Revisiting: Anthony Bourdain Hits the Road Again
This interview originally ran in the Boston Phoenix, March, 2011, surrounding Bourdain's visit to Boston that year. A portion appeared in the print edition of the Phoenix. The following is the expanded conversation, with minor edits for clarity and length.
He will be missed.
Interview by Lindsay Crudele.
The things that go into Anthony Bourdain’s mouth are frequently as bold as the things that come out of it. These days, he’s easing into old age like most silver-haired retired chefs: beer-swilling globe-trotting for his Travel Channel series No Reservations, writing feather-ruffling follow-ups to 2000’s Kitchen Confidential, and a multi-city speaking circuit. March 4, Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert will join him onstage at Symphony Hall. Bourdain shot an upcoming episode of his show here in Boston, and he spoke recently about how he looks forward to your hate mail.
What should showgoers expect who come to see you at Symphony Hall this month?
What we’ve been doing lately is that we take turns brutally interrogating the other. Last time we did this, I put Eric on a stool under a hot light and interrogated him — a hostile interrogation — and then we swapped places and he did the same. And then just an opened ended discussion for a while. It’s a lot of fun to do these things with Eric, because unlike me, he has a reputation to lose... There are certain questions that are uncomfortable for him to answer diplomatically. His unease is very enjoyable.
What kind of questions?
Well, he can never a question like, you know, “What’s the worst kind of customer you’ve ever had at Le Bernadin?” He can’t answer that. He’s defending three Michelin stars, four New York Times stars, and he’s at a level in his life - he was granted the rank of Chevallier of France for God’s sake - he’s got to be careful about these things.
It’s a tightrope he walks very elegantly but it’s a lot of fun. I try to push him off the tightrope.
Does he get a chance to turn the tables?
Oh yeah, he’s gotten very good at that.
What’s your relationship like?
He’s probably my closest friend in the world.
Tell me a little about that friendship, and how it started.
He read Kitchen Confidential; I was still working at Royale slinging hash, and the kitchen phone rang and it’s Eric inviting me to lunch. We became fast friends though our backgrounds are as different as could be. We look at a lot of things the same way surprisingly enough, and I think we have similarly semi-functional lives… We both travel a lot, we both have a lot to juggle both public and personal. Our families are close; his wife introduced me to my wife. It’s an unlikely but solid friendship.
So you just visited Boston for your upcoming season of No Reservations — what was that like?
I was not looking for the ‘best of Boston.’ I think hardcore Boston foodies are going to be really pissed off. I’m anticipating the sniffy emails or posts on food blogs that I didn’t go to this excellent Vietnamese restaurant or that wonderful Italian restaurant. There was a particular style, early 1970s, The Friends of Eddie Coyle - I’m also a big fan of Mike Ruffino of the Unband, the only rock and roll band that’s been banned in Boston, and a Boston band no less - I just saw a way to tell a story about eating and drinking in Boston in an interesting way. We shot around Southie and Dorchester; you won’t see a single white tablecloth in the entire show. Lot of drinking.
We try very hard to remind people again and again and again that my show does not claim to show you the fine dining tips or ten best of even a definitive or fair or comprehensive view of your city or country. That’s what I decided to do with your town for a week and I hope it meets you in a good and true and entertaining fashion.
What do you think about the people here?
I love Boston. I have history in Massachusetts; I started my career washing dishes out on the Cape with a lot of Bostonians working with me. All my friends from high school went to BU, so I spent a good amount of time up there. It’s not a stretch of the imagination, I think anyone who knows me, to see me as enjoying drinking in Southie. I felt very much in my element, let’s put it that way.
My sense is that you’re happy with the democratization of food; you do a lot to promote excellent street food, and media’s experienced that sort of democratization as well - you talked about blogs earlier, Twitter... and in a recent tweet, you talked about the increasing irrelevance of food-related print media - what's happening there?
That was about Leslie Brenner (Dallas Morning News) being a poster critic for the demise... She got nailed lifting all the legwork and research for her BBQ article from a blogger who had spent months and months of his life ostensibly eating at every off the road BBQ joint in the Dallas area. Her excuse was, ‘it’s perfectly alright for newspapers, they don’t have to footnote where they did their research.’ …I think she’s a bad example, or a good example …of how thorough bloggers can be. We use multiple bloggers as principle research sources for our show because we find that chances are, there’s somebody eating their way across Hong Kong right now, eating nothing but noodles and taking pictures of every single order, and writing a thousand words on each.
That’s something that no print outlet could ever or would ever compete with. And Yelp, whatever you think about Yelp, even Yelp at its worst, is indicative of the way we’re going to be making our choices about restaurants in the future. But I think that article in particular was such a blatant and egregious example of how the world is changing.
Does your global perspective and the traveling you do change your insight on local trends? All these little things where this is the year of whatever piece of meat...
Traveling and eating the way I do has changed my perspective a lot of ways, and I don’t sweat the small stuff on one hand. And on the other, I think it makes me less reliable in important ways. You know, I wrote about my experience with a meal I had at Per Se and another I had at Alinea in Chicago and how I was unable to enjoy myself.
It’s a terrible thing when you find yourself to be the sort of person who can complain, “I’ve had too many truffles." I think your reliability as an honest broker of opinion erodes when you’ve eaten as many fine meals and as widely as I have. I experience a fine dining meal differently than just about the majority of people who would walk into a world class, three-star Michelin restaurant like Per Se… Maybe food critics should have a shelf life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an underground cartoonist; I wanted to write underground comics like R. Crumb when I was 11 or 12.
Did you ever?
Yeah, I did do some drawing in the high school paper, stuff like that. I wasn’t very good but it was something that I hoped to do for a while. But like a lot of things, I never really put in the work.
What do you think is one of the most important movements due for food culture in the US?
I think this asshole in the Atlantic who just wrote about the menace of foodie-ism... It’s actually a pretty well-written article. I think it is a good thing for society that people actually care what chefs think now. The elevated status of chefs, even in its most awful and ridiculous manifestation — the fact that people walk into a restaurant now and actually have a higher estimation of the chef, that they actually care what he thinks, they don’t see him as a sort of a glorified butler or backstairs help — I think is good.
The more we care about what we’re eating and the more central to our lives food as a meal comes, I just don’t equate that with gluttony. The Italians and the French and most Asian countries where the meal is a really big important time and experience: I don’t see any connection between bad health, I don’t see any downside to it.
I see the raising prestige of food as moving us on a par with what the European countries have always understood: that eating well, even if you don’t have a lot of money, should be a birthright. It should be an essential pleasure in a place where people even with different opinions can have a good time.
Civilization began arguably when people began cooking meat. It required cooperation between cavemen. Up until that point there really was no cooperation.
You’ve been branded in this very rock and roll way, but you’ve spoken about how having a child has changed that, you don’t wear your earring anymore. How much of that is superficial and how much of that is meaningful?
I insisted on the last book that I wear a conservative suit. I wanted to be depicted as an old guy in a suit. A correction was needed. It’s 11 years later after Kitchen Confidential. The world has changed, I’ve changed. I’m not out doing Jäger shots until four in the morning with the strangers anymore. I’m a dad, there are people I care about; that’s more important than anything else. You can’t be cool and be a dad.
Anything else you want to add I didn’t ask you about?
If I have one major heartbreak about Boston, it’s that we weren’t able to afford Roadrunner by the Modern Lovers as theme music. I’m a big fan.
I will take one personal indulgence with this interview, which is to add that my band covers a bunch of Jonathan Richman songs.
Awesome — and he hates their best album.