The Bad Boy of Good Food

Q&A with Anthony Bourdain

Interviewed by Jordan Wright | May 19th, 2010 |
Anthony Bourdain.
Courtesy the Travel Channel
Anthony Bourdain.

As the host of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain is the consummate dinner guest. An endearing enfant terrible, with a peripatetic wanderlust to rival Darwin and a puckish swagger that would make Bluebeard seem as docile as a clam, he slurps and sups the world’s melting pot in dogged pursuit of ethno-gastronomic delicacies. With cheerful I’ll eat-anything-you-put-in-front-of-me sangfroid, he lustily relishes fish brains, ant larvae, pig’s eyeballs, sparrow liqueur and the like on his adventures to far-flung locales. For his endless curiosity he has garnered a devoted audience, three Emmy nominations and has penned eight bestsellers, including the deliciously lurid “Kitchen Confidential.”

In his latest memoir, “Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook,” due out next month, he threatens to yank the delicate scrim off noted chefs. Alice Waters, David Chang and “Top Chef” winners and losers will feel the sting of the provocateur’s barbs.

The gritty and endearing Bourdain will appear at the Warner Theatre on May 21 with cohort and chef/restaurateur Eric Ripert of D.C.’s Westend Bistro and New York’s famous Le Bernadin for an evening of tale-swapping and secrets of restaurant skullduggery.

In a recent interview, he spoke to me about his life, his new book and his upcoming appearance in Washington.

You take inordinate pleasure in poking the prevailing food fashionistas, uncovering the raw underbelly of restaurants, and snubbing the establishment. What propels you on to your next adventure?

I have a restless and curious mind, and as much as I might not like to face it, I’m probably becoming the food establishment at this point. But I do it because I can. It’s my nature. I get angry when I see abuse, and ecstatic when the experience is great.

I enjoy traveling. I like chefs and get paid to do what I like doing. And, thankfully, I’m not expected to behave or be diplomatic. I’m clearly very lucky and very foolish to do what I do and thankfully I can benefit from low expectations. With Eric [Ripert], he and I have a lot in common, but he has the burden of a reputation to protect and I don’t.

Your independent, take-no-prisoners style of writing is delightfully anarchic. What makes for a good food writer, in your opinion?

Certainly a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone. If you’re writing about food, it’s very, very important to like and appreciate the people that make your food … also, a lack of snobbery, definitely honesty and to not be willfully disingenuous. If you really enjoy eating food I don’t think you have to know about food. That will come. But you should be passionate about it. Be an honest broker with an open mind and an open heart. I think some of the most dynamic writing on food is obviously coming off the blogosphere.

The chimera is a fabulous fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, body of a goat, and tail of a serpent. Would you eat it and how would you prepare it?

If I were surprised by it as a guest in someone’s home in a developing country, I would accept it out of politeness, rather than offend my host. Though if I were to prepare it, I’d cook it low and slow with a bottle of good wine.

You’ve eaten your way throughout the four corners of the world. What fusion would you create that hasn’t yet been done?

I’m generally not a fan, I think it’s dangerous territory. But two of my favorite restaurants are in New York, Momofuku Ko and Momofuku Saam, which use French, Southern American, Italian and Korean fusion. It’s utterly fantastic, perhaps because it breaks all the rules.

There have been three books written about [actress] Louise Brooks. One is her autobiography in which she speaks of my grandfather as her greatest paramour. You said that Louise Brooks would be a preferred dining companion at your last supper? Why did you choose her?

I enjoyed her autobiography, “Lulu in Hollywood,” and saw two of her films. I think she was a fascinating and an extraordinarily forward-thinking and independent woman, especially for her times. She struck me as someone with interesting things to say and who would be a powerful presence at the dining table.

On to the more mundane — what are your favorite restaurants in D.C.?

Any restaurant that Jose Andres is associated with. I love Minibar! I love Michel Richard and Bob Kinkead’s place! Oh my God! Who am I leaving out? Oh, and El Pollo Rico! And Eamonn’s too in Alexandria!

What do you cook at home?

Cooking pasta makes me happy. Maybe a steak, but I like to use one pan and keep it simple. I have so little time to spend with my family. In NYC I just pick up the phone and I can order Japanese, Thai, Chinese and French — or a human head delivered!

What foods would you like to see more of in the US?

I like bottarga [cured fish roe] very much and jamon Iberico [Iberian cured ham]. And I know it’s a dream, but more unpasteurized raw milk cheeses, especially really stinky ones from France and Italy … and artisanal sausages from Sardinia.

I’m a sushi slut, so, I’d say more high-quality sushi … though maybe not, because of the over-fishing. As an institution I would like to see Singapore-style hawkers’ centers. That would be a great development for our country.

What importance do you accord to ambiance, food, and service to define a successful restaurant?

These days I like ambiance and service as unobtrusive and informal as possible. What I really appreciate at Momofuku Ko is you’re getting two-star Michelin food over a counter, directly from a cook who’s wearing a dishwasher’s shirt. That’s awesome!

I don’t need flowers and china and expensive silverware, unless you’re talking about French Laundry or Per Se. I am breathless with admiration for those two. But more often then not it’s about the food. If I’m comfortable without a tie, I’m more likely to be enjoying my food. I’d just as soon be in cut-offs and bare feet.

You’ve experienced foods from cultures that no outsider will ever taste. Please choose from the following answers. If an ivory-billed woodpecker was struck by a car and lay by the roadside as you were on my afternoon stroll, you would: A) Try to revive it; B) Call the local bird rehabilitator; C) Fire up the grill; D) Go for the eyeballs first

Call the bird rehabilitator.

Oh my, you are a romantic!

I like cute animals.

What can you tell me about your new book?

I am living in a state somewhere between suspended animation and mortal terror. It comes out June 8 and I have no idea how it will be received. I’m pretty sure there are going to be people pretty angry with me, but it’s too late to stop it now. Talk to me in two months! Right now I’m really looking forward to coming to D.C. to do this rare gig with Eric.

For tickets to “No Reservations: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert,” visit www.warnertheatre.com.

For questions or comments, contact jordan@whiskandquill.com.

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