THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
You’ve traveled to Parts Unknown with him. You’ve gone on his trips with No Reservations. You’ve probably uncovered his secrets in Kitchen Confidential. Now, sit and chat with Emmy Award-winning CNN host and world renowned Chef Anthony Bourdain as he dishes out the perspectives he has gained throughout his life’s journey.
Words by: Mike Landers
Snaps by: CNN
An often-said quote among travelers is that “the road can be unforgiving.” Touring musicians, suburbanite road-trippers, and traveling salesmen are attributed this quote the most, yet an examination of its validity is still warranted − as in the case of many others, the road is quite the opposite. Travel is a sanctuary and an escape, a respite from the doldrums of the daily grind; with new environs come new adventures and so forth. The latter viewpoint serves as former New York chef Anthony Bourdain’s latest recipe for success, as his well-documented travels have upped the ante for reality television. Bourdain’s wildly successful “Parts Unknown” CNN series finds the former Park Avenue chef deeply entrenched in foreign grounds and cultural exploration. The contagious mix of Bourdain’s off -the-cuff East Coast chutzpah and inquisitive wonderment is certainly more Kerouac- ian than Kardashian in nature, as our fearless host and leader guide us across the globe to see and taste things we never have before experienced. Simply put; he shows up and does whatever he wants when he gets there. This is the kind of liberation that wins Emmys for CNN and draws the envy of Joe 9-to-5. In many ways, Bourdain is the version of us that we want to be. He is free. He asks the questions we want to ask, and he tries the things that we are afraid to try. For him, the road is actually very forgiving. Forgiving of all the sins of the kitchen, three decades of bringing your A-game to work every night, in hot, cramped, close quarters hoping that the dishes you create bring some modicum of joy to the flavorless life of the rat racers and vacationers with high expectations. It can often be a thankless and nameless job. Think about it. When’s the last time you thanked a chef for a wonderful meal at a restaurant? Even better, when’s the last time you even knew the name of the chef or knew what he or she looked like? For Bourdain, being a chef was never about that. It was about the love of the craft because no amount of food critic praise could ever justify the dues that get paid over thirty years in a kitchen. Instead, Chef Bourdain sharpened his culinary iron because he is passionate about the power of good food and its subsequent effect on good conversation. It’s why you root for him. He cares. He is not a brand. He is not a spokesperson. You might get brash, and you might get bold, but you will not get bullshit from him. Whether filming Parts Unknown for CNN, writing and publishing books under the Harper- Collins imprint Ecco or grappling in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (he is a blue belt), he is doing it because he genuinely cares, because he wants to be there. He is doing whatever he wants to do and seemingly finding success in every endeavor. His exploits make us think that maybe we should start doing the same. If Mr. Bourdain can teach us anything, it seems, it’s that the road of life can actually be very forgiving – if we let it.
How has your former (and in many ways still current) experience as a chef molded the way you look at the world?
It’s a class thing, first. Working as a cook and as a chef, you’re basically in the business of making the same things over and over again under pressure. It’s working class work. It’s sort of a subculture in and of itself, and also a part of the service industry. I guess the way you look at everyone else, at the world and society is very much worn by that over the course of 30 years. There’s an outsider perspective perhaps. I think it’s hard not to have a sense of humor, a sense of fatalism, a sense of humility, a sense of morbid slight cynicism romantic look at how things work. Of course, you also get an understanding of how food is made, how much it costs, how good it can be. On one hand, chefs are still sort of romantic about it, they see it as something that can still surprise them and have all those magical powers in spite of the fact that it’s something they work with day after day, thousands of times a day.
When we profiled Chef Roy Choi, he said something to the effect that the kitchen was where you went if nothing else worked out for you? Is that true?
Traditionally, that’s kind of true. If you look at the classic European family model, you were not the smartest kid in the family. The smartest or eldest would be sent off to university, you were packed off to be an apprentice. The business was always pretty forgiving and a place where people were running away from other stuff – refugees and misfits.
While your Parts Unknown series has taken you to a variety of completely different places and regions, what perspective have you gained about food and cultural passion? Do you see differences between the U.S. and other countries in those respects?
Countries where people are passionate about food, I tend to like. Having a country where there is a ferocious pride in their food is a good sign, and having a country where they aren’t particularly passionate about their food is a bad sign. Food is worth arguing over, and I like countries where people argue over food. Vietnam and Italy are very similar in this respect. People will be eating dinner and arguing about a meal they had last week and talking with anticipation about a meal they are having next week. That said, they aren’t like food nerds here – it’s not a cult of personality. For Vietnamese, Italian, and Lebanese chefs that is really kind of a foreign concept. I think its because those cultures understand that food, however important and vital and however passionate they might be about it, there’s a bigger picture, there’s other stuff, there’s sex and culture and music and family. Meaning that if you spend all of your time online on a food website arguing about how to make a Bundt cake, there’s something extremely fucked about you. If you’re spending more than an hour a day worrying about who is the best chef on the Food Network, it’s a little disturbing.
Do you think the increased visibility of cooking shows and chef profiles on TV is good or bad for the profession?
I like that chefs are empowered in the sense that people are paying attention. As a function of caring about who’s cooking, you might actually start to care about what’s cooking. That’s made things better for chefs and better for the dining public. If you look at supermarkets in England post-Jamie Oliver and what they were before Jamie Oliver – it’s a transformative event. Life is much better after Emeril than it was before. It’s funny and it’s hypocritical and as pretentious and silly as the phenomenon could be, it’s probably been good for society as a whole. Chefs do something useful. They feed people; they nurture people. It’s food we’re talking about. It’s a creative enterprise with value – it’s certainly better than being a Kardashian.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu has become an integral part of your life, any chance of you competing?
Maybe. I mean now that I’m a blue belt, there’s an old dude division. I think about it. I would do it under an alias, I just like to go out there and do it for me. I’m not particularly interested in whether I win or lose, I just like to go out and see if I can do it.
How did you adjust to your life’s transition of being in a Park Avenue kitchen every day to suddenly traveling the world nonstop as a television personality? Do you miss a more stable life?
No, I don’t. I have 30 years of standing on my feet in a busy kitchen; this is a whole hell of a lot easier and a lot more fun. Given your increasingly wide audience, how have you dealt with the busy schedule in terms of filtering and controlling the messages coming from your “brand?”
Is it hard for you to keep up with the constant content? Do you feel more pressure in giving your honest opinion on camera than you did initially?
The messages coming from my “brand?” (laughs). I definitely don’t have a “brand.” It’s my Twitter account, my Facebook, and it’s my Instagram so it’s quite simple – if I didn’t say it then it doesn’t get said. It’s a defensive measure; I just don’t want somebody posting some bullshit. That would be embarrassing to me. Quite frankly, I don’t give a lot of thought to what “my brand” is or isn’t, it’s always a quality of life issue with me.
Your partnership with The Balvenie “Raw Craft” and your publishing imprint via HarperCollins showcase a different side of you in the sense of trying to bring opportunity both and exposure to people you believe in. How important have these two journeys been for you? Will there be more of these types of endeavors for you in the future?
I like collaborating with people, whether is it’s a musician, a writer, or a TV star, I like making things. I’m a true believer in the printed word. These publishing enterprises that allow me to have fun and support voices I believe in and am enthusiastic about that I would like to see read and published. It’s fun, I guess it gives me pleasure; I like to be part of making things that I’m proud of.
Are you a supporter of Cannabis legalization?
It would be idiotic to be against it, I am pro. I always thought it should be legalized. Those places where it has been legalized, it has clearly done no harm. Count me in as enthusiastic, I would vote “Yes” enthusiastically.
Within the cannabis world, much is yet to be developed in terms of flavor profiles and food pairings, although there is a lot of work being done in that arena. Do you have any interest in exploring that world given your culinary background? Do you think cannabis will ever be a significant part of mainstream cuisine?
No. I think there’s a lot to be said for edibles, I support them in principle and in practice, as a psychoactive element its there. Do I think the flavor of marijuana holds out great hope for a new spectrum of cuisine? Not really. Does the addition of marijuana make something taste better than something without marijuana? I haven’t really come across anything where that is the case. I’ve come across items where I was happy there was marijuana in there, but that’s because it made me high. It wasn’t because “Wow I love the fresh taste of weed.” (laughs). Not particularly. Same with hash. It’s an interesting novelty item, if I was to be visiting any cannabis product in food, it would be for the traditional reasons, not because it’s the taste sensation that’s sweeping the nation. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody did something really brilliant with it. Is there gonna be weed crusted salmon that’s better than any crusted salmon dish that’s come before? I don’t know.
Your writing comes from a very authentic place. How did you approach getting your messages, humor, and perspective across on film as opposed to your blogs, articles, and published books?
I don’t have a message. There’s no plan. I don’t control a brand, and I don’t give it that much thought. I try really hard to not think about it. I look at every day as an opportunity to do something creative that makes me happy, that makes my creative partners happy, and we push ourselves to be as different as we can be in terms of what we have created before and that’s it. Will people like it, or get it, or fully appreciate it? That’s really of secondary importance.
What is the easiest thing about being Anthony Bourdain and what is the hardest thing about being Anthony Bourdain?
The easiest thing? I get to pretty much go anywhere I want in the world and do whatever I want when I get there, as long as I make self-indulgent television about it. The hardest thing? If I want to sit in an Irish pub at four o’clock in the afternoon alone, listening to Tom Waits and having a pint by myself − that’s probably not gonna happen.
If you had to pick three destinations from your Parts Unknown travels to revisit; which ones would you choose and why?
Tokyo would be one of them for sure. I would also say, Vietnam and Beirut.
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