One evening last September, stars from the foodie world — Mario Batali, Guy Fieri, Eric Ripert and Rachael Ray, among others — gathered at New York’s Pier Sixty to roast one of their own: Travel Channel’s bad boy, Anthony Bourdain.
He was introduced as a man with “more enemies than Todd Akin at a Planned Parenthood rally,” a “badass, edgy guy who tells it like it is — about couscous.”
“Anthony Bourdain, of course,” said NBC’s Willie Geist, “has huge talent, and he’s the first to tell you that. If his ego got any bigger, it would look like Paula Deen’s thighs.”
Fieri, the chef who’s been the subject of some of Bourdain’s sharpest criticism, referred to Bourdain’s drug-riddled past: “I hear you’re the only one in [culinary school] who did most of his cooking with a spoon and a Bic lighter.”
A former cocaine and heroin addict and itinerant chef until his best-selling Kitchen Confidential made him a celebrity, Bourdain grew up the son of a man who worked for the classical-music division of Columbia Records in Bergen County, N.J. By his own admission, he was an angry, self-destructive teenager who read Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, and who imagined he’d become a writer in a smoking jacket with an opium pipe and lots of women.
Instead, he got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant and found himself seeking the respect of his co-workers. It was the first time he felt good about himself, and he also noticed the chefs “were yankin‘ the chicks” and line cooks were “living like Mötley Crüe.”
Bourdain had found his métier. After two years at Vassar College, he attended culinary school and worked in a variety of restaurants while pursuing his love for drugs.
“No one cared about chefs back then,” he told journalist Marc Maron, “and at the end of the day, people didn’t want to eat my food because it wasn’t very good. … I could crank out 300 brunches competently — I was your guy — but if you wanted an exciting restaurant that rich people are going to go to on a regular basis, probably not.”
But he was a storyteller, and when Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000, that talent was obvious. Television, rather than a stove, became his medium. His 2002 Food Network show, A Cook’s Tour, and his next series on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, were big hits, establishing Bourdain as a globetrotting, cigarette-smoking, swaggering host with a tattoo that reads in Greek, “I suspend judgment.”
The title of his new show on CNN, Parts Unknown, plays on his passion for eating animal parts not usually favored by American diners as well as his intention to go to countries he’s not been able to visit before. And on May 11, Bourdain will partner with his former Travel Channel buddy, Twin Cities’ own Andrew Zimmern, to present an evening titled “Guts and Glory” at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.
Why the jump from the Travel Channel to CNN?
Well, CNN came calling, and they were flattering and said all the right things and seemed to appreciate very much the shows I’ve been doing that I’m proudest of. And they expressed enthusiasm not just for me but also for all the producers and editors and production people I’ve been working with the past 10 years.
We offered to bring the whole operation over to CNN, and we’ll have access to countries we haven’t been allowed to shoot in. They offer a worldwide infrastructure and experienced people on the ground and resources that would really allow us to make even better shows. That was a very attractive offer.
Where haven’t you shot that you hope to?
Congo, Libya and Burma are on our short list.
Are these half-hour or one-hour shows?
One-hour. All the same production partners — Zero Point Zero Production — we’re bringing the band intact to CNN. We’re not going to do anything at CNN that we haven’t established I’m good at. No hard news or election coverage. The only difference, I think, is that we’ll be allowed to be a little smarter on CNN, and we don’t necessarily have to put a food porn scene in every nine minutes or adhere to a specific, perceived demographic. It will be a travel show focused on the intersection of food and culture, but we’ll be much freer to wander if we choose to.
Another factor in moving to CNN is that the show has been very popular around the world, but it’s taken two years for people in Malaysia or Europe or South America to see the show because there’s a lag time. There won’t be with CNN.
How many episodes of No Reservations and The Layover have you done?
One hundred forty of No Reservations, 20 of The Layover.
When No Reservations began, did you imagine how successful your television career would be?
No, at no time did I think that. I thought we were an anomaly, and I was surprised we even got a show, and I was surprised it was a success. We really never thought about who our perceived audience was going to be. We did everything we could to undermine any formula we found ourselves falling into. It was always a creative enterprise and a selfish one. I always pursued things I was interested in and told stories that people I worked with found innovative and interesting. We tried to make it as smart and high-quality a show as we could.
How does all that travel affect your personal life?
Since becoming a father more than five years ago, it’s become difficult. I try very hard to spend as much time at home as I can and to bring my family with me. But with Ariane in kindergarten, that’s more difficult now. I hope she’ll travel with me, but I’m obviously not going to be bringing her to the Congo or Libya.
I remember after your daughter was born you said you were going to slow down, smooth some of the rough edges. How is the 2013 Bourdain different from the 2006 Bourdain?
It’s too late to change. Kitchen Confidential came out when I was 44, and I am pretty much stuck with what I am.
And how would you describe who you are?
[Long pause] I was a child of the ’60s, and for whatever reason, I was an angry kid, not happy with the world as I saw it, not happy about missing the best part of the ’60s. I felt suffocated by my parents’ love and normalcy, and I identified myself from the age of 12 with the records I was listening to and the drugs my friends were taking.
I was surrounded by a rapidly changing world where rebelling was the thing. The Vietnam War was still going on, Nixon had just been reelected in the middle of Watergate. Suburban New Jersey did not satisfy. I read Hunter Thompson. I wanted to be in San Francisco getting some free love.
Then why did you go to Vassar? Why not, say, San Francisco?
I was in love with a girl I’d met in high school. She went to Vassar, so I went to Vassar.
Let’s talk food. I moved to Minnesota after spending 35 years on the East Coast, and I’ve been impressed by how the cooking and restaurants have improved in the nine years I’ve lived here. I know you’ve done shows in the Midwest — do you have the same impression?
All boats have risen everywhere, not just Minnesota. The Minneapolis food scene exploded relatively early, but you go to Austin, Louisville, Asheville, Kansas City, Atlanta — things have exploded everywhere. Everywhere you go there are young chefs with tattoos on their forearms curing their own salami, serving artisanal cheeses and cooking at a level that wouldn’t have been predicted 10 years ago.
And in the Twin Cities, you have a large Asian community that has enlightened the scene.
I find it unusual that both you and Andrew Zimmern have enjoyed terrific success with food shows on the Travel Channel and both of you recovered from serious drug addiction. Can you explain that?
Andrew went to Vassar, I went to Vassar. Andrew graduated from the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], I graduated from the CIA. He had drug and alcohol problems, as did I. Great minds think alike!
But unlike Andrew, I never took the rehab route, and I still drink. But I certainly had almost two decades of serious narcotic and/or cocaine problems. It’s not a route I suggest to anybody.
You just stopped?
I was seven years on a methadone program and slowly weaned myself off methadone and had to go cold turkey. In the end, and after an entire lifetime of cocaine, crack cocaine pretty much cured me of my coke problem.
What do you think of Bizarre Foods?
I think Andrew does some very valuable work, and he does it well. He’s a friend, and he’s someone I look up to and admire very much. I’m totally amazed at his work ethic. It’s hard what I do, but I look at what he’s eating every day on that show, and it’s tough. It’s one thing to be shooting where the plumbing is not good and it’s scorching hot, but it’s another to be eating nut sack every day.
How has your approach to food changed since your shows began?
I think we’re pretty much done looking at any food just for shock effect. We’re looking much more for typical, and if typical is bugs and penis, then I’ll eat it.
I think our first show in Beirut changed a lot of things for us. It was possible to make a show without much food when the situation called for it. We could do a show not just on what people are eating but also about a serious or depressing issue, and audiences will stay with us.
I’m very proud that we got more scrupulous and paid more attention to our production values. We use different lenses and camera work; we think a lot more about those things. Often the destination and content will originate with discussions with the camera people about what we might able to do with cinematography. We’re looking for a beautiful show. We often rack our brains to figure out what will most likely cause fear and confusion at the network that week.
You’ve said many times you’ve never really been a seriously gifted chef. Are you a better cook now than before your first book made you famous?
No. I was never a great cook, but working every day in a kitchen — it’s been a long time since I did that.
Any desire to do that?
I’m 56, dude.
How many restaurateurs say to you, “You know, a whole lot fewer people are ordering fish on Monday in my place thanks to you”? [In one of the most publicized passages in Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain advised patrons not eat fish in restaurants on Mondays because it might be days-old.]
I’ve heard that, and I’m sorry I wrote that because it really doesn’t hold true anymore. It’s 12 years later, and things have changed. I wouldn’t be ordering sushi in an Irish pub on Monday, perhaps, but any responsible restaurant has changed.
You’re well-known for taking shots at folks like Alice Waters, Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and others. Are these real disagreements or would you sit down and have lunch with, for example, Rachael Ray?
Yeah, I like Rachael. She is always very good-natured about my making fun of her all these years. I’d say we’re friendly whenever we see each other. I’d absolutely have dinner with her. She has very good taste in music — she’s a big New York Dolls fan.
We joke around, but I’ve never felt any genuine animus toward her at all. As a comedic foil she’s useful, but I’ve never had a personal grievance at all.
And I like Alice. I acknowledge her importance in the industry, but I think there’s a hypocrisy that’s worth discussing. She’s evangelical and dogmatic.
Paula has made some decisions I find loathsome, so if it’s a feud, she’s already won. It’s her world; I just live in it.
And have you ever actually eaten at Guy Fieri’s mega-restaurant in Times Square?
No. I looked at the menu, so why would I want to do that? I won’t go just to mock it. It’s designed to appeal to a certain kind of tourist audience. I don’t hate him. I thought it was big of him to come to my roast. He’s a hard-working man, though I won’t be lined up to eat Guy’s special blue salami.
How much do you cook at home? And what do you cook?
I cook for my daughter — pretty simple stuff like pastas, maybe a stew. My wife is training for some jujitsu championship, so she only eats protein. We eat out a lot.
Would you care to respond to Willie Geist’s comment at your roast last year that went this way: “Anthony Bourdain, of course, has huge talent, and he’s the first to tell you that. If his ego got any bigger, it would look like Paula Deen’s thighs.”
It was funny as hell, and by the standards of that evening, it was very kind.
Beers with Bourdain
The Sample Room Co-Owner Darren Ennis recalls the day Anthony Bourdain stopped in.
Way back in 2002, before he was a household name, Anthony Bourdain made his way from New York to Northeast Minneapolis and walked through the door of our freshly opened restaurant/bar, The Sample Room. He cruised the kitchen, shot the piece, slid into a booth, and we spent the next few hours shootin‘ the shit and swilling Summit.
Yes, Bourdain is as cool as he seems on TV. Yes, he’s a celebrity. But that afternoon, he was more like a brother, a compatriot who came from the same crazy family.
You see, I grew up in the restaurant biz. My father owned and operated joints from the time I was born. I slept on dirty linen bags, worked every possible position and then started running restaurants in college. The hospitality business is under my skin and in my DNA. So I know that if you make the crazy leap to open a joint, you’ll be fortunate to actually get it open, let alone keep it open.
At that early make-or-break stage in our business, to have Anthony Bourdain see us featured in The Wall Street Journal, take interest and seek us out validated our vision. When he said, “Let the revolution begin,” he confirmed that our small-plate, made-from-scratch neighborhood concept made sense. And with luck, a great deal of diligence and proper execution, people would come.
Eleven years later, Bourdain has blown up bigger than ever. And we’re still here, doing our thing, better than ever. When he visits Minneapolis in May for a one-night show at the State Theatre with our buddy Andrew Zimmern, perhaps he’ll pop back in and we’ll reignite the revolution.