Anthony Bourdain: "There Has Never Been a Better Time to Eat in America"
Anthony Bourdain is a man who requires little introduction. The author of Kitchen Confidential -- the book published almost exactly 10 years ago, which catapulted him to fame -- and host of popular TV shows like A Cook's Tour and No Reservations, Bourdain is the prototypical bad-boy chef, Marco Pierre White meets Iggy Pop.
These days, Bourdain has become considerably tamer and has even given up smoking. But that doesn't mean his wit or his tongue are any less sharp. In advance of his one-night-only Q&A at Jones Hall on September 20, I spoke to Bourdain by phone this morning to get his feelings on "foodies," fetishes, Vietnamese food in Houston, Mexicans in the kitchen and The Godfather III.
You know you love it.
Eating Our Words: Good morning!
Anthony Bourdain: Hello there!
EOW: It is completely and utterly bizarre to hear your voice on the other end of my phone.
Bourdain: ...okay? [laughs]
EOW: In a good way.
Bourdain: Oh, all right!
EOW: What I mean is that my boyfriend has been on a No Reservations kick lately. So he's been streaming every episode of No Reservations you've made on Netflix for the past couple of weeks, every single night.
Bourdain: Oh my God. So my voice has been droning away in the background full-time lately? Great. Sorry, man. I feel your pain. [laughing]
EOW: It's okay. I enjoy it. So, big question first: How long will you be in Houston?
Bourdain: A few hours, basically. We're gonna roll in in the afternoon. If I get a shower and some chips out of the hotel mini-bar, I'll be way ahead of the game. Then off to the gig. I would like to think that I'll have some time to grab some Vietnamese food but I hear my favorite Vietnamese restaurant burned down recently.
EOW: It did...
EOW: Yeah, Mai's.
Bourdain: And I don't know that I'll be out in time. I usually have to be up at 4 in the morning, too. I have sort of a distorted experience when I do these gigs.
EOW: Will it be your first time in Houston?
Bourdain: I've been through a couple of times.
EOW: I'm surprised you've been to Mai's.
Bourdain: Yeah, somebody from a local paper brought me there years ago and I just loved the place. It was some of the best Vietnamese food I've had in the country. And we shot around Houston for A Cook's Tour years ago.
EOW: Do you remember anything that stood out to you?
Bourdain: We did some barbecue and worked with a guy named Dave Klose who builds custom barbecue grills. Really crazy ones. It's been a long time, like eight years.
EOW: Then you already know that one of our biggest things here is Vietnamese food.
Bourdain: Oh yes.
EOW: That's one of the things we do best. If you have time, I'd have to recommend the Pho Binh trailer. It's just a little trailer in South Houston and it's fantastic.
Bourdain: That sounds right in my happy zone. If I have any opportunity to do that, that's exactly what I'll do.
EOW: Speak of having favorites, how do you feel about the fetishization of foods like bacon or cupcakes? Things that are everywhere and have kind of become a parody of themselves?
Bourdain: Yeah, I mean, I benefit very much from the fetishization of food. I'm guilty of it. I do it all the time myself. I see how absurd it is to do that. I think it's easy to sneer at, laugh at, make fun of it and find fault with fetishisizing food. On moral grounds and for a lot of other reasons. But basically, we're quibbling over various degrees of snobbery here. It's okay to fetishize a bowl of pho, but cupcakes are so last year, you know? Even pork belly - it's over! But, I don't know... What's worse, to fetishize food or ankles? Or rubber underwear? It's six of one, half a dozen of another. I guess I'm marginally for it rather than against it, although I'm fully aware of how ludicrous it can be.
EOW: That leads me to ask, then, about the whole foodie culture that's become prevalent lately. I depend on it, of course, for my livelihood -- as do you.
EOW: I wrote a piece on the "impending foodie backlash" a few weeks back and got plenty of angry comments on that topic, as well as -- randomly -- a couple of emails from Alton Brown.
Bourdain: Oh yeah? Really?
EOW: Yeah. Don't know him, never met him, was really surprised. And a few lines in his email rang true for me. I'd like to get your opinion on it.
EOW: He said, "I think you tapped into an important issue here, which is that 'foodies' tend to idolize food and use it not only as a point of social departure (you know, to separate them from us) but as a status symbol. I've shocked more than a few interviewers by telling them I'm not a foodie."
Bourdain: I don't call myself a foodie, but that's sheer snobbery on my part. I mean, I'd love to find a better word. I would like it if there was another one. But I am one of those weird, vaguely privileged crowd of people who has the luxury of spending a lot of time and money and attention on taking pleasure from food. I guess... It's weird.
The biggest problem I have with this "foodie"-ism is the lack of a sense of humor. You know? Those foodies who don't have a sense of humor and who are angry or proprietary about their choices. That's less fun. People who collect dining experiences like butterfly collectors rather than enthusiasts. But I think anyone who's genuinely taking pleasure in food -- and not just food in a vacuum -- is something that a lot of foodies miss. If you're using food to fill up an empty spot in your soul or your social life [laughs] and you're collecting these experiences so you can bludgeon people with them online, then clearly there's something distorted there.
But anyone who genuinely enjoys food or cooking or even just likes eating as part of a larger picture -- because they like people and like drinking and like talking and communicating -- that's why the meal's so great, presumably. Most of the time it's because it's fun. It's pleasurable. It's part of a larger social contract. Great meals, more often than not, can't exist in a vacuum. No one knows this better than chefs. That's what I'd hope for the world. That's the antidote to this problem. They get this in Europe, in Asia -- I don't know they'd understand this weirdness... You know, we went from one dysfunctional relationship with food -- we didn't value it at all, didn't understand it, didn't know or care about where it came from, we devalued it -- to the point where we're overvaluing it. The point where we're distorting it.
For an Italian person in Italy, food -- and, more significantly, wine -- are both part of a healthy, larger picture. You don't see many Italians getting embarrassingly drunk at meals. They drink with every meal, but you never see them staggering, drooling, stupid drunk or binge drinking. Because it's just no big deal! To them, great food, great ingredients are just a birthright. It's just part of your life, and an important one. But just a part. It's not the focus of everything. Chef's know this; I think some of the chefs' biggest fans don't.
EOW: Then here's a question for you. Do you get frustrated with all the adoration that's poured on chefs -- especially the ones who function more as figureheads and don't do any of the actual cooking -- while the people behind the scenes, the line cooks and -- especially in Houston, the Mexicans back in the kitchen -- get no recognition?
Bourdain: I think even before chefs get famous, they're used to being loved for their lesser efforts. I think few people are loved for what they're actually good at or what they want to be loved for. I don't have a problem with it. I think it's a good thing that chefs get famous. I think it's a good thing that they open up lots of restaurants and become rock stars and that their prestige has risen. It's good for the world -- there's never been a better time to eat in America. And that's very much a part of it: the fact that there's never been a better time to cook. It's all good.
What frustrates me, of course, is that I would like -- whatever the opinion, there's plenty of room for honest disagreement on immigration -- I would like to see very much the people who are cooking and have been cooking in America and doing the large majority of the work in the service industry...let's at least acknowledge that work. It's an integral, invaluable part of that profession and of that industry. That would make me happy. If they got a James Beard Award, you know, if the James Beard people acknowledged that Mexicans exist, that would be nice! [chuckles]
EOW: What would we call that category? [laughing]
Bourdain: Well, you'll notice if you go to the James Beard Awards, you've never seen so many white people in one room since the Republican National Convention. It begs the question: Who's cooking? I think along with this, I don't appreciate the snobbery of this expectation that I should be able to go to a Bobby Flay restaurant and he should be in the kitchen. That's ludicrous. They're not working the lines themselves. That's perfectly okay and that's what the system was designed to do.
EOW: Going back to your previous statement on "it's never been a better time to eat in America" and considering that the whole locavore movement is just a given in the rest of the world, do you ever feel like Americans' "rediscovery" of it is a bit like reinventing the wheel?
Bourdain: I think it's like people who are wearing bacon T-shirts. You know, bacon's good. The fact that a bunch of silly people are wearing bacon shirts and congratulating themselves for eating bacon doesn't make it any less good. I like local, I think it's a good thing that people are more aware of it and looking to eat local, to value local. They're looking around at what's actually produced in their areas whereas they probably weren't before. Unfortunately, it's like everything else in this relatively new world we're living in. People get very sanctimonious and self-congratulatory about "local" and generally, those people live in Berkeley.
Check out Eater.com from yesterday. Wylie Dufresne had a really good piece about local, about farm-to-table. He said, "I buy my food from a farm and I serve it on a table." [chuckles] He doesn't make a big fucking deal about it. I'm a good restaurant, presumably I'm using the best stuff I can get. And the best, freshest, most seasonal stuff -- more often than not -- comes from the local area. But, you know, I'm not gonna blow myself in public and repeatedly hammer people over the head with it, make them feel bad about themselves if they can't afford to get that stuff or don't have it in their own neighborhoods. That sort of nonsense comes along with the good. And on the balance, local food and organics have been good for the world.
EOW: I agree. But what I worry about is that it might be just another trend, and that people will drop it when the next hot food trend comes along, and completely forget about local food.
Bourdain: I don't know. I don't think there's an unringing of the bell in this case. I think once people know what a good tomato tastes like, there's not going back. Once you've had really good sushi, there's no going back to "utility" sushi. Once you've had a real egg, that tastes like an egg, or you taste your first really good tomato in season, it really tends to change a person.
EOW: On a different note entirely, it's almost ten years since you published Kitchen Confidential. What are you most surprised about that's happened in that 10-year span?
Bourdain: [laughing] That I'm still making a living! That people still give a shit! That I have a TV show that's entering its seventh season, that they let me get away with this! That my books are selling. That I make a very good living walking into theaters, standing on stage and talking about myself. I'm amazed by all of it. The smell of a burning griddle is still a very recent memory for me.
EOW: Do you anticipate doing No Reservations for much longer? Are you still happy doing it?
Bourdain: I'm still happy doing it. Me and my partners are challenging ourselves to put together a particularly difficult season coming up. We're always looking for ways to undermine what we did last week, to do different stuff. We're very conscious of the fact that the conventions of travel television almost require you to fall into a comfortable groove. So we're setting ourselves up for some very difficult shows in some very challenging places next season. I would be a complete idiot to not do this for as long as I can. I can't blame anybody but myself if it gets stale for me. I decide where we go, I work with friends and I make the show any damn way I want and edit it the way I want and score it any way I want. It's a dream and I'd be a fool to walk away.
EOW: Any future collaborations with Zamir?
Bourdain: We're hoping to work with Zamir very soon. I'm thinking about a Cuba show filmed over New Year's. Zamir would play Fredo and I'd be like Al Pacino. I don't know about kissing Zamir on the mouth, but anything for good television.
EOW: If that panned out, it would be absolutely fantastic.
Bourdain: Yeah, sort of an homage to Godfather II if you will. [laughs]
EOW: As long as you don't do any homages to Godfather III.
Bourdain: No, that film never existed.
EOW: I'm glad we agree on that.
Bourdain: It was like Van Halen, post-David Lee Roth. It just didn't happen.
EOW: We only have a few minutes left, and I promised our readers I'd ask three questions that they submitted.
EOW: Here we go. First question: "I'd like his thoughts on the growing disparity between the classes, specifically as it relates to food. World-class meals, let alone those worthy of a Michelin star or two, increasingly have outrageous prices even in a secondary (or tertiary) market like Houston. I call it astronomical gastronomy. Granted, there are plenty of awesome meals to be had on the cheap, but why must the best require a second mortgage?"
Bourdain: Well, it's because it takes a lot of cooks. First, it's the labor. Fetishized ingredients that are just spectacularly expensive now, even just decent beef and pork now, all raw ingredients...the prices are just going through the roof. Add a lot of people who know how to cook with those ingredients and it just gets expensive.
However, there is hope. In Paris -- of all places -- the overwhelming trend is towards Michelin quality food run in tiny, one-or-two-person kitchens for 35 to 50 Euros, meaning that food a few years ago which you'd have paid 300 or 400 Euros for per person -- astronomical -- you can now eat in restaurants and get great meals with food just as good as some of the grand fine-dining places. For only 30 or 50 Euros. For what you used to have to pay for a bowl of soup at some of these restaurants. And I think that's the direction they're going in Paris and a lot of chefs really like that. I hope that's the direction things will go in here.
EOW: Reducing the overhead, reducing some of the pomp and circumstance?
Bourdain: Yeah! You dispense with all of that. Chefs look at it and say, "Do I really need all of this?" It's a huge headache, a lot of money and it's bullshit. I don't like to eat that way. Now that chefs are stars, they finally have the juice to say, "Hey, this is how I like to eat! And I think you'll like to eat this way too!" I really think there's hope.
EOW: Second question: "Given the heightened awareness of previously exotic and undiscovered foreign and ethnic food that people like Bourdain have brought to both the restaurant and food communities and the general public at large, why is it that the vast majority of high-end chef-driven cuisine continues to fall along an almost-cliched French/New American style?"
Bourdain: ...well, I don't. [pause] It just doesn't. It shouldn't. Maybe in Houston, but not in New York. [pause] That's gotta stop. That's gotta change. I think chefs are desperate for new directions and change and I think we got away from that a long time ago in New York. The hottest restaurant in New York is a sort of Franco-Korean thing. The whole equation has changed. Crazy, privileged foodies are just as happy eating a $1.99 bowl of noodles at the right, authentic Chinese place in Queens as they are in the most upscale restaurant in New York. I think there's just as much status attached to that. I think Jonathan Gold said it best in the LA Weekly that "dining is becoming a counterculture event." That's good too.
EOW: Houston is often one of the last cities to catch on to food trends. Things kind of filter down to us over time, sometimes taking a couple of years or more. But what we do well is ethnic food. Tiny little places and markets are serving great food, because it's easy to get in at a ground level: the food itself is cheap, the land and rent are cheap.
Bourdain: Yeah, I think it's like Japan. It was very difficult to sell bistro food in Japan, because -- to them -- when it comes to French food, if you're not spending a huge amount of money for it, it's not very good. There was so much status and prestige involved that it distorted the whole notion of what French food should be. French food can and should be cheap.
EOW: Last question, speaking of "notions" of food: What is your notion of Texas food? What do you think of when you think of Texas food?
Bourdain: What it should be, is...I'm thinking Vietnamese. [pause] Barbecue and Vietnamese food. Texas is like America. What's American food? It's food made by people who are currently in America. We're a mutt culture, filled with people from somewhere else. The only question is how far back your people go. Whether it's new arrivals or people who've been here a long time, it's food from someplace else being made America or being adapted to America or anything being cooked in America right now. That's what American food is, and that's what Texas food is.
EOW: Awesome. I really appreciate you giving us your time today, and I'll let you get back to life in New York.
Bourdain: Enjoyed the conversation. Thank you!
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.