Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

One Sexy Bastard

An interview with Anthony Bourdain

I love my boyfriend. I do. But Anthony Bourdain, executive chef at the New York brasserie Les Halles and author of such books as Kitchen Confidential, A Cook's Tour and the just released Les Halles Cookbook, is-in the words of one of Maisonneuve's senior editors-"one sexy bastard."

I panted my way through Kitchen Confidential, a debauched, drug-soaked odyssey into the inferno of the restaurant business. And I swooned over A Cook's Tour, a quixotic hunt across jungle, desert and steppe for the ultimate culinary epiphany. (The Food Network's series of the trip includes a shot of Bourdain sucking back a still-beating cobra heart as if it were an oyster shooter.)

He has the hero's ripe lust for exotic, uncharted extremes of experience, the anti-hero's romantic and destructive delusions. And in his Les Halles Cookbook, he offers the manna of classic French brasserie cooking, dishes so voluptuously essential I'm tempted to gnaw them right off the page.

We spoke by phone during his publicity stop in Montreal.

Mona Awad Both in Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour, you use a lot of religious and mythological terminology when you talk about food and the people who cook it. Do you think that food and cooking, by their very nature and history, demand this kind of language from us?

Anthony Bourdain I think so. I think it's about as primal as it gets. It goes right back to first memory experience with Mom. It's such an elemental act: eating, nurturing, feeding someone, sharing food. It's not just cheap words. I'm pulling out the heaviest ammunition I've got when I wax poetic in that area. I see cooking for someone as maybe the most selfless thing-short of oral sex-you can do for somebody.

MA Sex and war are two other contexts in which you tend to place food. Why do you think cooking lends itself so well to these metaphors?

AB The entire brigade system, the hierarchy of the kitchen, was set up along military lines by Escoffier. The same kind of thinking went into the structure and maintenance of that hierarchy. So it's certainly no accident that [such] language is around. It was a phallocentric, heavily male subculture for so long, it's not surprising that mindset permeates a lot of the thinking in restaurants. Unnecessarily so, I'd say. I'm always uncomfortable with the testosterone element of cooking because I think it's regrettable that it was male, and in fact hostile to women, for so many of the early years of cooking. Secondly, because it's one of the few areas where men are ultimately free to be themselves. I believe the kitchen's a meritocracy. I'm very, very uncomfortable with the whole idea of macho. Let us remember that cooks are generally these hulking men who wear aprons and clogs and are drawing pretty pictures on plates. So it's very much a yin-yang, male-female craft.

MA I remember those guys when I was a kid. My mom worked in delis for years and I stayed with her and watched her work. Those guys in the kitchen used to scare the hell out of me.

AB Maybe that's overcompensation for the fact that we're very aware of how-I hate to say it-we're in touch with our female side, if such a thing exists. We are conscious that we're doing something our mothers did. If you ask any male chef what the last thing they want to eat on earth is, it's almost invariably something that hearkens back to their mom or grandmother or aunt. So I think that there's a lot of overcompensation there. As far as, uh-you were talking about military terminology?

MA Yes.

AB And the other was?

MA Sex.

AB Sex. Again, a lot of that emanates from sheer boredom. Having gone to Vassar at a time when it was over 90 percent women, I can say that speaking excessively on the subject of sex is not an exclusively male preoccupation. Particularly when you've got a lot of people shut up in the same room with little else to talk about. A lot of the talk in kitchens when I came up-when it was a much more male-dominated society-resembles nothing so much as a Miguel Piñero play, a very homoerotic level of discourse. In fact, the vast majority of sexually aggressive or threatening language I've ever seen is men on men. A woman said to me once, "You male chefs are all the same. You scratch your bellies and curl up on the floor and assume the position." The language, the sound of what we talk about in the kitchen, is basically all noise. I'd like to think so. I've seen the business change a lot in the last fifteen years, and that can only be a good thing.

MA What I love about you as a protagonist is that you've been influenced, and openly admit as much, by other similar protagonists from movies and books and comics. Anaïs Nin says that those who nourish themselves on literature run the risk of trying to approximate the most impossible rhythms. I thought about that when I read A Cook's Tour. Did you ever feel that way on the road?

AB I think that's a dead-on observation.

MA (Beams audibly)

AB I'm not a big Nin fan, but...she's pegged all my problems with the world. While it is true that chefs in general seem to have a taste for melodrama, I think it's a central problem in my life, and for those around me, that I crave even being miserable in a dramatic way.

MA You say in A Cook's Tour that you wanted to find the perfect meal, but also that the idea of a perfect meal is ridiculous. Do you think the perfect meal is less an experience of the mouth and more one of the mind?

AB Yes. In fact, I've had a couple of epiphanies in that area. I stopped taking photographs in Angkor Wat when I realized, painfully, that all the perfect moments in your life...there's no way to record them. I've also found, without question, that there is no such thing as a perfect meal and no way to plan for finding it. I realized cooking professionally is a dominant act. It's about control.

MA That's very true.

AB The best you can do is to constantly put yourself into the hands of whatever host or cook or person is cooking your food. Or putting yourself in a position, as I often do, of just letting things happen to you. Putting yourself in a position of not being afraid-a huge leap of faith, a willingness to accept whatever happens, to free your heart of fear, prejudice, preconception, conscious thought-and just let whatever happens happen. When you do have those perfect meals, it's always because you put yourself in a position to allow it to happen.

MA The voice and tone you use in Kitchen Confidential differs from the one used in A Cook's Tour. Both are self-deprecating, but the latter I found much more humble. Did travel change you? And if so, to what extent?

AB Well, I'll quote Muhammad: "Don't tell me what a man knows, tell me where he has travelled." Travel changes you, and it can change you in really fundamental ways. I travelled with a married couple, Chris and Lydia, who shot the show. A few weeks after I got back, I suddenly get a phone call from Chris saying, "Is life different for you now? Is it weird?" And I said yes. It really did mess me up. It's impossible to not be changed by people with very little again and again offering you everything they have. Words that you thought you knew the meaning of, like "work," take on a whole new meaning. I'll never forget returning from Vietnam, and like a week later I had to go to a Los Angeles book fair, and I found myself in the lobby of a W Hotel surrounded by people drinking cosmopolitans and talking about things that were important to them and I felt like I'd just arrived from Mars. I travelled the world thinking that the human race, given a slight change of circumstances, would all revert to pretty savage jackals who would tear each other apart. I don't think that way anymore. I actually have a much more accepting and optimistic view of the basic nature of the human animal. I think that the world is largely filled with people trying to do the best they can.

MA Anything that you haven't tried on your travels that you're planning on trying?

AB I have not had ortolan.

MA What is that?

AB That's a tiny bird found in France. There was a wonderful piece written in the New Yorker a while back on Mitterrand, the former French president. He had, like, two days to live, and the last thing he wanted to eat was the traditional ortolan experience. They drown a little bird, an overfed bird, and you put a hood over your head and you eat this sizzling hot bird-you know, everything but the feet. You pop it in your mouth and kind of crunch into it, and the hot boiling Armagnac and guts go rushing down your throat. It's supposed to be fantastic-and, I believe, marginally illegal. But it was a fantastic article. I've read about this for awhile. It's an essential element of French high-end gastronomy, and, yeah, that's something I'd like to try. You know, it's a big world with a lot of stuff in it. The list is endless.

MA You write about the oyster and vichyssoise epiphanies that made you want to be a chef. But what made you decide to be a writer?

AB I just like to tell stories. I've always used language to get the things I want, to get out of trouble. It's a very infantile, natural instinct for me. Language came easy. I always talked a good game. It's fun for me.

MA You never find it to be really difficult.

AB No. Writing is disturbingly easy for me. It's something I'm a little ambivalent about because I've now had the opportunity to hang out with real writers. Authors whose works I admire.

MA Like who?

AB I'm not going to tell you because I'm going to tell you that I don't like them very much. I'm uncomfortable around them. Their whining seems so ludicrous. I mean, this is not work for me, it's a privilege. Work is standing on your feet in a kitchen feeding people for seventeen hours a day. I could never be Vladimir Nabokov-that's a genius and an artist and a timelessly great author. But when I hear living authors complaining about the rigours of book tour, or the difficulties of wrestling with a sentence or a paragraph, I guess I just don't have much respect for that. I'm more comfortable with cooks and chefs and restaurant people. They seem to say more interesting things. And I like them better. And they work harder and they're more useful. I mean, I've often said if I'm stuck on a desert island, I wouldn't want to be penned up with a bunch of writers. I think the only writers I'm comfortable hanging out with are tabloid reporters.

MA And why is that?

AB They're not full of themselves. They have a blue-collar view of the world that I'm comfortable with.

MA What do you think it is about the world of chefs and kitchens that is so decidedly other and awe-inspiring?

AB We're the backstairs help. We've always been the backstairs help. I think the great chefs understand that: that we can never be our customers, no matter how famous we get or successful. We may be allowed to co-mingle with them, visit them at home, be a prop at their parties and maybe even marry their daughters. But we will always be the other thing, we will always be the backstairs help. We are just like waiters, servers. We're in the service industry. We were slaves in Roman times, we were janissaries in Ottoman times. We may have been pampered slaves and janissaries. But we are not our customers. We are not normal. We are the other.

Take Raymond Blanc. Here's a great chef who lives in, and maintains, this fantastically opulent British country estate near Oxford. But what are the roots of his cooking? He bangs his fists on the table and proudly screams, "I am a peasant, goddamn it. I am a peasant." This is where it comes from. And I think we forget that at our peril. It's the Rocco DiSpirito syndrome, when you start to think you're an entertainer or when you forget what got you cooking. Every good quality I have, every good work habit, every useful, skilful-every good aspect of my personality, that all emanated directly from what I learned in the restaurant business. I think it's dangerous ground when chefs forget that.

MA Is your favourite meal to cook also your favourite meal to eat?

AB No. I love cooking pasta. I love cooking slow-braised stews and things like that. My favourite meal to eat is still either the roasted bone marrow at St. John in London or a really good sushi meal is always a turn-on for me.

MA What would be your perfect death row meal?

AB Death row meal would be the roasted bone marrow, simple roasted bone marrow appetizer, with toasted baguette, some sea salt and some little parsley salad. And I would not mind a few pieces of ethereally, unctuously fatty Otoro tuna.

MA Wow. That sounds. Really. Good. (With naked lust) I'd just really love to try that. What's your favourite post-work inebriant?

AB Hmm. Good vodka. Good vodka or beer.

MA Oh. Because you mentioned cocktails in Kitchen Confidential, so I thought you had a cocktail.

AB Oh. Well, if I'm having a before-dinner drink, Mario Batali got me into Negronis in a big way. I'm kind of on a Negroni jag.

MA (Perks up) What's that?

AB I think it's a gin and Campari and orange or something, uh...club soda. I don't really know. I'm a little worried 'cause it's pink...

MA (Whorish laughter)


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