there was no going back. I didn’t even know Chris and Lydia, they’d just gotten married like two days before we set out, and we didn’t talk for a couple of weeks when we got back and Chris called me up and said, “Tony, is it like weird for you now, is it flat?”

Since that time, I haven’t spent much time in America unless I’m on a book tour. I don’t know that I can. I’m professionally restless at this point. I’m very much kind of wondering, is there a place where I can be still eventually. I don’t know where that place is.

There’s a passage in the Salman Rushdie book The Ground Beneath Her Feet that talks about people who don’t belong to any one place and have to keep moving, and reading it was like feeling, oh, I’m not the only one.

It was a sad moment. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, but it was also a sad one. It was a selfish moment. I’ve talked elsewhere about there are times in your life… I’ll use the example of you’re standing alone in the desert, and you see the most incredible sunset you’ve ever seen and your first instinct is to turn to your left or right and say, “Wow, do you see that?” Okay, there’s no one there, what do you do? Next, where’s the camera? Look through the viewfinder and you realize you know, what you see through that little box is not what you’re experiencing. There comes this terrible moment when you realize well, this is for me. There is no sharing this. Worse: if you try to share it with old friends or someone you love it’s almost an insult. “How was your day?” “Well, we did three hundred covers tonight, somebody sent back a steak…” “Well, in the Sahara there was this sunset and you wouldn’t believe it.” You know? Fuck you.

But it’s not entirely selfish, you’re inspiring others to travel.

That’s not what you’re thinking when you’re out there. You’re thinking you better suck up every moment, every bit of pleasure, as much of that experience as you can because you’re there, no one else is. It’s nice to try to describe it or shoot it the best I can. I’m well aware of the fact while it’s happening that the really good moments… it’s maddening. You can never get close to describing it. You can’t take a picture or describe what it feels like to stand there. I try. The minute that you learn to stop for a second, breathe deep and take it into yourself, that is a very selfish moment. It is a betrayal of everything you were and worked for. There is a sense of doom.

I think it fits in very well with my Graham Greene worldview. If you’re lucky enough to live in a fantastic place in fantastic times and see incredible things, then you’re also doomed to be there, trapped in some terrible penance-like situation. To me The Quiet American is a happy book. I read it every year. It nails Vietnam. It’s still there, that Vietnam. It’s a perfect metaphor, he loves a woman who can never fully love him back. It is a perfect metaphor for colonialism and Western adventurism in the East. I don’t care, I just want to be there.

For somebody who hasn’t been to Vietnam, you would say, “Just go”?

Just go. Just go and accept offers of food and drink from random strangers. They’re the kindest, most outgoing, generous, proud people in the world. Total strangers will come up to you and offer to take you home to dinner. By all means, do it.

You said in the Las Vegas piece that you haven’t seen much of America. Is there a chance of you doing that for a show?

On book tours I’ve seen a lot of America in a distorted worldview. I see it from the hotel, and I also tend to see cities because I’ll do an event and invariably chefs and line cooks will be there. I’ll be brought to the best place in town by a local journalist. One way or another I’ll end up with a bunch of cooks late at night going to their haunts. That’s not a bad way to see a place. I’ve done shows in places like South Florida, LA, San Francisco, I know Seattle and Portland very well and love it. There are other places I’d like to… it’s not a principle area of interest for me. I am nibbling away every year, I try to pick either obvious spots like Las Vegas and look at it in a not obvious way, or look at a place like Austin. Did a show on Minneapolis. Cult-like food scenes.

Have you done a show on Austin, or are you thinking about it?

Thinking about it.

I used to live there for five years. The only thing I miss is the food. Weather is miserable, but man I miss the food.

I’m very proud of the Texas border towns show we did. That was a great surprise to me. All these Texans who speak perfect Spanish and are surrounded by Mexicans and intermarry the Mexicans and went to school with the Mexicans. I found that really heroic. When you’ve been on a book tour to Houston as I have many times, and some guy comes up to you and says, “So. You wrote some kind of book.” In an accusatory tone. Seeing that, visiting along the border was just so good. Gave me reasons to live. Hope for the world.