When Anthony Bourdain wrote his acerbic, behind-the-cuisines memoir Kitchen Confidential, he had very few expectations for it, having written it mainly for himself and his fellow chefs. Ten years later, Bourdain has published more non-fiction, penned three novels, stars as the host of the popular travelogue series No Reservations, and possesses a cachet of cultural cool that very few can ever hope to achieve. Now, in his new book Medium Raw, he returns to what he was first known for: Booking the cooks. In it, Bourdain shares his unfiltered opinions on the current food scene and his own experiences in the ten years since Confidential. We spoke with the constantly globetrotting gourmand in between trips to Italy and France about his latest book and what it’s like to have one of the best jobs in the world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to write another book?
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: I guess because it’s been ten years since Kitchen Confidential and the book still sells. A lot. But the food industry has changed. So in some ways it’s a sort of correctional reassessment for what I’ve seen changed in the decade since I wrote that book. That’s a profound change in the business, and I wanted to address that. I’ve been out of that business for a while, but I still swim in that pond. My friends are all chefs.
Have you changed too?
I’ve changed, although I don’t think I’ve changed fundamentally as a personality, who I am, but I think the bad boy thing is getting a little old. It’s always useful to remind people that I’m a dad now, I’m not going to be buried in a leather jacket, for f—‘s sake. Immediately upon the birth of your child it’s pretty much time to burn the Ramones shirt. The earring’s gone. It ain’t dignified. No one wants to see their parents rock. I think it’s just I don’t see myself as the angry young man anymore.
But you definitely don’t pull any punches in this new book.
Eric Ripert’s my best friend, he’s a Buddhist. He’s a live-and-let-live guy. We have a lot of similarities, things we have in common. But he’s a live-and-let-live guy, he believes in karma. I believe in vendetta, I believe if you hurt my friends or people I care about then if there’s some way to make your life more difficult, I’m happy to do that. I have the luxury at this point in my career of having neither a reputation nor a restaurant to protect. So I’m free to say things that a lot of chefs I’ve worked with over the years, or a lot of chefs I’ve met around the country, have been wanting to say, but can’t. I don’t see myself as a spokesperson for the downtrodden, but it pleases me to be able to talk about the things that genuinely piss me off. For example, I think it’s outrageous that for decades some people can proclaim to be honest reviewers or chroniclers of the dining scene when they are taking services and things of value from their subjects. If the Gambino family did it, we’d call it something else.
You’ve also made clear that you’re not a huge fan of the Food Network.
Just like there’s not much music on MTV, there aren’t many chefs on Food Network. Their brand is really, I think it’s clear, not chef-driven. For a period of time, the last thing they wanted, it seemed, was anyone who actually worked in a restaurant or cooked professionally or was authoritative on the subject of food. I think they figured out very quickly that their audience liked to look at barbecue and certain types of foods, particularly familiar ones, that they could imagine sinking their teeth into, so there’s the sort of porn aspect. Then of course, they wanted friendly familiar personalities that made them feel better about themselves.
And who could teach them tablescaping
I don’t think anyone’s actually doing that. I think they look at it and say, “I could do that if I wanted. I’m not going to, but I could.” To me, the high water mark of the stand-and-stir cooking shows on Food Network was Molto Mario. That was a great show. Mario [Batali] is a really smart guy, a professional, who actually shows you how to do things you don’t know how to do, but that you could do. It was accessible information, it was good food properly made.
On the other side of the spectrum, have you seen Worst Cooks in America?
Something like that that’s guaranteed to make my eyes bleed, I’m not going to watch. There are some things that are just morally wrong. I understand the world we live in now, the reality show, and people making themselves into these tragic-comic cartoonish freaks so they can be on TV, I get that. But when it claims to be about food, it makes me cranky. Television shouldn’t affect you so much that you’re yelling at the TV screen, but it does.
It’s been a decade since you wrote Kitchen Confidential. How do you feel about it now?
There’s no question that the book is obnoxious. I wrote it in a voice that’s familiar to anyone cooking, working in a kitchen at that level. It sounded like me as a chef, the tenor, the tone, that sort of bravado. That may not have been me after work, but it certainly was me during work. It was obnoxious and over-testosteroned, and would be certainly to somebody who doesn’t recognize that dialect. But it’s like slipping into a warm bath for a lot of people who spent a lot of time in the restaurant business. That kind of momentum and bravado is what got me through the day. It was an honest reflection of how I talked in the kitchen. I didn’t think that anyone was going to read the book. I just wanted to sound familiar and genuine to people like me, who worked in the New York restaurant industry. Honestly, I had no expectation or even hope that anyone outside of the Tri-State area would even read the book, so it kind of caught me short when it did so amazingly well.
You talk in the book about how you’re not really a chef anymore.
Well, I’m not. It’s been almost ten years now since I’ve been a working chef. I respond to the name. If I’m walking down the street and someone yells, “Chef!” I think I earned that title, but my definition for chef is just a cook that leads other cooks, who worked as a chef. Chef isn’t a name that means you’re the best cook, or run a great restaurant. A chef is anybody who can walk into a professional kitchen, effectively serve the customers who come in the door, and somehow manage a staff and get them to do what you want and execute your plan. That’s a pretty low threshold, but by that standard, I had 28 years in the business, so I can live with being called “Chef” now. I’m always going to look at the world from that point of view, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a chef anymore. But all my friends are chefs, the sensibility’s the same, and I’ve been spending the last ten years eating and drinking and swimming in that pond so it’s an area of, I don’t know if I’d call it expertise, but a strata of society that I’m certainly familiar with.
Watching you on No Reservations, it seems like you enjoy your new employment.
We make the show any way we want to make it. I work with friends. We shoot with whomever we want. We just shot an episode in Rome in black-and-white, letterbox, entirely dubbed, even I’m dubbed. To be given the freedom to do that is extraordinary. I’m well aware of how unique a situation that is and how lucky I am. And, of course, I’m milking it for everything I can.
It’s better than a fry station.
I remember viscerally what real work is, so I’m well aware of how lucky I am. I’m never going to be someone who gets upset at walking through an airport and somebody asks for an autograph. It’s not like, “Everybody wants a piece of me, man!” If that’s a problem for you, you need a serious reality check. Who gets to do what I get to do? I have a good, good life. I can’t complain about where I’m spending my time because I decide, or who I’m working with, because I decide, or creatively, because I’m with my friends who are these amazingly talented editors and post-production people and camera people and producers. We get to sit down and drink a lot of beer and look at a map and watch some movies and figure out, “Man, I really like Wong Kar-wai, let’s go do an hour of Wong Kar-wai in Hong Kong or Taipei. Awesome, high-five, let’s go!”
Do you ever find yourself running out of places to go to?
No, I’m asked that a lot. Of course not. This is a big world. First of all, we don’t ever try to comprehensively cover the destination. It’s not about what you should know about Paris, or Ten Best Places or anything like that. It’s personal essays in video or film form, so as soon as I could figure out another take on the same location, nothing wrong with going back to Paris for the second time, which we’re doing tomorrow. Or a country like China, where it’s just so big, with so many different regional cuisines that I could do three, four, five shows a year there and still never touch, never come close to a comprehensive picture. There’s a lot of places I’ve never been to at all, that for one reason or another never got a chance to. South Africa, the Congo. I don’t know what kind of food we can anticipate in the Congo, but we’re free to do that. We can go up the Congo River and retrace Conrad’s trip, or talk about the Belgian genocide. I’m OK with pissing off all the foodies. Any foodies tuning in that week will be disappointed, but I think it will make a hell of an interesting hour.
I’ve never seen Rachel Ray’s Heart of Darkness episode.
Although I suppose you could argue that every one is a Heart of Darkness episode
[Laughs.] I certainly would.
So if you’re no longer a chef, what would your job title now be?
I have no idea.
You can use as many hyphens as you like.
I hate the sound of TV host. Writer? Maybe. Ex-cook-who-tells-stories. I kind of like that one.