Anthony Bourdain has not been to Asheville recently, despite rumors to the contrary. But he has a vague understanding of what we’re about from a previous trip years ago for a book-signing. “I remember this hip island of enlightenment,” says Bourdain, who doesn’t recall much else about the visit, including the date.
And while some may choose to attribute that lapse in memory to Bourdain’s purportedly high-partying lifestyle in years past, it’s more likely that it can be pinned on the fact that the chef-turned-writer has been, quite simply, just about everywhere you want to be — and plenty of places where you might not.
Bourdain is coming to Asheville again on Saturday, Nov 5, this time to talk about food and travel, and how life in general relates to both. He took more than a few minutes out of his day to chat with Xpress from the back of a car taking him from New York City to Waterbury, Conn. He lost reception several times (lucky for us, he was game about being called repeatedly). Bourdain had plenty to say about vegetarianism, food trucks, hunger and mediocrity.
X: I recently read the article — well, drunken rant — in David Chang’s Lucky Peach in which you, Wiley Dusfresne (of wd-50) and David Chang (of Momofuku), are all basically bitching and drinking. Was that as fun as it seemed?
TB: I wish that all of my interviews or articles were as easy to do and as much fun. It was basically me, Dave [Chang] and Wiley [Dufresne] and all of us were in Spain for Gastronomica. We sat down in this little bar with some tapas and some Spanish wine and had a free and frank argument. It was a lot of fun.
In the beginning of the article, you state, “I’m an expert in mediocrity.” Explain.
Dave and Wiley are two chefs who, their whole careers, cooked at a completely different level. Wiley has always, very heroically, sought always to do the hard thing. He’s worked with nothing but the best people and he’s maintained a restaurant and a menu that asked a lot of questions and is, in a lot of ways, challenging to the dining public. Dave Chang is fanatically dedicated to perfection, I think to the detriment of his own health.
I’m a guy who got famous writing about my life, not for my career, necessarily. I’m a guy who banged around — a journeyman cook. I’ve never had a career like either of those guys, and I’m quite sure that, even though we’re friends, neither of them would have ever employed me.
In the same article, you allude to the fact that you hate hippies. How fast are you going to want to get the hell out of Asheville?
I don’t hate hippies. I was a hippie. I like hippies — as long as they have a good work ethic.
What was it like for you slowly moving out of the kitchen and into the spotlight as an icon and entertainer?
There was no slow transition; it happened almost overnight. It just took me a while to realize that it had changed. One minute I was standing there broke and uninsured, desperately in debt, and the next, I was a best-selling author with the world as my oyster. It took me a while to realize it, but I tried to grab hold of the situation the best that I could. And I continue to try to not screw it up.
Do you miss the kitchen?
I miss the camaraderie … I miss being a part of a faceless horde. There’s a security in that.
Being famous involves a complete loss of privacy. That must, at times, drive you pretty crazy.
You know, you give something up, but you get so much, particularly in my case. It’s not like I have to go to work at some television studio and make some happy horse-shit, over-caffeinated television. I might have to sign an autograph [while] running through an airport looking for a bathroom, but on the other hand, I get to travel anywhere I want in the world and create these self-indulgent shows with friends without any creative interference from the network. I get to hang out with people that I’ve hero-worshiped for years. I’m having a lot of fun. I cannot complain that, oh, it’s so tough being famous. Compared to working a really busy brunch at a restaurant you hate at the pancake and waffle station, you know, life is pretty f***ing good.
The poached eggs — that’s what always got me.
I kind of liked poached eggs. It was the garnishes and the omelets — the spilled omelet that would cake on the stovetop and the spillage that would cook soufflé-like throughout the shift. That smell. The smell of old steam-table water. The sticky strawberry fans and orange twists. Fruit salad — I hated that shit.
Frank Bruni from the New York Times sort of took you to task over your criticizing of Paula Deen for basically stuffing an already obese America with butter and lard. He said you were a culinary elitist. What do you think of Bruni’s assertion?
I guess what I have to say to that is, it’s bullshit. This notion that there’s “red-state/blue-state” food is far more elitist than anything I could have said. I’m in the business of championing street food and indigenous food all over the world; most of what I eat on my show and most of the food that I love most is made by poor people for poor people. Even the food that we eat in restaurants now — this super-chic, nose-to-tail — these are all dishes and recipes that were developed by hard-working people with very little time and very few resources.
This notion that we should just abandon the underclass and the working poor to the predations of Paula Deen and Ronald McDonald is offensive. I think he just missed the point. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean it’s any more acceptable to put a bacon-cheeseburger with an egg on top between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts. There’s nothing socio-economic about that. To suggest that Paula Deen, who’s whacking people $28 for a grouper, and actually more for a steak than I did at my restaurant, is somehow the champion of the underclass, well, I would disagree with that.
It’s not as though you’re a stranger to pork fat, or you spend all of your time nibbling on vegetables.
I’m not even an advocate of health for healthy living! There’s a line beyond which we move beyond good taste. I hasten to add that my show comes with a parental advisory.
Do you think that hers should?
I think that it inevitably will. I think that, as the health of our nation declines, I think that, legislatively we’re moving in the direction where they’re going to start treating food like that, and shows that celebrate over-the-top, novelty, super-high calorie, super-processed food, that’s going to have to come with a warning label, just like the cigarette packs do. I wish we wouldn’t reach that point, but I think we’re going to.
When cities are banning trans-fats and parental advisory labels are being slapped on movies for smoking and drinking, I think you’re probably right.
Yeah. As a libertarian in a lefty sense, as a person who feels strongly about personal liberties and choices, it offends me to think that any regulatory body would have the power to step in and tell you what you can and can’t put in your mouth. It’s a fundamental decision you think we’d be left alone [to make] … But there’s nothing funny or ironic about diabetes.
Or hunger, for that matter. In A Cook’s Tour, you detail some pretty intense scenes of just that. One that struck me was when you met a horribly scarred beggar in Saigon while globetrotting and stuffing yourself sick. Did this experience change you for the long-term in any way?
It was the first of many, many moments over the years of traveling now where reality intrudes in a really powerful and uncomfortable way, where you realize that what you are doing is not that important, where it comes home to you how charmed and lucky [your] life is. And since that time, I’ve been in a lot of situations where I’ve seen devastated populations. Beirut in 2006 would come up as an obvious example where really appalling, horrifying things suddenly happened to very nice people in a seemingly arbitrary way, and I’ve seen that a lot over the years.
I’m a conflicted guy to start with — I don’t know if I’m clinically bipolar, but I certainly try to look at both sides of an argument and I can shift really quickly from feeling strongly one way to feeling very strongly about another on a dime. I’m used to having the air taken out of the room by a simple thing.
I try very hard to not let politics intrude into what is essentially supposed to be a show about how people eat and what makes them happy as it relates to food. But sitting in the mountains in Laos near the Plain of Jars, my host is missing two limbs. It’s worth asking the question, “Gee how’d that happen?” And when he tells me that, ‘Well, all those millions of bomblets you guys left behind at the end of the war, well apparently you didn’t get all of them, and I was plowing my field a few years back even though I was a kid during the war and I lost my limbs … ’ It’s a sad fact, and there it is. It’s not necessarily an indictment of American politics in Southeast Asia, but it’s worth thinking about — and it’s certainly worth mentioning when something that obvious is right there in front of you.
Food is important, and I guess that, increasingly over the past few years, the show is sometimes as much about what the people aren’t eating as much as what they are eating.
On a lighter note: Final meal? Is it still bone marrow?
These days, actually, I think I’d go for one piece of sushi — I’ve had a lot of bone marrow over the years. One nigiri of really good, high-test sushi rice made by a master, really good seaweed and some good sea-urchin roe.
I asked a few chefs in town if they wanted to ask you a question. Katie Button, the chef of Cúrate, where your book signing is going to be, posed this question: Many chefs absorb themselves in their work. Is it possible to be a great chef and balance family, life and work? Can you have it all — and if so, how do you do it?
I don’t think you can. I don’t know of any chef that’s ever been able to do it, honestly. To be a great chef? I mean, a really top-flight, national-profile respected as being at the top of your game — somebody’s going to pay the price there. Not just you, the people that love you, the people that count on you. You can’t be a fully formed personality and maintain the kind of hours necessary and the kind of focus [it requires]. I know a lot of chefs with really happy marriages, but they’re not normal marriages, and everybody understood going in that somebody’s taking a secondary role to say the least. Somebody loses in the end. An enormous sacrifice is called for.
Nate Kelly, who operates The Low Down food truck asks: What’s your opinion on food trucks?
Any alternative to the conventional American fast food is a good thing. I see food trucks as an alternative to McDonald’s, so that alone is a great thing. You’re creating a market for individually owned and operated businesses serving, presumably, fast, cheap and delicious [food] — that’s a positive thing. A lot of cities are fighting back. They don’t like these trucks and see them as a threat to brick-and-mortar; they don’t like the health aspects … and there’s the likelihood that as we reach some sort of hipster fission, the bad guys will get in. You will see an Olive Garden food truck; it’s inevitable. But for the time being, I think it’s a really positive thing. I love them, I think they’re valuable, and they provide an opportunity for a lot of entrepreneurial chefs to do a lot of interesting things. They are so many examples of that around the country, particularly in Austin, L.A. and San Francisco, where they’ve been very supportive of the trucks.
Adam Bannasch of Zambra asked: What’s your favorite American food city?
It’s gotta be New York. I’m a New Yorker, and that’s where all of my friends are cooking. There’s just so much of it. We benefit from having many people of different incomes that are able to support so many different types of restaurants and so many large ethnic populations from all over the world, large enough to support restaurants that are cooking for them, not some Western concept of what Thai or Chinese or Japanese or Korean should be like.
Plant’s Jason Sellers wants to know if you would be willing to visit his vegan restaurant to “quell some of that open animosity with some open-mindedness.”
Listen, I’m perfectly OK with vegetarians practicing whatever they want to do. I just think they make for bad travelers. That’s what pisses me off. If you’re eating vegan for religious reasons, fine. What you do in your home — or hometown even — in the industrialized world, I’m OK with that. That’s your personal choice. I think the notion that you can travel — and I’m not talking about Rome or Paris, of course you can call ahead and say, “do you have any vegetarian options?” You can’t do that in the developing world without offending people … It’s awkward and hurtful to go to grandma’s house and turn down the turkey. I just see it as rude and incurious.
Anthony Cerrato (Fiore’s), an Italian chef from Nutley, N.J., would like to know how growing up in New Jersey affected your palate.
I lived really close to New York City, we looked at from the cliffs. It created a yearning for New York and a mystery and a magic about the place — it was always the focus of my desires. That was where the good stuff was. At the time when I grew up, it was sort of the Mad Men era, there wasn’t much good food, if any good food in Jersey, really. It was just bad, pedestrian southern Italian.
Suzy Phillips (Gypsy Queen Cuisine) would like to know: What are your guilty pleasures as far as food is concerned that you don’t like to admit?
The macaroni and cheese at Popeye’s … I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I crave that shit every now and again, but that’s my most shameful guilty pleasure.
It seems like you and Paula Deen could probably get together on that one.
Yeah. Processed cheese and overcooked pasta. Yeah.