“Truffle oil—please. This is industrial waste,” said Anthony Bourdain as we sat drinking at The Roxy hotel in Tribeca. “It’s not food, it has nothing to do with truffles. There’s no truffles in it! It’s dreadful.”
Ever one to keep it 100, the 60-year-old food personality has become the poster boy for authenticity, fine-tuning his ability over the years to detect the impostors from the real deal. We're not talking about the kind of authenticity that’s manufactured for social media followers to appear “relatable.” Rather, the kind that results from building a career, and indeed a lifestyle, on giving exactly zero fucks about who you piss off with your personal truth, however messy or inconvenient it may be.
One such truth: Bourdain, when asked just prior to the election what comfort food he’d turn to if Trump were elected, he offered First We Feast a Bourdanian reply: “Hemlock: it’s lethal.”
“A good burger is unimprovable by man or God.”
Bourdain's brutal honesty is the engine that drives The Balvenie Scotch whisky's "Raw Craft" series, which sends the Parts Unknown host to remote towns throughout the U.S. to speak to people who make all manner of things with their hands. In other words, actual artisans. The show has seen Bourdain thoughtfully interrogating people who make everything from custom guitars, to bespoke suits, to cast-iron skillets—the latter taking nearly seven hours just to complete a single piece.
We caught up with Bourdain over a dram of whiskey to talk about what separates the real from the fake—who’s really about that handmade life, and who’s just faking it for the funds? The easiest way to discern that, it turns out, is to look at who actually cares about what they create. Go figure.
Here Bourdain talks shop about "brotastic burgers," the difference between artistry and craftsmanship, and why it's important to "lose yourself in the moment" during a meal.
Your video series with The Balvenie is focused on craftsmanship. What does that word even mean these days?
Well, it’s becoming an evermore meaningless term when we have terms like “the artisanal potato chip,” but to me it means things made by hand, by people who really are working very, very hard to make the best thing they possibly can, almost always out of a personal drive and desire to make it the best way rather than the most efficient or cost effective. Like anything else, [artisanal] is becoming diluted as big companies figure out it’s a way to charge more.
Recently you called out “artisanal” as being a bullshit catch-all term. How can you tell the difference between "artisanal" and true craftsmanship?
Does someone care? You can tell. Does someone work really hard to make it the best they possibly can. No shortcuts. Have they sacrificed efficiency for quality? Speed for quality? Those are tell-tale signs—you can tell in food, you can tell in a chest of drawers.
What’s a shortcut sign—how can you tell the difference between the corporate potato chips and the real deal?
Were they actually cut by hand, fried in the best possible oil, salted as soon as they came out of the fat? Did someone give some real thought to making it the best rather than “how many can we fit into a bag, will it travel well, will it still be good on the supermarket shelf in a month, as opposed to, “is it the best possible chip you can have right now, right out of the hot oil?” I guess that might be artisanal.
When it comes to authenticity, are there any tell-tale signs that make you walk into a restaurant and say, “this place is legit”?
Well, the menu right away tells you. Menus have become much more personal. And you can tell if there’s a tight, overarching personality at work. I would give the restaurant Prune as an example because that’s a very personal menu. Most of the recipes evoke specific likes and dislikes, and even personal history of the chef and restaurateur.
So someone is talking to you and they already decided what they’re good at and what they love. And they are doing that relentlessly, rather than a menu that tells you that they’re trying to be everything to everybody. You know they’ve done this for those people. Look, if you see a chicken Caesar on the menu, you know that somebody’s made compromises. They didn’t put that up there because they love chicken Caesar; they put that up there because they know it’ll sell.
Save for using Yelp or reading reviews, are there any warning signs or tip offs that signal a restaurant won’t be good or is not authentic?
There are warnings. If there’s like Kobe sliders on the menu—bad sign. There’s a certain douche tone that’s detectable to me. You can tell by who’s at the tables—a bunch of high-fiving white guys, talking loud, trying to impress each other. Is the agenda of the people in the restaurant around you the food, or the atmosphere, or is there something else at play here?
Or are there people there responding to the food in an emotional way. Not exactly a critical or analytical way. Are people having fun? Are they losing themselves in the moment? Are they enjoying their food the way that we enjoyed when our moms cooked for us, in an emotional way. That’s a good sign. And if it’s a tight menu with a clear vision at work rather than this omnibus thing with something for everybody. But a warning sign would be the wrong music, too many meatheads, the appearance of Kobe, a place that does both sushi and steak. You know—pick one, figure out which one of them you’re good at. Or cute language, or a menu that relies on puns. “The bro-tastic burger” would also probably be a warning sign. Actually, too many men in a restaurant would probably be a real warning sign.
Recently in the Washington Post, Ben Adler wrote that “ranch dressing is everything that’s wrong with America.”
[Laughs] I mean, I feel it. But sometimes you just want to go cheap. There’s a place for it, but I don’t want it on my chicken wings. It’s sort of cranky thing to say. I understand what he’s saying—the “ranchification” of America. You know, if you ranch something, does it make it better? Probably not. It’s not a flavor I particularly understand. But I can well imagine circumstances where I might think like, “This ranch is, like, totally awesome.” Probably all alone with no one watching. I’m a cheap date sometimes.
So if you had to fill in the blank, what foodstuff would you blame for everything that’s wrong with America?
Kobe sliders. What makes Kobe good is texture. You lose all of that immediately. It doesn’t matter if you’re just slapping a name on not just a burger, but a tiny, little burger. There’s no way that you could appreciate the things that make Kobe interesting and good and expensive in a little burger or a meatball drowned in sauce. I mean it’s silly. You’re just selling status there and bragging rights and the last thing they care about is, “Is this the best?”
People who try to improve or improvise on a burger. A good burger is unimprovable by man or God. So no aioli dressing and brioche bun or onion and pumpkin relish, or housemade ketchup. God help us. You know, you have to find a housemade ketchup that’s better than the platonic idea of ketchup. Which is the same cheap ass ketchup you always had.