Since his first full-length interview at Powells.com, Anthony Bourdain has published "a rude, unpretentious, utilitarian — and hopefully entertaining — field manual to classic French bistro cooking," a crime novel, and now The Nasty Bits, a book of previously uncollected essays.
And all the while he's been globetrotting from the Kalahari to Quebec, documenting culinary culture for the Travel Channel.
During a recent Oregon stopover, Bourdain returned to discuss culture shock, maple bacon donuts, how to read restaurant menus, and more.
Dave: When last we spoke, you were here to promote A Cook's Tour, your first travel book. I asked about the destinations you chose, and you said, "I was looking for places where my enthusiastic ignorance might prove a plus on occasion." Now that you've been doing t.v. for five years, how has that changed?
Anthony Bourdain: I've found the virtues of actually knowing where I'm going. Frequently, when I arrive in a place, I've been there before or I know people there. As the show airs all over the world and the books are translated elsewhere, the list of my acquaintances has grown, particularly among chefs.
But there's still a lot to be said for showing up ignorant and enthusiastic, for learning on the ground. That feels good. Indonesia is the most recent example. Every day that you're forced to learn, even simple things, to feed yourself, to find cigarettes, to get around; overcoming discomfort, the language barrier, a sense of shyness, intimidation, unfamiliarity... The first day you can go out and get yourself breakfast without help, that's a small triumph.
Dave: Do you still experience culture shock?
Bourdain: It's not like I feel culture shock. No, okay, I have a clear example. I spent some time with the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert. That was real culture shock.
They're tiny. They don't grow anything. They don't raise anything. They hunt and gather. They don't even have feathers on their bows; that's how primitive it is. They have to get within thirty feet or so of their prey, shoot it with little poison arrows, track this beast for up to two days, often at high speed. They sit there and talk to the animal for hours as the poison takes effect, apologizing for taking its life. And then they eat it. All of it. They don't store food. If they have a lot of meat, they eat a lot of meat. If they have no food, they don't eat.
They sleep outdoors. They don't even really hang out with other tribes. Each group of Bushmen is an immediate family, and they marry within that family — no brothers and sisters, but anything beyond that is okay.
Their cooking skills are dubious. I don't think I ate a single mouthful of food the entire time with them that didn't have either sand, fur, or shit in it. Really. They cook the beast... they scoop it out and throw it in the fire, fur and all.
That was culture shock.
Dave: The Nasty Bits is dedicated to three of the Ramones. Have you listened to Marky Ramone's show on Sirius radio?
Bourdain: I haven't heard the radio show, but one of my many pinch-me moments was in New York when I got a phone call from the restaurant saying Marky Ramone had seen me on the earlier series wearing a Ramones t-shirt. He's a bit of an amateur gourmet, or at least an enthusiastic eater, apparently. He asked if he could come to dinner with some friends and hang out. So I spent an evening talking with him.
My passion for the Ramones is enormous. If there was a great moment in my personal musical history, it was when I saw the Ramones for the first time at CBGB. This must have been 1975.
As has been pointed out — now that they're all dead except for Marky — music was so bad then. Everyone noodling away on guitars, country rock, easy listening music... if I heard "One Way Out" by the Allman Brothers one more time I was going to take my own life. So to see three chords, no pause between songs, nice simple lyrics about... nothing really. Aggression, violence — that's what rock and roll should be about. It was a moment of Thank God, there's music in my life again.
Dave: In The Nasty Bits, you asked Gabrielle Hamilton, "How has kitchen culture changed since you got into the business?" How would you answer the same question? How have things changed since you wrote Kitchen Confidential?
Bourdain: I travel all over the world, and invariably, whether I'm on book tour or making a show, I end up hanging out at a bar at three o'clock in the morning with the local chefs and cooks, so I'm pretty tuned in to what's going on. I think Gabrielle's answer was right on the money. The glamorization of chefs has been very good for the business and probably very good for diners and customers, too.
Back when I started, there was no hope for any of us. There was no expectation of any kind of prestige being attached to what we did, no hope that we would have financial security or any kind of success. It was a job you did between other jobs or because you were so dysfunctional that it was the one workplace that would have you.
Now there is real hope. There is real prestige. People are willingly coming into the profession wanting to better themselves, and that might well happen given the current environment. There is real pride in the kitchen now for the first time, certainly in the West, in this country. Where spitting in the soup might have been thought of as funny, acceptable, and even an appropriate response to a troublesome customer back in 1974, now that would be seen as a total betrayal of your coworkers, your chef, and your craft.
The same kind of people are attracted to the business as have always been. Certainly they are sensualists and like to feel good, but snorting cocaine in the kitchen, that's looked down on now. So food is better. Expectations have grown in the kitchen, and cooks feel a greater sense of pride and hope.
Dave: What exactly makes a sushi dinner at Masa worth $350?
Bourdain: And it's a deal at that. He pays $300 a pound, himself, for tuna. It's the most pristine, buttery, lovely, unearthly good fish you've ever dreamed of. Whatever the best stuff in the world is, at whatever price, that's what he pays, that's what he gets. Prepared simply by a complete master: the rice perfect, the wasabi the freshest and of the highest quality, the seaweed toasted by Masa himself, every order made by him.
It's just perfection, the most pornographic meal I've ever had in my life.
Dave: You were in Powell's just a few minutes tonight and already you're lugging around a few books from our Mystery section. Who are your favorite writers these days?
Bourdain: I've been reading the Alan Furst espionage novels. That kind of oblique, moral gray area really appeals to me, especially with an accurate historical background.
I like crime novels where the dialogue and the characters are sharply drawn, where I can smell the room. I think the perfect crime novel is The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I reread every couple years. Favorites? Daniel Woodrell. He owns the Ozarks the way George V. Higgins owns Boston, the way early Ellroy nailed L.A. or Pelecanos Washington D.C. I like that, when I writer draws a territory so perfectly that you know they come from there.
Dave: When I go to an unfamiliar bookstore, I usually check to see if they have books by Donald Antrim or Aimee Bender. They're not popular enough that every store stocks them, but they're good enough that stores should. Approaching a restaurant, do you look for similar cues when you walk in?
Bourdain: I look for someplace that's the best at what they do, whether it's the roast duck guy in a back street in Taipei or the vendor with the best fish taco in Mexico, a place with a lot of locals stacked up waiting to get in.
If you're talking about a place where I just walk in cold off the street, I like to have a sense that someone is talking to me, in much the same way as reading fiction, in fact. I want a sense of who's talking.
You can tell a lot from a menu. Certain menu items will pique my interest right away. Offal of any kind. If they're confident enough in their abilities to highlight things like liver and sweetbreads, or pork belly, I'm already interested. If they have something quirky or interesting like duck's tongues or chicken feet, or some really old school French or Asian or American dish, for that matter, I want to know more. You don't see that every day.
Or somebody who's clearly telling you from a small menu, "I'm really good at fish in this style." A menu that's all over the place — they've got teriyaki chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, a sushi section — how good can they be at all of those things? So, tight focus, a sense that the kitchen has an identity they're expressing, a certain confidence. I'm wary of fusion. If it's a long, elaborate description of a menu item, if it takes longer to read it than it does to eat the damn thing, I'm losing interest. Pretentious menus, I'm already halfway out the door.
Dave: How often do you cook these days?
Bourdain: Almost never. I travel all of the time. When I'm back in New York, it's pretty much kick back with a beer and call out for pizza.
Dave: Your life has radically changed in the last six years. What might you be doing six years from now?
Bourdain: I just want to keep doing what I'm doing.
Not giving a shit has turned out be a great business model for me. I never would have written Kitchen Confidential had I believed that it would sell or that anyone would read it. Had I known that so many people in so many different countries would read it, I would have been intimidated. I don't know that I could have written the book.
I was smart enough after that came out to realize what was working, which was not trying to ask myself those questions, like what people want. Winging it has worked out really well for me.
As opportunities present themselves, if they're interesting to me... It's a quality of life issue. Will it be fun? Is it going to be a waste of my time? Those are the questions I ask.
Dave: What is on the horizon?
Bourdain: I'm just going to keep making this t.v. show. I have the best job in the world. Who gets to do what I do? I sit in front of a map and say, "Wow, Laos sounds cool. I want to go there and make a forty-two-minute independent film about it with my friends."
We're like a traveling band, and then we go back to New York and play in the editing room and set it to some cool music, make it look like early Robert Rodriguez or an early Antonioni film. And then we go to another cool country that I heard about in a barroom conversation or read about in a book or saw in a movie.
It's an incredible gift. I'd be foolish to do anything else. I'll keep doing it as long as they let me. I'll write a book a year as long as I have something to say.
End of the rainbow, I'm looking to do a big book about living in Asia. When they cancel the show someday, I hope to live principally in Vietnam and perhaps some time in other parts of Southeast Asia, and write about that experience. I hope to write well and at length about it.
Bourdain: I'd love to do a riff on Get Carter, the original British version.
A lot of those style cues come when we're on location. We'll be someplace and think, Let's rip off the opening scene from Sexy Beast. Or Vienna: Got to do The Third Man. Need some zither music! It's boys with toys, and we've seen too many movies.
Dave: What are some underrated eating destinations around the world?
Singapore is the perfect place to slide into Asia slowly. It's Asia-light. Everybody speaks English. The infrastructure is super modern. There's no crime. It's very clean. And yet it is bursting with this incredible mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese permutation cuisines, much of it readily available at hawker stands, street stands, cheap, accessible. And anyone in Singapore would be all too happy to tell you which is the best place to go. That's really a Mecca for foodies, especially if you're interested in Asia.
Dave: What about in America?
Bourdain: I would think Portland and Seattle. They come to mind first, on the basis of the incredible cook scene. The chefs and cooks are really jacked up. They're ambitious and proud with very high standards and strong ideas about what they want to do. And of course the ingredients are amazing here.
L.A.: overrated. San Francisco: a great food city, the cradle of the revolution. New York: obviously the best. Chicago: coming up very, very strong. I don't want to pick on New Orleans. We'll see what happens, but I'm not a big Creole food fan. I think it's kind of limited. I don't think anyone ran with it in an interesting way.
Bourdain: We were inspired by his book on Portland [Fugitives and Refugees]. I was looking at the book, running down things, thinking, We should do this and this and this. And I thought, rather than just rip off all these ideas, why don't we just call him up and see if he'll show us around?
He did, and he was great. He jumped right in. He brought us to Velveteria, the black velvet painting museum, which is awesome; Movie Madness for the bizarre film props and the incredible selection of cult DVDs; to the novelty store where he buys his severed limbs and novelties for readings; and to the amazing Voodoo Doughnut. Is there anything better than a maple bacon donut? I don't think so.
Anthony Bourdain visited Powell's City of Books on June 14, 2006.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State