Twenty Minutes with Anthony Bourdain - The Complete Interview

Q: Food Blogger Kettle, what do you want for your birthday?

A: I want to interview the sexy, snarky, kingpin of modern celebrity chef culture, Anthony Bourdain!

Surprise! I got what I wanted and here it is – twenty hot telephone minutes with Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain is something like the Keith Richards of the food world, he’s host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and author of such foodie required reading as “Kitchen Confidential,” “Nasty Bits,” and “Medium Raw.”

During our discussion we talked about Jersey, modern celebrity chef culture, and his upcoming speaking engagement on Thursday, February 10, 2011, 8:00 PM at the Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth Street, Red Bank, NJ. So if you’re curious about “Food Porn,” read on!

MK: Let’s talk about the speaking engagements.  What can attendees expect from the Anthony Bourdain in person? 

AB: I would say considerably more vulgarity would be a safe bet.

MK: How often do you do the shows like this?

AB: I probably do about forty a year now, so it’s really evolved into an hour long talk; a mix of a talk, raging against whatever’s pissed me off, or excited me; a slowly changing stand up routine followed by a long question and answer session with the crowd

MK: Any favorite crowds?

AB: You never know who’s going to show up; it’s a mixed bag.  I’ve done everything from drunken gamblers in casinos in Lake Tahoe, to an entire room smelling of smoked salmon and onions.  Cooks on their day off, you really never know, the people who come change from day of the week from city to city.  One of the joys of doing it is getting to see who actually watches the show, and it’s a pretty kooky cross section.

MK: Are you surprised?

AB: I’ve shown up in a room of two thousand people and 60% of them are Filipino

MK: You were somewhat reluctant to publicly identify yourself as a Jersey boy . . . correct?

 AB: I don’t know, I think I’ve riffed on that. I’ve certainly never concealed it.  I grew up in Leonia, NJ, went to school in Englewood, spent all of my formative years driving around Bergen County and beyond.  I vacationed at the Jersey shore – I mean that’s who I am.

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MK: Do you ever dine in Jersey? 

AB: Yes, I slip over the bridge now and again to go to Hiram’s in Fort Lee, a place I’m very sentimental about.  I mean, that’s a very fundamental place, that’s where my Dad took me when I was a little, little kid.  I have very sentimental attachments to that place, that atmosphere, that flavor - it’s really something I just can’t get anywhere else.  Beyond that – honestly – no.

MK: What’s with all the boutique burger joints?

AB: It’s a good business for chef’s looking to expand.  I think there’s an appetite for boutique everything at this point.  I think it’s a reaction against fast food burgers.  People are finding out how they’re making the vast majority of grade frozen disks of fast food meat and I think people are unhappy about it. 

MK: In your minds’ eye, are you a chef, a writer, or a celebrity?

AB: I would prefer to think of myself as a writer because without a story to tell, there’s no product.  I guess, a storyteller.  I don’t cook anymore, so I’m certainly not a chef, although I think I earned the title after twenty-eight years, but I haven’t cooked everyday for ten. 

MK: Do you prefer making TV to cooking?

 AB: Well, it’s a hell of a lot easier, that’s for sure.  I’m having a lot of fun making TV because I have such extra-ordinary freedom to do it however I want it.  I say what I want, I go where I want, I work with friends.

MK: What is Food Porn?

AB: Food Porn is photos, images of food with absolutely no societal value beyond a desire to titillate.  An image of pork fat, with absolutely no content, just endless slow motion images of melting pork fat, I don’t know whether that makes the world a better place, it’s strictly appealing to one’s vicarious thrill appeals to one’s vicarious thrill,

MK: Did you ever fake it on “No Reservations?”

AB: I try to be polite, even if my hosts are offering me something old or nasty, or semi-spoiled.

MK: What was your most powerful television moment?

AB: Well probably the first Beirut show.  I’m proud of New Orleans.  We never intend to go in and make profound television, because sometimes you find yourself sitting at a table where there are larger more important forces at work than what we’re eating.

MK: In “Medium Raw” you write about your experience at French Laundry - - it seemed as if you were left a bit disenchanted.  How did you feel?

AB: In the book I call that chapter “It’s Not You It’s Me” because I was wrestling with the fact that I’ve become jaded.  That I’ve eaten so many amazing meals and eaten so widely, that I’m looking at my heart and realizing that perhaps I’m an unreliable observer when it comes to food to some degree.  There’s something deeply wrong with me if I cannot experience that same sense of joy and wonder at a great restaurant like Alinea or Per Se.

MK: What do you crave?

AB: I crave fairly simple, straight forward things.  Good simple Italian regional food, street food.

MK: What was the most primitive meal you’ve had?

AB: Well, I would guess with the Bushmen in Nambia or the raw seal in Quebec.

MK: You’ve been in some really authentic places and some touristy places, but has “touristy” ever been good?

AB: I think there are some places that are touristy or cheese ball, but no amount of touristy or cheese ball could ruin it.  I mean, Katz’s Deli is authentic but it’s filled with tourists. House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, okay, it’s touristy, but it’s still delicious and nothing can ruin it.

MK: There’s been a huge evolution in food TV in the last 10 -15 years.  In the past there was Jacques Pepin, Julie Child, Martin Yang - - but now, it seems that celebrity chefs everywhere. Do you think that has had a positive impact on an American food culture. 

AB: Sure, to the extent to which people actually care what the chef thinks, it’s a good thing. The role chef has become empowered that has allowed the chef to serve the food that they themselves like, it’s allowed them to cook better food.  Chefs used to be servants.  They had to just blindly serve the same slop to the customers, because the customer was always right, even though we all knew they were wrong. So the rise of the celebrity chef has allowed people to cook as well as they can, to a certain extent. No matter how annoying the phenomena, that’s been a positive development.

MK: How has it affected the food industry? Does it spawn divas and divos?

AB: Divas never lasted.  Unless you’ve got the goods, this will chew you up and spit you out pretty quick if you’re all mouth and no talent.

MK: Is there an episode you would like to go back and re-do?

AB: There are a lot.  There are shows where I don’t think we did a good job and I’d love to re-do. In Sicily a lot of things went wrong during the shoot. I don’t think we did a particularly good job in Greece. So yeah, there are a couple of do-overs where the countries were great, we should have had a good time, we just didn’t do them justice

MK: What do you think about Eataly?

AB: I love it.  I love it.  I’m just thrilled. I tough for me, it’s a bit of a mosh pit in there. You know, my wife’s Italian and we need some place like that and having it all in one spot’s it’s fantastic. I’m particularly thrilled that they’ll be delivering. 

MK: Have you ever made a 30 minute meal?

AB: I’ve made many meals in under thirty minutes.  Unlike the registered trademark, mine are edible.

MK: Do you own a bottle of Essence?

AB: I don’t but I’m pretty friendly with Emeril and I’d like to think we’ve buried the hatchet.

MK: Have you ever said “Bam?”

AB: Uh . . . no, I don’t think I have.

MK: Would you take a bite of the Kwanza cake?

AB: That is not the first thing I’d be doing with it.

MK: Beatles or Stones?

AB: Stones.  No contest.

MK: Nabokov or Tolstoy?

AB: Nabokov.  But Nabokov is our greatest American writer, so that’s really not a fair question.

MK: Okay, Dostoyevsky or Tolsoy?

AB: Tolstoy, but above them all Lermontov.  I’m a big fan of “A Hero of our Time,”   and I love Bulgakov, “Master and Margarita.”

MK: Anna Karenina or Natasha Filipovna?  

AB: Umm. . . yeah. . . Anna Karenina.

MK: Besides the money, why do you do it?  What do you want to communicate?

AB: It’s all about me.  I’m just having a good time.  I have a curious mind.  I’ve never been anywhere until ten years ago. I’ve travelled the world, I’m just fulfilling my childhood fantasies of exploring and learning about things and having fun , telling stories, I’m showing off, I’m having a good time.

MK: It’s the holidays.  What’s the greatest gift you’ve ever received?

AB: My daughter, without question.