Anthony Bourdain's job must be somewhere near the top of the best-eff-ing-jobs-on-Earth list. On his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, Tony skips the globe, sampling cuisine and mingling with locals, giving viewers a one-hour taste of the featured culture. He's swallowed a beating cobra heart in Vietnam, chewed on an unwashed warthog rectum with the bushmen of Namibia, and shared raw seal with a family of Inuit on a bloody kitchen floor.
Bourdain stepped into the limelight in 2000 when his memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, was hailed as a brutally honest peephole to the restaurant business. While describing his personal struggles and triumphs as a chef and former drug addict, Bourdain showed America who really cooks its food, throwing the stereotypical, plump Italian chef — with his curled handlebar mustache, his spotless white apron and toque matching his pearly white smile — to the curb with the leaking garbage bags.
Now Bourdain is touring the country, touting his new book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook it. We spoke recently about writing, food and globalization.
NUVO: By now, pretty much anyone with an interest in the culinary world has read your bestselling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, so most of your fans know what drew you to cooking. What drew you to writing?
Bourdain: I was given an opportunity. I wrote a short piece for a free newspaper that ended up in The New Yorker. I had expected to get $100 and entertain a few people in the restaurant business in New York City, and it kept getting bumped — week to week, month to month — until I got sort of drunk and pissed off and sent over the transcript to The New Yorker.
So I was like really surprised that it became sort of a scandal and I got a lot of attention, and then I was off on a book deal. So I'm this guy that, when given the opportunity to tell a story, I will do so. But I was never a guy who was working on an unpublished manuscript, you know? It just kind of fell in my lap and I did the best I could with the opportunity.
NUVO: Tell us about your new book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. It sounds like a tearjerker.
Bourdain (Laughs): I know it does. I'm looking back at both how my life has changed since Kitchen Confidential — which is to say: completely — and also I look at the restaurant business that I was writing about. I mean, Kitchen Confidential was a career stint and a lot of it happened in the '70s, '80s and '90s, so in Medium Raw I'm also looking back at how the business has changed since those times.
NUVO: You're a fan of the writer Hunter S. Thompson; he often stressed about meeting the expectations people set for him as being a drug-addled, gonzo madman. Do you ever feel a similar pressure with your "bad boy chef" label? I mean, don't you ever just want to pass on the double bourbon and order chocolate milk?
Bourdain: I never took that seriously to start with. True, I love Thompson, but it is instructive to note that he wrote two truly great books ...Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 are both timeless classics, and from the best I can tell, he never really wrote another book.
I just think I am very aware of the sort of dead-end corner he painted himself into, you know? He created a character and felt it necessary to live up to that character, or stay that character. I just didn't want that to happen to me; I never felt any obligation to be anything to anybody. I don't feel that I should suddenly try to appear in an amateur production of King Lear so that I can stretch, but, on the same token, I think I have been constantly looking to undermine expectations in every way I can, particularly on the show. I just never took the whole "bad boy" thing seriously, and I certainly never felt any pressure to live up to a persona. Not giving a shit has been a very successful business model for me. I don't feel any obligation to keep wearing a leather jacket, and I threw the earring out a long time ago. For fuck's sake, I'm the father of a 3-year-old girl, and I spend a hell of a lot of time watching Nickelodeon. So, man, you know: I know who I am.
NUVO: It's not like you gave yourself the "bad boy" label.
Bourdain: Yeah, but I'm not going to fight it either. If it's good for business, call me whatever you want—as long as you buy my books. But I'm not going to dress up and play the part if I'm not feeling it, you know?
NUVO: On your Travel Channel show, No Reservations, you trot the globe in search of good food and good people. Given your extensive traveling experience, do you cringe or delight at the world's rapid globalization?
Bourdain: If "globalization" means bogus fusion in a chain restaurant, then I'm not happy with it. But if "globalization" means lots of people from someplace else coming here and opening authentic restaurants: Great. I just think it's silly to talk about globalization because we're globalized already, it's already happened. The Chinese hold the paper on our country for God's sake.
To me, a future world that looks ethnically like Singapore — where everybody is all kind of mixed up; where Indian, Malay and Chinese, and various intermarried permutations hang out together — if the future looks like that, then it wont be so awful, you know what I'm saying? We'll be having attractive children and eating well.
NUVO: Is there a certain culture you would like to see influence America more?
Bourdain: I'd like to see the Singapore-style hawker center; they do food courts right in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, or anywhere with a large number of Chinese. Even the chain food courts in Asia are frickin' good. If we had independently owned and operated hawker stands selling one dish, Chinese or Indian specialties — that would be great. Add that to the scourge of American fast food.
NUVO: Hypothetical: Promising to fix the world's ills in thirty minutes and the cost of an extra value meal, the Palin/Rachel Ray ticket takes the presidency in 2012. You're a refugee on the run — where do you live out the rest of your years?
Bourdain: Probably Sardinia; that's where my wife grew up in northern Italy. I could live very well there, and very happily — I love that whole lifestyle. I would also enjoy all of the rights and privileges of an Italian citizen by virtue of being married to one — free medical care, for instance — so, you know, it would be a good place to become a doddering old man in Italy.
NUVO: Speaking of healthcare, let's say Obama calls on you to be Food and Beverage Czar in his Orwellian takeover — you have complete control of America's diet — what's your first order of business?
Bourdain: I would decline. I just don't think I want to be a role model. I've been avoiding responsibility my whole life; I can barely take care of my own daughter's diet. But, in the completely ridiculous scenario that I accepted the job — let's say I was so drunk that I accepted it — I might consider a fat tax out of patriotic reasons. I just think something has to be done. I mean, let's face it: we're not smoking Osama out of his hole if we can't fit our fat asses in after him.
NUVO: You have a food television show — every time we see you you're eating — and you manage to stay slender. Any advice for America's big-boned citizens?
Bourdain: I don't snack, I don't drink sodas and, unless I'm starving in an airport at five o'clock in the morning, I don't eat American fast food. I will try to find any other option before I do that. But I don't want to be a snob about it, either; I understand that there are certain, very real economical and practical reasons people eat fast food. You know: two-income family, hard-working mom and they bring their kids to eat McDonald's — I get that.
I don't eat a big breakfast — I don't eat a breakfast at all — and I don't snack. I save real estate for the good stuff when possible.
NUVO: But you can assure your viewing audience that there isn't a pile of regurgitated jerk chicken lying in some Jamaican alley?
Bourdain: No, I'm not bulimic or anorexic; I kind of wish, though. There are times when I think, "Jesus! I wish I could unload here because I've got another meal in four hours!"I've never mastered that trick, though.
NUVO: The economy sucks — any suggestions for an affordable culinary adventure to pencil in for an upcoming vacation?
Bourdain: It's the plane fare that's expensive, but you could live and eat very well, for very cheap, in Vietnam or India. Columbia is fantastic, too. Columbia is a place that I think that has an undeservedly bad reputation. Things have changed enormously there; it's become sort of an undiscovered wonderland in our part of the world. Columbia is not that far away, either; it's only a few hours from Miami. The food is great, the people are nice, it's a lovely country and safety and security is really not a problem.
NUVO: Without violating contractual agreements with the Travel Channel, what do you really think of Bizarre Food's Andrew Zimmern?
Bourdain: Personally, I like him. We have a lot in common, believe it or not. I don't know how he does it, honestly. I really don't know how he does that show year in and year out. I respect that he can just shovel that stuff in twice a day, everyday, for nine months to a year. I've eaten a lot of the stuff he eats, but he doesn't drink — he's a teetotaler — and I really don't know how he does that sober.
NUVO: You're coming to Clowes Memorial Hall — what's that all about?
Bourdain: I'm just going to stand up there for an hour and talk shit off the top of my head, or talk about whatever is pissing me off that day, or has got me excited, or interested. It's sort of an ongoing, ever-changing, monologue — about what? I don't know yet. Then I'll open up the floor to questions. To a great extent, the different questions, or comments, or arguments on the floor make a big difference. Hopefully there will be some smart, or even provocative, or contentious comments and questions from the floor. It will make [it] a lot more interesting than: What's the grossest thing you have ever eaten?
NUVO: You get that question a lot; are you sick of being a celebrity yet?
Bourdain: Compared to what? This is not hard work. For twenty-eight years I stood on my feet in hot, submarine-sized basements cooking, often for people I didn't like, often food I wasn't proud of. So I know what real work is, and compared to that, getting recognized in airports is not a burden.
NUVO: When you're not signing autographs in airports or eating exotic foods, what do you do? Any hobbies?
Bourdain: I'm a voracious, I mean a fanatically voracious, very fast reader. I'm a movie freak; I'm really a film nerd.
NUVO: Have you seen any good flicks lately?
Bourdain: TheRed RidingTrilogy is fantastic. It's a series of independent films out of England — I highly recommend that. I've been watching some old Antonioni and Fellini for an upcoming Rome show of No Reservations. In a lot of ways, we make the shows sort of directly refer back to films that I love, or that we love on the crew. So it's a very collaborative effort to making the program, and a lot of the finished product — the way each episode looks and sounds — often refers to some film or video that we really dig.
NUVO: What do you watch on TV?
Bourdain: When The Wire ended there was a big, empty space in my life. That sort of raised the bar for television viewing stratospherically, you know? It just ruined every other show because it was just so, so awesome.
I do watch Breaking Bad, I like that a lot. I like Mad Men, of course. But I'm away so much that it's really got to be amazing for me to invest—I mean, even if I DVR this stuff—to invest time in a show with like twenty-three episodes and a diluted plot. Especially after The Wire, you know? That show was just so goddamn good.
NUVO: Your daughter doesn't monopolize the TV with SpongeBob?
Bourdain: No, she's not into SpongeBob. She's really into old Scooby Doo episodes lately — I hate that show — but she really loves it. So I am watching way too much of that. She likes Backyardigans, and Dora, and Ni Hao Kai-lan, so I watch hours of that stuff a week — I know all of the songs.
NUVO: So now you're singing along with Nickelodeonand traveling the world with one of the best jobs on the planet, and a couple of decades ago you were selling your records and comic books on the streets of New York for cash to score drugs. Is the top as good as it looks from the bottom?
Bourdain: Yeah. I am very, very, very aware of how good I've got it. It's what makes it fun and keeps it interesting. Working at a lunch counter is a recent memory; you know what I'm saying? I remember very well what it felt like to work in a place I hated, serving food I hated, to people I hated. I know what it's like to be desperately in debt, being in a place of feeling utter hopelessness, going to sleep at night with heart palpitations, worrying about what happens when the landlord decides to actually kick us out for not paying. Mentally, those memories are still fresh in my mind. Life is good. I am very, very, very, very aware everyday how good it is.
SIDEBAR (RUN W/ RIPART PHOTO)
Eric Ripert, a master chef in his own right, might just give Mr. Bourdain a run for his money when they're on stage together this Thursday. Finishing culinary school in his native France in 1982, the then-17-year-old Ripert began his remarkable career at La Tour d'Argent, one of the oldest and most revered restaurants in Paris. After moving to the United States, Ripert worked as Sous Chef at the Watergate Hotel and eventually as the executive chef and owner of the prestigious Le Bernardin in New York. Under his tutelage, Le Bernardin has won the maximum 3 Michelin stars and is the only restaurant to receive 4-star New York Times reviews four years consecutively. Ripert himself has won a monstrous four James Beard Awards and is arguably the greatest living seafood chef in the world. He became a permanent judge on Top Chef this year and is the Chair of City Harvest's Food Counsel, which fights to end hunger throughout New York City. — Katie Schenkel