Where does one even begin when writing about Anthony Bourdain? A chef whose fame has had more to do with sharp wit than kitchen skill, he is outspoken, unapologetic, and controversial. Recognized around the world for his renegade restaurant stories, his books, his shows, his raw, raucous comments have become the religion of guerrilla chefs everywhere, resulting in a reputation that certainly precedes him.
So, where to begin?
In searching for the right words, a recent episode of No Reservations came to mind. After traveling along the Hudson River with his friend, food writer Michael Ruhlman, Bourdain found himself sharing a meal with actor, and local resident, Bill Murray. Normally sharp-tongued and talkative, the chef remained mostly mum during the meal as Murray rolled out his familiar quips, seemingly a bit star-struck. In the episode’s voice-over, Bourdain even noted his surprise at the chance meeting with Murray. “He is so totally awesome,” the chef penned in his subsequent blog post.
I know the feeling.
My opportunity to chat with Bourdain during the recent Cayman Cookout was equally as serendipitous. After becoming acquainted with his wife, she graciously ushered me over to the judges’ table during the final day’s cookoff competition. “Babe, babe,” she said with great Italian flare, showing me to a chair next to the chef himself, “Jennifer wants to talk to you.” I was star-struck as I took my seat, shaking his hand for only the second time. I had my notions and ideas of the man, the myth, the legend. I expected the sarcastic, rule-breaking, cantankerous persona that emanates from his words and appearances.
What I found, instead, was the same wildly popular, quick-witted Anthony Bourdain that fans have come to know, only sporting a softer, more family-friendly edge. Perhaps it was the sun, the surf, the relaxed atmosphere, but Bourdain seemed more like a man who’s found balance between his public profile and private life and less like the hard-edged personality he’s become famous for.
And you should see the smile when his daughter gleefully calls “Dada!”
Q: So, are you having fun here at the Cookout?
A: Oh yeah, come on. All my mafia buddies are here – and my family – and we’re hanging out on the beach.
Q: Do you miss being in the kitchen, especially when you’re attending things like this?
A: No, I don’t miss it. I had nearly three decades of it. I miss sitting at the bar after a busy Saturday night. Kitchen Confidential happened when I was forty-four years old, and my limited abilities were already in decline at that point. It was very good timing, as it turned out.
Q: With all of these guys having restaurants, do you ever think about opening your own restaurant?
A: In three decades, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I never want to own a restaurant.
Q: During your culinary travels, have there been any places that really stood out?
A: San Sebastian, Hanoi, Tokyo, Osaka, Singapore, Beirut, Venice. I’m in love with all of those places.
Q: Are there areas in the world you feel you still need to explore from a diner’s perspective?
A: Oh yeah, it’s a very big world. I’d love to see things change enough in Iran that I could eat there. The food is supposed to be excellent. Ditto Burma (Myanmar). Kind of waiting for the politics to change in both places. But China alone is so enormous – there are plenty of regions yet to explore. Southern Spain, parts of Italy I haven’t been to, Burgundy, the Punjab, Madagascar, a return to Cambodia.
Q: What can we expect from your new book, Medium Raw?
A: I thought it was a kinder, gentler book when I wrote it. You know, I’ve really mellowed. When I’m at home, I spend my whole day in my pajamas watching Nick Jr. with my daughter. But, I’m editing it now, and it’s really mean. I’ve got to dial it back. I thought it was nice and philosophical, but I look at it now and it’s like, “Whoa!”
Q: With you being less in the kitchen these days, are there more personal stories in the book?
A: A bit personal on what’s happened since, looking back, but also just commentary on what I’ve seen, things that have pissed me off, things I’m passionate about.
Q: Would you encourage your daughter to pursue the culinary arts if she showed interest?
A: God, no! What’s the song? “Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys”? I would be displeased and scared shitless if my little girl started talking about wanting to be a chef. I guess it could be worse. She could talk about wanting to go OUT with a chef. In the end, of course, after a heart attack, I’m sure I’d be secretly proud that she would want to do such a difficult and noble thing.
Q: Do you think chefs in more of a spotlight – radio/tv/print – have a greater responsibility to support healthy eating habits?
A: Not really. I think chefs are in the pleasure business first. But if you are very aware that you are not really even a chef – but a popular entertainer in the business of selling food or recipes or a lifestyle – and you are aware that much of your core audience are kids or parents – well, I guess there is some sort of implied responsibility there. I mean, listen, I ain’t pure. Integrity is hardly my middle name. But I would find it distasteful to endorse Dunkin Donuts or Cheez Whiz. Maybe its just vanity on my part, but it does feel a bit over the line. That’s a rather antiquated attitude these days, I know. I’d happily endorse a car, but food? There does feel like there’s a higher threshold there. But maybe not. Ask me when my daughter’s looking at prep school.
Q: What are you hoping to see in the future of food and culinary culture?
A: Better street food – like you find in so much of Asia and Latin America. The slow collapse of fast food as we currently know it. The indictment of some of our major food producers and agri-giants (“Pour encourager les autres”). Better quality ingredients served by ever more creative and skilled cooks – who make lots more money every year – in increasingly casual settings. I’d like to see Singaporean-style hawker centers, Italian style agriturismos, Chinese food courts. Cooking fake Italian food or fake Mexican food would be a crime. The term “foodie” would be replaced…by something else. Un-aged, unpasteurized, raw milk cheeses would become legal and popular. And In and Out Burgers would replace McDonalds all across the country.
*Many thanks to the Bourdains for their assistance with this interview.
**Front page image courtesy of the Travel Channel. Interview image © Jennifer Heigl.