The man says, “Can I take you up the back way?” We’re in the new Manhattan offices of Zero Point Zero, the film production company for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. “Do you mind?”
“Nope, it’s kind of a specialty of mine,” I say, as we climb one story in an echoing stairwell with the reek of raw paint. But my weak little anal sex joke falls flat—the man has no response, betrays nothing. Maybe the first rule of a Bourdain interview is to forget the Bourdain you think you know. The pirate-chef Bourdain, the killed-by-fat-and-foie Bourdain, the lit-as-hell Bourdain—this is not the Bourdain before me in this drab conference room, asking an assistant for a Diet Coke.
There’s a scrim of rain beyond the windows, a gray view to an empty office suite across the way. The skin on his arms bleeds bluish ink, tattoos I make a mental note to catalog so I can augur them later for significance. But his face, turning back from the assistant, that face I’ve seen a hundred times on book covers and television screens—it’s an affable mask I scan for meaning in the lines and cracks, like studying walk-ons in a detective novel to guess who’s guilty. How do you read deep on a man who’s perfected both public vulnerability and swagger?
Sixteen years ago in Kitchen Confidential (2000), Bourdain turned the dominant language of food—an upper–middle class vocabulary of gourmet-isms—into a back-of-the-house slurry of fuck and douchebag, dropping bukake and Ron Jeremy’s cock on the table as reference points. Bourdain himself became famous, a man called “the bad boy of food” so many times you’d think editors would be embarrassed to drag out the tired old phrase to make it writhe, once again, on the pole.
But the Bourdain of 2016, who turns 60 on June 25th, is far more complicated than that chain-smoking cliché. The Bourdain of today is fresh from executive-producing a film about the 74-year-old chef Jeremiah Tower called The Last Magnificent—the latest, wrenching installment in his quest to alter the way we understand the kitchen and cooks, and show us the dark forces that drive creative process. That guy is serious as fuck.
At the turn of the millennium, on the back-end of a career spent mostly dropping pre-poached Benedict eggs on half-toasted English muffins, recovering junkie Anthony Bourdain did something nobody could have guessed an obscure 44-year-old chef could do: He changed the voice of food. Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s confessional as chef at Les Halles in Manhattan; it piled the comfortable myths, the bullshit of restaurants in a burn barrel, sprayed them with accelerant, and tossed in a flaming rag. In Medium Raw (2010), the follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain surfed the lip between insider and outside watcher, a perspective that let him write about the complexity of chefs—their motivations, fails, and gaping brilliance—in a way nobody did before.
These are themes Bourdain has christened, in a voice as clamorous as a headboard slamming into a hotel wall. All of us are who try to write intelligently about food, even Bourdain’s critics, are working in a tradition he’s built. I wonder, as we chit-chat over pleasantries, what Bourdain thinks about the universe he’s shaped, the planets he’s nudged into orbit. Even as he’s busy filming season eight of Parts Unknown, getting ready to ship Appetites: A Cookbook (his first in a decade), and working out the plans for Pier 57, his international food market on the Hudson River in Manhattan, does Bourdain even consider his work in terms of a static legacy? Or is he too busy plowing forward—the late-bloomer hell-bent on getting shit done while he still has a voice?
Kitchen Confidential wasn’t the first book to dissect a chef, peeling back the skin to reveal the intelligence and destructiveness of the creative personality, its blistered ego and addictions. In White Heat (1990), ten years before Bourdain’s book, Marco Pierre White thrashed like Sid Vicious with a brooding streak, showing off the kitchen as a place where violence and self-inflicted wounds could seem beautiful.
But White was British and mostly obscure, except to chefs. Americans in the ‘90s were opening their newspaper food sections to find chefs pursuing trends and wholesome passions, nice guys or noble perfectionists. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain flipped that ideal on its head, instead presenting a picture of the restaurant cook as a personally troubled maker of food with the power of pure, animal joy. Cooks were fuck-ups with heart, sometimes dicks, sometimes generous and self-effacing, but always both transcendent and defeated, subverting almost everything else in their lives to the craft of cooking. They were the compromised agents of uncompromised pleasure.
Getting Bourdain to acknowledge that he broke the code on rendering the chef as a complex being is like trying to turn a doorknob using a hand slicked with Astroglide: It doesn’t happen with the ease or the grace you’d expect. It makes me think of something Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan told me about Bourdain, about how thinking of himself as an outsider fuels Bourdain. “He feels fortunate to be there and tries to do the good work to keep his place at the table,” Meehan said, “and that sets him apart. There is a moment in most people’s careers that’s like, ‘I belong here.’ I’ve never gotten that from Tony.”
Everything any serious food writer now is trying to do, you accomplished in Kitchen Confidential, and later in Medium Raw. Where did that come from?
I had an empathy for my subjects which most food writers don’t have. Most food writers despise their subjects; they don’t want to be food writers. They’re either over it; they’re pissed off; they never liked these dirty chefs in the first place—all of that attention and all of that pussy. They don’t fucking like it and it shows. You smell it on their prose. They just don’t like [chefs] doing well, and they will hurt them if they feel they’ve overstepped. And to be fair, if you’re writing about describing meals, year after year, it ruins people. I’ve described it jokingly as like writing the Penthouse letters for 20 years. I sympathize.
I was asked to roast Alan Richman and the expectation was I would go up there and destroy him. I don’t find that interesting at all. No, I went after his editors: These bastards who’ve taken this very accomplished, very distinguished food reviewer—we may have had some major differences on things he’s written*, but this is a distinguished food writer and they put him on top ten lists and “Get Out to Brooklyn!” and hipster fucking diner trend pieces on the next big thing. So I went after them. But that's where we are now, the age of listicles and ten bests. People ask me, “Where would you eat in New York if you came back after a long time?” And I name five restaurants and it’s like Tony’s Five Best Restaurants in New York! How the fuck did we get from there to here?
*Bourdain wrote an essay for Medium Raw titled “Alan Richman Is a Douchebag.” Since then, Bourdain says, they’ve reconciled.
On Challenging Food Media
“I think one of the reasons that we initially bonded is that he called bullshit on food media early on—when I left the New York Times early on I realized that. It’s all lying to promote the next hot restaurant and the next trend. It was never what food was really about.”
Regina Schrambling, former New York Times Food Deputy Editor
Do you feel you changed the voice of food writing? Shifted the point of view?
I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished that. I feel that I’m working in an existing tradition. People before me have written about the things that interest me in a similar style, a similar point of view, a similar attitude. George Orwell, Down and Out. Nicolas Freeling in The Kitchen. Bemelmans. They were all there earlier, better, and I don’t feel I broke any ground. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I wrote Kitchen Confidential very quickly. It reads like I talked at the time; it’s what I do. It’s often hyperbolic. I like language. It’s pleasurable to me to listen to somebody: a dialect, a jargon, colloquialisms. Action Bronson and Eddie Huang, they’re not following in my footsteps. That’s who they are and they sound like that. That’s not a style I came up with.
When you have this machine-pounding of people on laptops in Starbucks all over town to come up with content, you’re not going to get a lot of A. J. Lieblings, people just passionate about life and eating. It’s not all about food. Food in and of itself is pretty fucking uninteresting after a certain point. Who’s cooking this is much more interesting to me than what’s cooking. Who’s cooking and why are they cooking it this way? Who are they reading? What’s on the radio? Is there a dog? Those are the things that make a meal interesting, and this is why Liebling is so awesome. Any good writer who really wants to bring home the pleasure of a meal is going to picture the room.
Writers just writing about the food, you can only eroticize it so long. It’s all about other stuff. And I don’t think you can properly appreciate food if you’re not having some kind of sex, you know—occasionally. It doesn’t even have to be acrobatic, but other pleasures are important. It’s counterproductive, in fact: creepy food writing by people who are not having any sex, that can barely remember having sex.
In order to write well about food you need to eat well, and you cannot eat well if you’re analyzing the food. It’s not fun for the people you’re eating with and I don’t see how it can be fun for you. I spent 30 years in the restaurant business and I do not want to be thinking about if the bus boy’s doing his job. I don’t want to hear the bell in the kitchen. I don’t want to be thinking about what’s in that dressing. I want to be lost in the meal. I want to be a romantic fool.
By picking at the scabs of his psyche in Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain opened up a raw and sometimes ugly place in the terrain of food. In the new Bourdain era, writers and editors seemed to champion the culture of misogyny and homophobia that lurked in the shadow of dude drinking and extreme-food stunts, chewing goat testicles or dare-downing ghost peppers.
In 2012, The New Yorker published Tamar E. Adler’s “When Meals Get Macho,” an essay in decorous prose that recoils from Bourdain’s dick-lugging swagger. Adler writes, “Anthony Bourdain has turned a sort of belligerent gluttony into a talisman for insecure men.”
“Kitchen Confidential changed both food writing and food culture,” Adler says. And while Bourdain himself seems perfectly smart and charming, “the problem,” she says, “is when the behavior is enacted by somebody less smart and less charming you get aggression: Guy Fieri's hugeness and loudness, the entire idea of 'bizarre foods,' the exoticizing of that which is normal to much of the world, which is a kind of cultural aggressiveness.”
Once Bourdain discovered travel for A Cook’s Tour, his two-season Food Network series that premiered in 2002, TV changed him. His point of view expanded, from the kitchen of the subterranean prep hole and crowded pass, to the hazy view down Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City, where he navigated past scooters and cyclos to find release in a bowl of pho.
In his TV work, from A Cook’s Tour through season seven of Parts Unknown, Bourdain replays this single act of discovery, over and over again. It’s the shiver of innocence reprised hundreds of times, a single assertion of delight with the replay button clicked, never getting old.
Do you ever feel guilt for being a white male gatekeeping the food of other cultures?
I’m aware of the sort of destructive aspects of what I do. I understand I’m altering the world by putting it on TV. I’m aware that I am fetishizing what is seen as a birthright to millions of people around the world. Do I feel guilty? I am who I am. I’m a white boy from New Jersey in the suburbs. I can live with that. I’m not conflicted about it.
Eddie [Huang], he’s someone who grew up in that generation. The kids at school would make fun of his lunches. That’s something I really respond to: Guys like Eddie who find themselves in this weird place where no one wanted their food when they were a kid and now everyone wants it, the cultural appropriation issue. Even when Eddie is wrong—his article on Marcus* was as wrong as it could be, but it was a valuable, painful—unfair, but valuable—discussion, he always knows how to put his thumb in the wound: What is cultural appropriation, what is authentic? That’s interesting to me. We've all been having sex with each other and mashing up cultures for centuries.
*In 2012, Huang blasted Marcus Samuelsson for appropriating African-American food culture at Red Rooster, his restaurant in Harlem, and for being patronizing about it in his memoir Yes, Chef.
Do you write as well as you’d like?
No. When I’m writing, most of the writers I love I will not read. I will keep away from fissionable material. So no. I wish I could write like Don DeLillo, Nabokov, Martin Amis—I mean, if I read those guys when I’m writing I will just crawl under the bed and curl into a fetal ball and be blocked for a month. So no. But on the other hand, I can live with that. Clint Eastwood said a man should be aware of his limitations, and I’m aware of my limitations. Once I tell people something, it’s not the content that's embarrassing to me. If I write bad sentences, that's embarrassing to me. Bad sentences are mortifying. And there are plenty of examples. But look, I talk about everything. My dick has been on TMZ, so what’s left?
There’s a video from this year’s South by Southwest: Bourdain sitting with his legs crossed, in boots, on stage with Roads & Kingdoms’ Nathan Thornburgh. The talk swings around to not giving a fuck.
“I joke about not giving a fuck being a very good business model for me,” he said, “but it’s true. The absolute certainty that nobody was going to buy or read or care about Kitchen Confidential was what allowed me to write it. I didn’t have to think about what people expected. I didn’t care. And as a result I was able to write this book quickly and without tormenting myself. And that seemed to work out and I learned from that experience and I tried very hard. Whether I’m meeting with a group of television executives or telling a story, I don’t think about ‘the fans’; I don’t think about what audiences expect, and I’m not afraid of what will they think of me, or what if they don’t like it and I’m not on television anymore.”
And then the kicker, the thing that got the audience pumping. “You know, I’ll go back to brunch, motherfucker. I don’t care.”
It’s a great line, Bourdain’s brashness, populism, and charm, blended and distilled. The guy sitting in the gray conference room with me—the guy who seems to be picking his words carefully—doesn’t sound like a man with no fucks to give. Bourdain’s gift is sounding like he doesn’t care while walking us through places he cares about, as if not giving a fuck were merely the padding to protect some inner organ of self-reflection from accidental puncture.
On changing the perception of chefs
“Tony made chefs three-dimensional. He started to do it in Kitchen Confidential, but he pushed it down the line in Medium Raw. I think that’s one of the things that’s really striking about Tony: caring about the guy you’re not supposed to care about. His whole thing about Ecuadorian line cooks being the hardest-working people as line cooks...was certainly influential for me in doing (the New York Times column) ‘$25 and Under.’
Peter Meehan, Editorial Director of Lucky Peach
Medium Raw has some of Bourdain’s best writing. It’s a stitched-together volume of essays, stretched onto spikes of Bourdainian opinion and scorn: takedowns of Alice Waters, Alan Richman, and Alain Ducasse, ruminations on modern meat and labyrinthine tasting menus.
It opens with an assembly contemplating a transgressive act—a secret society of New York’s greatest chefs (unnamed, since what’s about to go down is illegal) has summoned Bourdain late at night to a private dining room in one of Manhattan’s formidable restaurants to crunch through the flesh, beaks, and bones of ortolans, endangered songbirds smuggled in from France. Bourdain is ecstatic; tonight he’s being made. But his sentences lurch with discordant rhythms, internal asides, set off as interjected clauses, tying off the flow. There’s a mood of doubt—sitting in the shadows, Bourdain wonders why he, an ex-fry cook in mediocre kitchens, is there at all.
“What could my memoir of an undistinguished—even disgraceful—career have said to people of such achievements?” he writes. “And who are these people anyway? Leaning back in their chairs, enjoying their after-dinner cigarettes, they look like princes. Are these the same losers, misfits, and outsiders I wrote about? Or did I get it all wrong?” Could the society of made chefs be as lonesome, dogged by doubt, and scarred as the cooks Bourdain knew as a junkie working at the lower register of Zagat? Do they recognize him, the cook who fucked up, as one of them?
It’s this ambivalence and conflictedness, this inner voice that checks him, that contributes to Bourdain’s legacy. Food had always been at most a two-dimensional presence in American media: “Look at the lovely dishes. Are they delicious? Did they charm you? Can you plot them along the arc of a trend?” Bourdain gave us a book about cooking told by a troubled narrator. Then he gave us stories about food conceived and cooked by troubled agents, chefs moved by genius, fear of failure, or rejection, the things they struggle to understand about themselves.
Where once there had been merely food porn, Bourdain—the guy who wants us to think he doesn’t give a fuck, who’s shaking his head right now across the conference table from me, saying he doesn’t think he changed the culture of food—Bourdain gave us nuance, he gave us complexity. He gave us shadows.
You have that complex portrait of David Chang in Medium Raw, another one about Erik Hopfinger, a guy who flamed out on Top Chef. I don’t think anybody writing before you talked about failure in chefs the way you did.*
I just didn’t know any better. I knew failure well because I was a failure for most of my career. This was a constant in my career. More often than not it was funny. I’m sympathetic to failure because I was such a fuck-up for most of my career. The line between tragedy and comedy is something I recognize and enjoy. Has there been anything funnier than Richard Pryor turning the most horrifying, painful anecdotes from his childhood and cocaine addiction right on the edge? No, I wasn’t looking to do anything unique. I mean, I was just trying to tell a story that would be entertaining and maybe funny. And true to my experience, which was in fact pretty limited.
*In fact, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote “Chef On the Edge,” an intricate portrait of David Chang, hyper-complexities and all, for The New Yorker in 2008, two years before Bourdain’s in Medium Raw.
With somebody like David Chang, the wall between public persona and complex private person is gone. You helped make that possible.
That’s a major change. David Chang was free to be just as complex and as difficult and as tortured as he is in real life in public. And that’s kind of great. I think it’s part of that power shift: First people didn’t want to see the chef, didn’t care who the chef was, then they’re interested in what the chef thought, and now they’re interested in them as human beings, which is an extraordinary change. And we're also meeting chefs who have interesting things to say. You look at Sean Brock on Charlie Rose—that’s a very thoughtful, intelligent guy with genuinely important things to say about where we’re going, what we’re eating, how we produce food. We didn’t have those kinds of conversations twenty years ago and chefs were not inclined or not able to take part in them. Wouldn’t presume to. It’s a great thing. I’m very happy about it.
If there’s a constant in the chef story it’s the story of lost boys. That’s the chef story I keep coming back to again and again, the chef story of actively abused or neglected children. Marco Pierre White. Gordon Ramsay. Eric Ripert. Very different backgrounds, but there’s a lonely boy in so many of these story arcs somewhere. That’s a regular feature in chefs. Somebody once explained to me, “Every time I get up there to touch the light bulb and I put the chair in the middle of the floor and I’m about to reach the light, I just get down and kick the chair out from under myself.” It's this relentless instinct to fuck up a good thing. I think it’s something that people on TV, people who write, people who cook share: this difficulty in giving love and receiving love. They just don’t quite know how to do it. Not comfortable with what seems normal for everybody else.
Have you experienced that? You’re a success but part of you wants to fuck it up?
I think only because Kitchen Confidential happened so late in my life, it was an unexpected second or third—probably third—life, and I had already fucked up good chefs’ jobs and many opportunities and lucky breaks I’d had previously. So no, from Kitchen Confidential on I made a really determined effort to not fuck up. I was very aware of that tendency. I’m a little more organized, my work is a little more rigorous than it needs to be because that was a regular feature of my whole life up until that point: When things are going well, find a way to fuck up. This was true for jobs, relationships. Anything.
In Kitchen Confidential, Medium Raw, and the PBS series Mind of a Chef, Bourdain breached the psychology of cooks. In the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which Bourdain executive-produced and appears in, he lays out the elements of a life like mise en place to understand an enigmatic chef’s creative demons. (Directed by Lydia Tenaglia, the film premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. It should see theatrical release in 2017 before settling into broadcast rotation on CNN.)
It’s easy to understand Bourdain’s interest in Tower, a chef with bruises on his psyche who flamed up in the 1980s and then almost disappeared, a victim of hubris, bad luck, and the shallowness of food media. The film unreels like a contemplation on aging from a man aware of his own shadows, self-delusions, and accomplishments, challenging us to find empathy for those whom time has abandoned to the purgatory of fuck-ups, the place of no remembering.
Is anybody talking about aging chefs?
Yeah, aging chefs and black chefs. No. Those are a couple of areas where nobody…it’s just so uncomfortable: African Americans in kitchens and what happens when you hit forty. Look, if you’re still standing in the kitchen working the pass in your fifties, that’s not noble. After thirty years you’re trying to keep up—I don’t think people understand how physically and mentally punishing it is. I think the mental is at least as important. All those years of multitasking, stress, and alcohol, you just start to slow down. Chefs say what they got to say at a certain point.
Restaurant life is not good for you. It’s not a healthy workplace for chefs. People are talking about it now. How do I prolong my work life, as a leader? It would have been treasonous to even entertain these notions not too long ago. The whole ethic was who can go longest, who can go hardest, who can stay up all night, double shifts...who can burn at both ends brightest. I’m sure I’m part of the problem there. The people who come up to me at readings and hand me bags of coke. I’m like, ‘Did you read the book? The drug thing didn’t end too well for me.’ That was very much on my mind. I understood that at that point in my life I was disappointing people who would come up to me at bars, line cooks fresh from work, ‘Let’s party, let’s do some tequila shots.’ And then they’d get angry that I wouldn’t do a tequila shot, because if I did a tequila shot with every line cook who wants to come up and high-five me, I understand what will happen. I want to live. I wanted people to know that. That I’m not that guy.
On Becoming a voice of reason
“I remember reading [Kitchen Confidential] while working the hot apps station at Tribeca Grill. My chef noticed and was yelling at me. ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING READING A BOOK AT WORK?’ He saw what it was and it was like, ‘That’s cool. Just put it away when you’re working.’”
Danny Bowien, Chef at Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina
Speaking of aging, you’re facing a big birthday. Is that terrifying? Do you own it?
Yeah. Somewhere, I forget what year, I was like 44. I was like: Fuck I’m old now. But no, I feel free of the nonsense honestly. I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life. Turning 50 was a good year for me, a fuck of a lot better than turning 17. I wouldn’t mind being 50 again but goddammit I do not ever want to be 17 again. That is misery. So no, I’m OK. I’m pretty happy being a distinguished motherfucker. The extent to which I’m free of expectations, you know, I enjoy that. The extent to which I can glide through life unnoticed is nice, too. It’s freeing.
Can you though? Be unnoticed?
Not as much as I’d like. But I don’t know, I just feel free of a lot of nonsense. Never much liked going to clubs and concerts and now I don’t have to.
I’ve worked with Iggy [Pop] a few times and know him pretty well and we talk a lot about how to age gracefully. Iggy’s a very articulate, well-read, thoughtful guy who’s still around taking his shirt off and stage diving and working hard out there. [Post Pop Depression] is maybe the best album he’s done in a long time and to see that is deeply satisfying to me. To know a happy Iggy Pop is an inspiration. To talk about this sort of thing is very pleasing as well. And yes, he has been an enormous hero of mine since the first Stooges album, the soundtrack to the good and bad times of my life. So it’s a gratifying late-in-life reward that I can be friends with Iggy Pop and collaborate with Josh and Dean*. That’s one of the things I’m enjoying late in life as well, is collaborating with people I admire. I get to do that more and more and that's fun.
Is it fair to ask who ages better, rock stars or chefs?
Chefs age better. But I think the reason I don’t like to compare the two is that just about every chef I know, if they could play guitar would never have picked up a chef’s knife. If I could play bass well, fuck cooking. I don’t think we’d care if we were successful. Just to be good and enjoy playing music, we’d all be doing that. We wouldn’t be cooking.
But I feel kinship with anybody who cooks. I feel admiration and respect and empathy for anyone who works hard to make something a little bit better. I cannot help but respond in an emotional way to food that makes me happy. Hit me with the right bowl of noodles at the right time—“angel trumpets and devil trombones.”* I’m guilty of hyperbole, but I’m aware of my limitations. I’m clumsily groping toward, if not enlightenment, at least a good sentence.
*This is a quote from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), uttered in the context, naturally, of a seduction.
The interview’s over, my two and a half hours are up (the assistant’s been hovering at the glass, to give me warning). I stand up, shake Bourdain’s hand, watch as he poses for photos where the light’s better, toward the end of an otherwise empty room of Zero Point Zero employees working at a crowded stall of cubes.
Later, I think about the line I’m clumsily groping toward, if not enlightenment, at least a good sentence. In the moment of utterance I thought he was talking about writing; now I’m not sure if he meant a sentence in purgatory, a way of expiating his crimes—the fuck-ups, drunk talk, lashing out, and swagger—from a career spent exercising the Bourdanian voice in its mission of confessional.
I consider emailing his assistant for clarification, then chide myself for thinking like a dick. I don’t really want to know.