'Chewing the Fat': No Reservations' Anthony Bourdain
By Jamie R. Liu
Published in The DCist
Anthony Bourdain is the acerbic host of No Reservations on the Travel Channel. His rise to fame can be attributed to Kitchen Confidential, his book exploring the seamy underworld of the restaurant industry. Since then he has written two more books, and has served as a guest judge on Top Chef.
Bourdain chatted with us from his home in New York, having just returned from filming in our neighbor to the north, Baltimore, for his "Rust Belt" episode. We discussed the D.C. episode (which he taped back in July), his plans for the future, the awfulness of a particular TV show, and his advice to Obama.
The Washington D.C. episode of No Reservations will air tonight on the Travel Channel at 10 p.m., with reruns at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.
When I was preparing questions for this interview, I asked friends for suggestions on what to ask. Most of the responses ranged from "ask him if he'll marry me" to "give him my number" to "I want to have a bromance." But in your Time magazine interview, you said that you were on the shy side.
I think I'm like a lot of chefs with two different kinds of personalities. We develop these sort of Type-A personalities from all these years in the kitchen, but out in the real world, interacting with real people, I can be shy. I'm less comfortable. I think it's no accident that I ended up as a chef, and I think I share a lot of the same kinds of insecurities that a lot of chefs have that gets them in the business.
How do you feel about being so idolized?
It's unreal. I kinda don't take it personally. When people say nice stuff about you, it's the same as when they say bad things about you. I don't really feel like they're talking about me. It's nice when people like the show. It's nice when people like the books. But I don't really think people really know me. The threshold for celebrity is so low these days. Those people on The Hills make a f***ing living off it. So I don't think I should be patting myself on the back about anything.
You have a young daughter with whom you probably want to spend more time, and I'm sure it would be easy to sell out on a nice endorsement deal to do so. What motivates you to continue filming more episodes of No Reservations?
Because I can. I'm well aware of the fact that it's the best job in the world. How long will people want to see more? How long will the network be crazy enough to put up money for this venture? I assume I should do it as long as I can get away with it, because it can't last forever. I would feel like an idiot if I walked away from it now. I'm having fun. When it stops being fun, then I'll stop doing it.
What you'll see this year and in the following years is there will be a suspiciously large number of shows in and around Italy. I try very hard to incorporate as many places that are close to the ancestral homelands of my wife's family and my in-laws. I bring my wife and daughter to many family-friendly places. Or places that will be fun for them to hang out while I'm shooting. For every Sri Lanka or Thailand, I try to do one in the south of France.
My friend is a foreign service officer in Vietnam. He told me he bumped into you, and that you were looking for a place in Vietnam.
I think I remember him. I bumped into him outside of a pho joint in Saigon and I mentioned that I was looking for a place. We just finished a show out there about me house hunting in the Hoi An/Danang area. It's close enough to Western hospitals and services, yet it's only five minutes to rice paddies and water buffaloes. It's a perfect mix of beach, mountains, country, town, and so many of the things I love about Vietnam. I'll be looking for a place for the next year and a half trying to nail something down. I hope to move my family there for a year.
How do you want living in Vietnam to influence your daughter?
It's always a useful thing for a privileged kid to see very early on how people very different from them live. Her neighbors in Vietnam are going to be people who really work for a living. Chickens and pigs will be running around in the yard. It can be pretty distorting with Daddy on TV. Bottom line: forget about social obligation, i.e. raise a well-adjusted daughter. I just think it'll be fun for her. It's a very child-centric, child-friendly country. They love kids. They indulge them. The food's delicious and healthy. I love the idea of her learning to use chopsticks. She eats a lot of what her mom and dad eat. From looking back on my own childhood, if I had that, it would have been a very cool thing.
What differences do you encounter when planning a show at a domestic versus an international location? How do you scout them out?
There was a basic change in perspective that happened, looking at a place outside of New York with the same approach I give to foreign countries. Very early on, I was a snob about where we went. The Vietnamese could do no wrong, and I tended to look down upon or sneer at Middle America and the South and Southwest. That's changed a lot for me over time. I eventually started cutting people in the States the same slack that I do for people who believe very different things on the other side of the world. But generally what gets us to a place is we get hooked into a visual or film cue.
It helped very much in the case of Baltimore that I'm a total, obsessive fan of The Wire. Being able to access a couple of characters from the show, and having the look of that show in the front of our minds made our camera crew very excited about riffing off the look of that show. It's just a starting point. If there's a film we want to rip off for the cinematography or the music, for instance. Characters or some aspect of the town that I'm interested in or obsessed with, chefs I'm friends with in that area. All of those things are good factors. With D.C., I know Jose Andres is doing very well. I've been there a number of times, and there were certain places that I wanted to get, personal obsessions that I wanted to indulge. That wasn't as hard a show to set up, and a fairly personal one.
In the D.C. episode, you discuss the "other" D.C., the non-political one. You talk with author George Pelecanos about the racial and economic divisions of the city, following a narrative of destruction, renewal and hope for the future. This seems to have some parallels with your New Orleans show. Do you feel like this is a pattern true across a number of urban areas?
The challenge for us from the very first episode is that we vowed that we're going to do a Paris show without going to the Eiffel Tower. If we can do that and keep to a minimum of recognizable landmarks, that is definitely a good thing. And I think George Pelecanos's work was the way in for me in D.C. I like the way he makes D.C. an interesting place to read about. I don't really care about monuments. We're bludgeoned with politics and pundits all day long. We know what happens with that Washington, because if that Washington catches a cold, we all sneeze. The terrain that Pelecanos has been mining in his fiction was very interesting to me. And Jose got me involved with DC Central Kitchen.
The racial problems, the racial divides are very, very similar to what's going on in Baltimore, Detroit, Buffalo, a lot of other towns. I'm not Dan Rather here, but I'd rather show people that side of town than the best restaurant in town. But of course, being friends with Jose, I couldn't resist doing Minibar. If I can get that kind of access to a restaurant or personality, and show people in an informal way what I really like to eat, it's always going to work better as television than somebody I don't know. I generally don't do the best restaurant in town unless I know the chef. And it helps when they're funny as hell.
During your visit with Jose, you mention everyone makes the mistake of getting drunk and making out with a girl with Frito breath.
Yeah I forgot about that. I'm sure it must have happened at some point.
So what is your best drunk story?
Is there anything worse than kinda waking up where all the things you have to apologize for are slowly coming back? The painful wave of micro-memory comes back one after another. I try to avoid that now. I'm doing a pretty good job of avoiding it. I've had to be careful for the last nine years, because if I get drunk on the show it'll end up on the show. Even if it's off-duty. We finish off shooting for the day, but they'll turn the cameras back on if I do something stupid. And now these days everybody's got a cell phone. There's no place you can run and no place you can hide. You're not going to see anything of me popping up on YouTube swinging a shirt over my head or doing belly shots. Those days are long gone. And as a professional drinker, I've done a lot of drinking on camera. I've gotten pretty good at knowing what I'm going to be feeling like in 20 minutes. I learned certain basic things, like if you've been drinking vodka throughout the evening and a fan comes up and says do a tequila shot. That's an important decision-making moment there. No good can come of taking that shot. Back in the day... gaahh... they seemed funny then, but looking back... I'm trying to think of a happy funny moment. They're a lot funnier if they happen to somebody else.
You could rat out one of your crew...
One of our crew passed out with his head in the freezer. We took a picture. That's somewhere on the website I think. It's dangerous to be on the crew. The same rules apply. If you fall down, destroy property, vomit, or in any way embarrass yourself, all the other cameras will swing forcibly around on you. As we say on the show, nothing like a head injury to save a scene.
Would you want to do a country-specific exploration show, like the Spain - On the Road show featuring Chef Mario Batali, cookbook writer Mark Bittman and Gwyneth Paltrow?
I would love to do something with Mario. It's been an unrealized ambition to produce a show for Mario, honestly. He's so smart. The guy knows so much. He's easily the funniest and smartest celebrity chef out there. The Spain show. I'm disappointed. After seeing the Spain show, I see room for improvement. Life is good for Mario, he's got life by the tail. It was probably a lot of fun for him to make that show and not too demanding of his time. But I would very much like to produce a show where he tells us everything he knows about Italy. I think that would be good and informative television. I just don't know if he wants to put in the time commitment given all the businesses he has.
Okay, I'll just say it. I think the Spain show is f***ing awful. Mark Bittman comes off unsympathetic to say the least. Bringing someone who cannot or will not eat jamon [Gwyneth Paltrow] to Spain is a misjudgment. My crew grinds their teeth with rage looking at the crummy production values. Bad camera work, bad sound, bad direction. The whole thing sucks. It's unfortunate. It's mesmerizingly awful.
Does traveling make you appreciate being an American more?
I think traveling HAS made me appreciate America a lot more. Not because the rest of the world is deprived or so awful that we should appreciate what we have in America. To the contrary, I've been having a really great time. A lot of the world has a lot to hold over us in a lot of respects. I think it makes me more appreciative, more open to people, more appreciative of what it's like to live in a place like Detroit. I'm just more tolerant and open-minded about different cultures. Buffalo is a different culture. I look at Buffalo and Buffalonians as a different culture now. Ten years ago, I would have looked at them as those poor guys who live upstate, and I'm lucky enough to live in Manhattan. That's the way I would have seen it 10 years ago. Now I see it as a very distinct personality, a very distinct culture with its own architecture, its own kinda feel. It's, actually, a weirdly wonderful place. Even in winter. I think it took me traveling around the world to get to that point.
The inauguration is tomorrow. Do you have any advice for our soon-to-be president?
I would not presume to advise him on anything. By virtue of being elected, he has made my life as a traveler much much easier. I've felt the impact abroad already. I get congratulated by complete strangers walking up to me in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. It's been a tough eight years to be a traveling American. I don't think people hated Americans, but there was a look that people gave you. Just by virtue of being an American you were like some well-intentioned, but rabid golden retriever. A look of curiosity, disbelief and horror. And this was in England and Australia. I'm particularly proud and happy about our new president. There will be a tangible difference in the way Americans are treated abroad. It just feels better. Above and beyond all the policy.
Any advice about food?
I'll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I'm not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I'm a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits. I'm suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth. I'm a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we're eating is killing us. But I don't know if it's time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald's. My libertarian side is at odds with my revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we've chosen to eat and our fast food culture. I'm really divided on that issue. It'd be great if he [Obama] served better food at the White House than what I suspect the Bushies were serving. It's gotta be better than Nixon. He liked starting up a roaring fire, turning up the air conditioning, and eating a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup. Anything above that is a good thing. He's from Chicago, so he knows what good food is.