"I'm not afraid to look like a big, hairy, smelly, foreign devil in Tokyo," Anthony Bourdain explains, "though I do my best not to, I really do."
In A Cook's Tour, Bourdain sets off for adventure, traveling around the world in search of the perfect meal — an impossible task, the author admits, entirely undeterred. "The whole concept of 'the perfect meal' is ludicrous," he writes. "I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one....Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life."
Tokyo, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Pailin, San Sebastian, Arcachon, St. Petersburg, San Francisco, Edinburgh, London...Throughout his travels, the notoriously anti-Naked Chef/Emeril/Bobby Flay crank is trailed by Food Network cameras, recording his every move for a 22-part television series. "You don't, it turns out, sell out a little bit," Bourdain notes in the Introduction. "I sold my ass."
Moody in Morocco ("goofy on hash," he remains silent through an entire meal in the walled city of Fez), reverential at The French Laundry ("it was, far and away, the most impressive restaurant meal I'd ever had"), horrified in rural Portugal ("suddenly and without warning, one of the men stepped around and, with the beast's nether regions regrettably all too apparent, plunged his bare hand up to the elbow in the pig's rectum, then removed it, holding a fistful of steaming pig shit"), and hilarious at the same time ("you never know, I guess, what footage you might just be required to have during the editing process, but I had a hard time imagining the 'Pig-fisting' scene on the Food Network"), the rightfully acclaimed author of Kitchen Confidential is every bit as entertaining describing food from the other side of the table, wherever that table may be.
"No one (except maybe the great Ms. Fisher or Elizabeth David) writes about food like this," Esquire raved, "food as love, as passion, as life."
Dave: Toward the end of Kitchen Confidential, you describe a trip to Tokyo. It's clear that you were jonesing to travel even before that book's success.
Anthony Bourdain: This was a dream come true. Given the opportunity to bounce around the world doing cool stuff...I never thought in a million years that I'd be able to do such a thing.
Dave: With Kitchen Confidential, the popular sound bite was "don't order fish on Mondays." Promoting A Cook's Tour, are you finding that readers and reviewers are latching on to any one particular thing?
Bourdain: The cobra heart. What does cobra heart taste like? If they're going to do a three-minute segment on the news, that's what's going to go on.
Kitchen Confidential wasn't a cautionary or an expose. I wrote it as an entertainment for New York tri-state area line cooks and restaurant lifers, basically; I had no expectation that it would move as far west as Philadelphia. But of course that's what got the three-minute attention — don't order fish on Mondays — and it's not as if I were reluctant to take part in that activity. In much the same way, the shock-horror, lurid stuff from A Cook's Tour is going to get me in the door at a lot of these places, but it's not really what interested me principally about eating my way around the world.
Dave: Okay, about the lurid material...I promised our staff that I'd show you an email we received on Monday.
Bourdain: [He begins to read the printed copy] Mmmm... I read the review of his book, A Cook's Tour, and was sickened and disgusted...vile...distasteful...most of all inhumane...Just reading the review made me sick....This is extreme animal cruelty...sadistic, inhumane...take care to keep a close eye on your beloved cat...
Oh, the poor ducks!
Dave: Do you get a lot of that?
Bourdain: A fair amount. Depending on what time of day you confront me with this question, I'm either accepting of it or not.
I'm not Ted Nugent. My house is run, essentially, by an adopted, fully clawed cat with a mean nature. I would never hunt. I would never wear fur. I would never go to a bullfight. I'm not really a meat and potatoes guy. But the world is a big place, and this sort of nonsense smacks of elitism, contempt, and fear — and those are all things I struggle against.
To travel the world sneering at other cultures for whom a chicken is the difference between life and death...or for instance the pig slaughter in Portugal: however horrifying it was to me — and it was horrifying — this is a center of social and cultural life for a community dating back six hundred years. If some Birkenstock-wearing knucklehead driving around in a SUV and wearing sneakers someone was sold into slavery to make is sniffling about the poor animals, that person is clearly never going to experience the world. They can live in their plastic bubble and reinforce their deeply held, and I'm sure earnest beliefs, but they're missing the full length and breadth of the human condition.
I don't like to see animals in pain. That was very uncomfortable to me. I don't like factory farming. I'm not an advocate for the meat industry. But having traveled all over the world, the most heartbreaking moments for me were in poor cultures where people had nothing. To kill a chicken or a turkey and spend nine hours cooking, working so hard to be good hosts and show me a slice of their culture...I like them a hell of a lot more than this person.
Dave: The pig slaughter, I thought, was one of the best-written passages in the book. It completely transcends food writing; it's literature about a culture. You describe your horror while the Portuguese women and children stand watching as if what's going on were the most normal thing in the world. Which to some extent, in their lives, it is.
Bourdain: Listen, I deserved to be horrified. I was culpable in that animal's death; it was fattened for me. But I am culpable in an animal's death every time I pick up the phone. For twenty-eight years I've been picking up the phone and ordering meat, and like most of us I had absolutely no connection to where food comes from. In the last year, I've seen where food comes from, and it is not always pretty.
Understand, when you eat meat, that something did die. You have an obligation to value it — not just the sirloin but also all those wonderful tough little bits.
Dave: Vietnam, of all the places you traveled, blew you away.
Bourdain: I fell in love with the country. I was enchanted. I was just so gonzo over the place.
Dave: Did you make a number of trips there, or are the chapters in A Cook's Tour part of one extended visit?
Bourdain: One trip. I chopped it up province by province and sprinkled it throughout the book to give it some kind of balance. I was so unrestrained in my admiration for the people, the country, and the food; it was such a disproportionately ecstatic buzz that it would have tilted the whole book had I written it in one piece.
Dave: Choosing your destinations, you made a conscious effort to avoid Italy, Paris, and other more traditional dining destinations.
Bourdain: I deliberately avoided France, Italy, China, India — the mother cuisines — because I'm not an authority. I'm not Burt Wolf. Those are such huge or imposing subjects, each with a body of very reasonable, well-researched, authoritative books on the subject. What can I add to that? I was looking for places where my enthusiastic ignorance might prove a plus on occasion.
I'm never a reliable narrator, unbiased or objective. I set up ludicrous goals, unreasonably over-romantic objectives, in the hope that by leaving myself open to misadventure, disaster, and the happy accident, good things will happen. I brought a lot of prejudices to the table. I like to remind the reader of that, just as I try to be aware of those prejudices myself because one of my principle pleasures is being proven wrong. I'm not afraid to look like an idiot. That feels good sometimes, to have it demonstrated that no, it's not like that at all.
Dave: Was this book more challenging in the sense that you had to create the material? You had to go out and report. Also, there would have been a certain amount of pressure to repeat the success of Kitchen Confidential, particularly with television cameras aimed at you throughout your travels.
Bourdain: I was concerned about Second Album Syndrome — you know, the band that spends its whole life banging away in a cellar and the sum total of its toil becomes a great album, then they have a year to crank out another.
Honestly, I'm in an incredibly fortunate position. I can do things that a year ago I never would have dreamed of being able to do. If nothing else, I had a great time. I saw the world. I got to retrace the story arc of Apocalypse Now in my own loony way. I got to see Cambodia. I got to have adventures that I wouldn't have thought I had the right to dream about. It was a means to an end.
Dave: At one point in the book, a television producer pulls you aside and suggests that maybe you should try looking at a map before you arrive in a country. It does seem like you made an effort to confront some of these countries unburdened by other peoples' commentary, though you also admit to reading The Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia.
Bourdain: That was my constant friend. Wherever you go in this world, someone from The Lonely Planet has been there before you.
I describe my impressions in something like real time. It's not as if I researched the subject particularly. Some countries I knew about and I'd read about; some places I just showed up with an open mind, an empty stomach, and a willingness to take at face value whatever was offered to me earnestly by one kind, proud host after another.
Dave: You mentioned rock and roll. I didn't know before I read A Cook's Tour that goat's head soup is an actual meal and not just the title of a Rolling Stones album.
Bourdain: It's a staple in my kitchen. I work with many Mexican cooks, and as a special treat we'll order up some goat's heads, bring in a couple cases of Corona and some tortillas, and make goat's head soup. It's delicious.
Dave: I felt particularly ignorant at that point in the narrative.
Bourdain: The Mexicans share a lot of traits with the Vietnamese. All of that good stuff, like the goat's head soup, you'll find in a lot of poorer cultures with powerful traditions, good food traditions. They use everything. They treasure that. Menudo and pozole in Mexico. In France you have cassoulet. In Brazil, feijoada. These are all poor folks' food.
When the rich people take the sirloin and the filet, the poor are left with the snouts and the hooves and whatever little bits of meat and animal protein they can get. They can't go down to the green market and buy organic vegetables, pick up some tofu and a vitamin pack to compensate. They'll take what they can get, and more often than not they devise these fiendish and lovely ways to make it into something wonderful. Those dishes are often fed back into the mainstream culture as a treasured staple. You see this time and time again.
Dave: In Scotland, as well. When I started reading that chapter, I thought, Yeah, it makes sense that he's happy here. It's his kind of place.
Bourdain: Glasgow is maybe the most bullshit-free place on earth. I think I call it "the antidote to the rest of the world." It's so unapologetically working class and attitude-free. Everyone's looking "to take the piss out of you," as they put it. They're all comedians, and tough. They don't put on airs.
And Scotland is home to maybe the best example of what we've been talking about: haggis. The absolute bottom of the barrel for the peasantry is now the beloved national dish. A treasure of the country's literature is Robert Burns's ode, "To a Haggis." A perfect example.
Dave: Our staff members, myself included, especially appreciate the various references to The Simpsons in your books. Haggis, as you describe it, is what Groundskeeper Willie eats.
Bourdain: Is there a sharper commentary on American culture and the world than The Simpsons? Is there anything more relevant? I don't think so.
I had a friend who was writing for television. He went to Harvard, was always the smartest guy in his class, wrote for a number of newspapers. He did well in Hollywood and got put onto the writing team for The Simpsons. He describes going into that room and sitting down with the other writers, thinking, This is the first time in my life that I feel like the stupidest person in the room. It was absolutely horrifying to realize that he wasn't even close to those guys.
I'm convinced that I can pick out which writer is doing what. There's definitely a monkey dude that thinks monkeys are funny. Monkey-navigated rocket sleds and stuff like that. I'm a fanatic.
Dave: You spent a lot of time in Asia, the United States, and Europe, but Morocco was the only country you visited in Africa.
Bourdain: And the only Islamic country.
Dave: That was one of the more entertaining chapters of the book.
Bourdain: Morocco was harsh and beautiful, but yes, harsh. The very things that attracted me...They're so certain of the world. I'm a person who if ten people in the room agree with me I start to think I must be wrong. I hate orthodoxy. I distrust people who are absolutely rigid in their belief system. But in Morocco I was struck by the beauty of a faith that permeates every aspect of life: the meal, the whole concept of hospitality, and most importantly Islamic art. On one hand, it's so constrained: nothing that God made can you depict. It's so repetitive; it's almost calligraphy. You go in a building and there's just mile after mile of tiny, detailed, repetitive swirls and patterns. So on one hand, it's frustrating. But it was so beautiful and spoke of a faith that made me feel as if I'm missing something really important.
It was a very frustrating place for me to be, particularly in Fez where I was up close with the pillars of Islam, the hamam, where people go to steam, the bakery, the Islamic studies schools...It was hard for me, first of all, to be aware of the rules and to be a good guest; that was tough, considering my usual nature. I really only started to loosen up and relax when I hit the desert. The Berbers are a lot looser and more fun than the city dwellers. I was intimidated by Fez.
Dave: And that certainly comes across in the book. In other places, too. In Tokyo, you list the extensive rules of conduct at the kaiseki meal — don't point your chopsticks at anyone, don't step on the wooden dividers between mats...
Bourdain: The table manners and the thousand little things you should or shouldn't do in a day of Japanese life are in many ways far more rigorous than Morocco, but my enthusiasm for all things Japanese and my delight at just being in Japan overrides that.
I'm not afraid to look like a big, hairy, smelly, foreign devil in Tokyo — though I do my best not to, I really do. I try hard, but it's not a burden to me because I'm having so much fun. It's like an acid trip there every day for me.
Dave: Gretel Ehrlich's latest book is about spending seven years on and off in Greenland. She describes dogsled trips with subsistence hunters, killing seals, cutting them open, and eating the liver there on the ice as the blood pools in the snow.
Bourdain: Sounds hideous, but I admire her for the willingness to experience that.
If there were people I wanted to be like... William Vollman would be one that I admire, his adventures in Thailand. I thought, That's a guy with a good attitude. And Graham Greene. I wanted to be Graham Greene; that's how I wanted to see myself. Not as good a writer, but more like his heroes: debauched and confused, but susceptible to the charms or terrors of wherever they're going.
Dave: Did the fact that you were followed around by television cameras make for a better book? It gave you an engaging secondary subject to write about, a context, and a cast of characters.
Bourdain: I'll never know. I try not to dwell on it. I think of all the things I wouldn't have been able to do without them. When people hear the words New York Times and they see two people walking backwards with digital cameras in front of a really tall American dude, that opens doors. I had a lot of doors opened to me because of that connection. I saw things that I never would have seen.
On the other hand, it changed everything. It's definitely a devil's bargain when you have anything to do with television. It seldom elevates the level of discourse, let's put it that way.
Dave: It will be fun for readers to see the scenes they've read about in the book. I've only seen the first installment of the show: Tokyo. I missed the one in Vietnam that was on the other night.
Bourdain: That's one of my favorites. I hope you get a chance to see that one. The Mekong, that was a trip.
Dave: A coworker saw it. She really enjoyed it.
Actually, what Miel said was, "He was so drunk!"
Bourdain: Yeah, they killed me. There were all these VC war heroes, and they don't all toast at once. It was always one at a time, always one on one. "Please, Mr. Bourdain, this man would like to do a shot with you." Yeah, well where was he when we were doing a shot a second ago?!
The hardest part was getting home. I had a long journey down a river and miles beyond that to get back. But it was also one of the most enchanting moments of my life. That was a moment, sitting there on a jungle floor eating clay-roasted duck... I just kept pinching myself, thinking, I can't believe I'm here. I can't believe this is happening. I'm in Vietnam with all these guys in black pajamas who are slapping me on the back, feeding me liquor, and introducing me to their kids. It was magic.
Dave: I worked in restaurants for about ten years. Kitchen Confidential brought back some funny memories. Dishwashers, as a group, were the strangest people I'd ever known.
Bourdain: When I wrote Kitchen Confidential I hadn't accounted for this at all: so many people who are working in offices now miss that time in restaurants. They really look back on it as a happy time, a magic time. A lot of them wouldn't choose to go back, but they value the time as a unique period in their lives. We're a tribe. It is a tribal sort of subculture.
One of the things that was fun about doing A Cook's Tour was that in my travels I kept meeting people in restaurants in different countries, and finding that we are the same everywhere. There are certain shared traits that remind you that you're part of something.
Bourdain: He's vibrating at a whole different pitch. My knees were shaking going to meet that guy, going to eat in that restaurant [The French Laundry]. I felt like I was going to the prom, like a kid in a powder blue tux sweating through my fluffy shirt. It's hero worship and wonder.
His ambition, his integrity... I'm in awe of the institution that he's created and hugely impressed and curious about what it must be like to be him. I would never choose to be him, I wouldn't even want to try, but I'm fascinated. And it was the most impressive restaurant meal I've ever had in my life.
Dave: As you explain at length in Kitchen Confidential, you didn't exactly take the three-star chef career path.
Bourdain: No, I was in it for the fun. I got into the business to get laid, score drugs, and drink free liquor. It was a very different world when I started. It was the lifestyle that hooked me first, and the work ethic, the immediate gratification of doing something well and there being a reward. Over time, I decided to get serious, but I was never willing to make the sacrifices that a Keller or a Gordon Ramsay, any three-star chef, has to make.
Dave: When did you become interested in writing? Bone in the Throat is fun.
Bourdain: I had an opportunity in 1994 to write a book, and I did. Before it came out I made damn sure to have another in the pipeline [Gone Bamboo] just in case the first one tanked. And they both tanked initially. Now they're doing very well; they're back in print.
It was a series of coincidences and good luck. An old friend remembered me from college and needed a writing sample to show to a publisher after he'd bragged injudiciously at a party. The only person he could think of to provide a writing sample was me — I'd written all his college papers for him. So I got an opportunity.
It's the story of my writing career in every respect: I saw an opportunity to tell a story, and I made the most of it, as I will continue to do.
Dave: Is it true that your mother is the one who told you to send the restaurant article to The New Yorker?
Bourdain: Yeah. I'd written a short, sort of bittersweet, deranged, poison love letter to my business intending to sell it to The New York Press, a give-away paper they have on dispensers on the corner. The editors just sat on the piece. They'd say, "We're going to run it next week." Then the next week. And the next week.
I was getting frustrated, so I mentioned it casually to my mother, and like a good mother she said, "Oh, you should send it to The New Yorker. It's good enough." Yeah, right. That's gonna happen. An unsolicited submission to The New Yorker? Never.
I was absolutely floored when they called up a month later and said they were going to run it. They explained to me that the odds are something like one in ten thousand, if not more. They use me as a case study now when they do seminars at colleges.
Very shortly after it appeared, a publisher called up and said, "Want to write a book?"
Dave: What now? Do you have another book in mind?
Bourdain: I'm thinking about a kind of military field manual for the kitchen: Brasserie Les Halles: Field Manual, Strategy and Tactics of Brasserie Cooking. The tone, I'm imagining Julia Child meets Full Metal Jacket.
I want to crank that out then take a break. I'm thinking about going to Vietnam for a year, both for my own pleasure and to think seriously about what to do next. I'd like to re-explore that subject. I haven't been to the Central Highlands or the north. I'd like to go to Laos. I have unfinished business over there. I need more.
Anthony Bourdain visited Powell's City of Books on January 18, 2002. Fans had filled our third floor gallery to its fire code capacity well before the hour of his scheduled appearance. A Powell's staff member in charge of security asked Bourdain if he had any requests regarding crowd control. Some authors appreciate some personal space, Bourdain was told, perhaps a five- or six-foot buffer of personal space. "Let them sit on my lap if they want to," the author replied.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State