Foodies, chefs and amateurs alike are by now quite familiar with Chef Anthony Bourdain and his books Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour, and the latter"s companion series on The Food Network. What follows are excerpts from a conversation with Bourdain over lunch last week at Tavola di Tosa.
NUVO: How is it serving two masters: The Food Network and Brasserie Les Halles?
Bourdain: The restaurant pays my insurance. I don't take money from them, otherwise they might ask me to do something. I miss cooking, though. I miss sitting at the bar late at night, the camaraderie, the sense of satisfaction of having cooked, of having done 300 meals. There"s nothing like that. It is a purely and totally satisfying experience, unlike writing.
NUVO: When I first read Kitchen Confidential I wondered whether life is like that in the great three-star restaurants such as, for instance, London"s Le Gavroche.
Bourdain: I don't think it's exactly the same, but I"ll bet that every one of those line cooks has been there at some time in his career, felt the same humiliation, the same pain. I've had cooks from all over the world tell me how much they identify with what I described. It"s amazing, really. I think that this business has always attracted misfits, refugees, people with whom something was always different, something was wrong. I've always been more interested in cooks than in food, and I think if I have a failing as a chef it's that if I had to choose between disappointing my cooks and disappointing my customers, I'd choose the latter.
NUVO: In both your books, you seem to be on this quest for purity.
Bourdain: It's like drugs. We're all kind of looking to connect right into the perfect high. The first one. The one you remember. Back when I did cocaine, when I could, you"d have that first great hit, then would spend the next 24 hours chasing it. But you never could get it back, and it would become increasingly unpleasant and increasingly apparent that you never would. In much the same way there's a quest, not so much for purity or simplicity, but what we're looking for is an emotional high, a sense of safety, that's comfortable, that puts us in a good place.
NUVO: Do you still get turned on by your own food?
Bourdain: Yes, but I just don't eat it. I've already eaten with my eyes, so I know when it's right. We like to feel like alchemists or magicians, especially when you can transform something really nasty into something really wonderful, like a shoulder or a shank or a heart or a hoof.
NUVO: What's your Polaroid take on the state of American food today?
Bourdain: I think there has never been a better time for food in this country. Especially if you"re cooking. Suddenly we became celebrities. How the hell did that happen? It"s good! Who could do better? Basketball players? Screw them! But I am disturbed that you can go mile after mile and see nothing but fast food restaurants and Chilli's. And when you hear that people actually like the Olive Garden, it's, you know, dismaying. There's some balance, though. There are these lone wolves here in Indiana, and in Minnesota, who say, "This is what I'm going to serve, and I"m going to keep on doing it until you learn to like it." People are more interested in what they're putting on their plates, but it's a continuing struggle.
NUVO: What's the downside of independence, or of independents?
Bourdain: You have two perilous areas. One, the financial pressure to be all things to everyone. Then you get these people going to cooking school. They eat around a bit, they have a couple of Thai meals and the next thing you know they"re fusion masters. Pacific Rimjob. But you know wherever you go, there will always be a certain number of genuine artists, skilled craftsmen or honorable journeymen. Then there will always be the pretenders and the knuckleheads who'll get weeded out in the end. Either that or they learn. A lot of great chefs have made a lot of bad food in their lives while they figured out what they're good at. But there's no excuse for consistently bad food. Cynical food. Food without pride, you know, where you just say, "Fuck it, I'll give them what they want." You start off making Citizen Kane and end up making Ernest Goes to Camp.
NUVO: Are you ever surprised that certain dishes are allowed to reach your table?
Bourdain: When something's consistently wrong, it always says the same thing. Somebody doesn't care anymore. There are so many times in my life when I"ve sat down and they've served me a tomato, and I say, "Why are you serving me this tomato? It's clearly not ripe. It's shit." Or take the Napoleon. When half the Napoleon is construction material ... it's designed to go up, to be vertical food, I have to wonder.
NUVO: So having established tomatoes as a yardstick for quality, do you have any others?
Bourdain: You'd better make beurre blanc right. If you don't, somebody should take you aside and say, "This is a fundamental." If it's cream sauce with butter, then it's flagrantly wrong. The difference between a good creme brulee and a bad one is galaxies, but unfortunately, most chefs have never had a good one, so the first one they make is a pumpkin brulee, or some weird hazelnut infusion kiwi thing. But you know, I've committed more than my share of food crimes, so I tend not to be overly critical. There are certain crimes, like burnt garlic, overuse of nutmeg or failure to rest a roast, that belong in the Bobby Flay Prison for the Criminal Misuse of Blue Corn.
NUVO: What's your take on the slow food movement?
Bourdain: I think the slow food movement is a very positive thing. It's a positive force, even if people don't become adherents, and I'm wary of such people. Slow food is often expensive, like organic food. More often than not it's some rich bastard in an SUV driving off to the Green Market to get environmentally friendly vegetables at three times the going rate. But anything that makes us more aware of where food comes from, and what it takes to get it to the table, is a force for the good. So I can make an informed decision as to whether to eat swordfish for dinner. I know there aren't many left. I know there are certain foods that we're running out of, but tough shit.
NUVO: Have cooks lost touch with where their food comes from? In a hedonistic as well as a visceral sense?
Bourdain: There is no doubt that most American cooks have lost all touch with where food comes from. It says a lot that I'd been in this business for all those years and had never seen an animal killed until quite recently. A bit of guilt and shame isn't a bad thing, the knowledge that something died for this meal. Most of the pleasurable experiences of your life involve guilt and shame. Now the English, as you know, are raised to deny themselves the pleasure of food. Similarly, I know a couple of chefs here in the U.S., great artists, great technicians, and they're friends, so I won't name them. But these guys cook as if they've never been fucked in their lives. It"s like Eyes Wide Shut. Food porn at its worst, because you're basically looking at people who do things you'll never do, written by people who've never done it either. To be a great chef, like Thomas Keller, is to understand the pleasure of a good shag.
NUVO: There would be more than a few Americans put off by the idea of, say, plucking.
Bourdain: I would be very disturbed by the suggestion that we all return to a kind of agrarian wonderland. You know, that's the other side to the slow food movement, where there are these guys who think we should all go back to planting and farming. I think the Khmer Rouge had that idea, too. And there are definite overtones of that when you get out to the Peoples' Republic of Berkeley, and you hear some of these vegan characters. They are as frightened and contemptuous of others as some of these loony far right or far left Maoist types who think they know what's best for everybody and basically fear and hate everything. I've heard Chrissie Hynde say that she won't associate with meat eaters. Flesh eaters, as she calls them.
NUVO: I believe somewhat that as a meat eater you should be prepared to kill at least one animal in order to eat it. It's not a Ted Nugent thing, but isn't it important to be connected with the source of your food occasionally?
Bourdain: I think it's appropriate. Every chef should have to kill a duck and pluck it. You know if you're going to order meat wholesale, you should go to a slaughterhouse and see animals being killed. And if you're going to eat meat, you should kill it yourself, at least at some point. I mean that in the most non-Ted Nugent way possible. The idea of hunting for sport is repellent to me, I see no point in it. Fur, why bother? As for the testing of cosmetics on animals, it repels me, it's grotesque. I'm a proud pet owner and I love animals. If I were driving down the road and I saw 12 nuns standing on one side of the road and a cute fuzzy animal on the other, I'd aim for the nuns.
Hear each Friday morning at 9 a.m. on WXNT-AM, 1430.