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Bourdain Lifts His Lid

The celebrated chef's uncensored views on un-American virtues, nurses' shoes and eating well.

By Vanessa Richmond 13 Jun 2006 |

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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  • The Nasty Bits
  • Anthony Bourdain
  • Bloomsbury/Raincoast (2005)

In our current food culture, many cookbooks seem to be mainly about matching the appetizer to your décor, and Food Network hosts are cheerleaders for design instead of food. That's why Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, an exposé of the New York restaurant trenches, came as such a relief. He thought a few other cooks might read it, but it became a bestseller, now translated into 24 languages. He would have been too intimidated to write it had he known it would receive a wider audience, he says. Regardless, he's the reason fewer people order fish on Mondays and wonder if there's dishwater in their soup.

As much as his view of food, people discuss Bourdain's social commentary and insight into restaurant subculture. "Cooking is and always has been a cult of pain," he writes in his most recent collection of essays, called The Nasty Bits, which brought him to Vancouver this week on a promotional tour. "Those of us who've spent any time in the business actually like it that way...we know who we are: the same people we have always been. We know (or should know) that we are not like our customers, and don't want to be...We are the other thing and we like it like that. We may be glorified servants, catering to the whims of those usually wealthier than us...but we are tougher, meaner, stronger, more reliable, and well aware of the fact that we can do something more with our hands, our senses, the accumulated wisdom of thousands of meals served, than they can."

But he admits that having been away from the kitchen for several years to travel, eat and write, he likely won't go back. "I miss sitting at the bar after a shift, feeling on top of the world. But standing on my feet 14 hours a day? That's a lot of knee bends."

He's a self-confessed drug addict, drinker, liar, compulsive reader and petty thief. He stays thin by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. And he now makes his living travelling around the world, writing about it. After surviving the kitchens of New York, he toured around the world writing about the food made by locals for A Cook's Tour, then went on to host No Reservations, another food travel show, which has aired on the Food Network since 2004 and has just been renewed.

Surprisingly to some, he's close friends with many other celebrity chefs. And when he's in any city, he makes a point of meeting with local chefs and cooking students. Last night, he was out late, eating with a group of Vancouver chefs including Tojo and Vikram Vij, after taping a CBC Book Club at the Yale Hotel. Vancouver blues veteran Jim Byrnes, who has become a friend, preceded him with a few songs.

Now it's 7:15am on a Monday morning and he's cheerful, despite admitting that "the more chefs you get in a room, the more pain they will be in the next day."

On whether looking at cooking creates better eating:

Food is the new porn. People go to restaurants the way they used to go to movies. And they go to one restaurant and talk about the last one they were at. Restaurants are also about a nesting instinct. People associate food with home and want that feeling. Then there's the fact that watching people cook on TV is satisfying. And through all of that, people are getting more sophisticated about food.

There has always been an element of hustle in cooking, especially with the classic French chefs. There was very little hustle in the English-speaking world because no one cared about who was in the kitchen. So even though there's far more hustle than there used to be, and Food Network shows and publishing empires, it's useful to be able to do it with aplomb.

So however annoying and silly the phenomenon of the celebrity chef is, like, "Hi, I'm Jamie Oliver, I'm adorable," on balance, it raises expectations, and gets people wanting more good food.

On how heroin prepared him for celebrity:

As for the attention I get, I mean I'm surprised and happy that people read what I write. I feel really lucky to be able to travel around and write about food. Who can complain about that? But do I want the fame? I just want cooks and restaurant people who read my books to say, "You know, that's not bullshit." I'm happy. That's it for me.

And as for the things you have to do, the fact that people say it's undignified, well, having been a heroin addict is good training for the entertainment business. I mean, TV is undignified, but compared to what?

On authenticity in the midst of the celebrity craze:

There's no lying in the restaurant business. It's a very intimate workplace. I mean, it's the last meritocracy where men and women can speak to each other honestly; the level of discourse is completely politically incorrect and even totally moronic. But your worth, your value, as a co-worker, as a human being, is dependent entirely on your performance on the job. What other place is like that? When a chef first comes into your kitchen, talking about his or her skills and flashing a resume, you say, "Okay, make me an omelette." Well, I know everything about you by the time you have finished that omelette. I know whether you can cook, and I know if you're honest.

On women in kitchens:

It's getting easier for women to make it in kitchens. The first women chefs in the '70s, back in the dinosaur era, had to work twice as hard at everything just to make it. Things have changed; it's a much more welcoming environment for them. A lot of women are put off by the male-convict kind of dialogue, but if you let that roll off your back, where it matters it's a very accepting place.

And as more women enter kitchens and do well, there will be more role models. It's a mentoring business, so for a young woman to come out of culinary school and go into a predominantly male kitchen but have a female role model or mentor and have someone who will look after her, that will help and has helped.

But I still have a real soft spot for the first generation women who really had to kick ass. Beth, who's now my personal assistant, is the artist formerly known as "Grill Bitch," and she is one of them. It was one of my great joys back in the day to watch someone underestimate her or overstep the bounds and see her beat them down.

On why New York slackers are fed by Mexican kitchens:

It's no accident China and India are the future. They have a good work ethic.

That's the good thing about the restaurant industry: it weeds out slackers. You see people leave their old jobs to work in a kitchen; they want to eventually open a B&B. You put them to work on the first busy Saturday night and look in their eyes and watch the dream die.

I've written about the unsung heroes of food, and how the media ignores the fact that most kitchens in New York are full of Mexicans. Why? Hiring Mexicans it's a more attractive option. They come from a place where it's hard, and they know what hard work is. They know what it is to be part of a family and be responsible for other people in a culture where food is important. Where even if you do everything right things can go terribly wrong. And yet that kind of irony and futility is expected. Like if you listen to Mexican folk music it's all about tragedy, rejection, and yet they find beauty and humour in those things. A lot of time, a spoiled American kid, he'll see the boss cutting back on kitchen staff on the same day he buys a Porsche and has an expensive girlfriend, and it's a soul-destroying moment for him because he can't handle that kind of unfairness. Whereas most people in the world understand we live in a very unfair, harsh world where a storm can ruin a year's work. Or you're robbed and you call the police and they rob you again. That makes for good restaurant help.

I feel lucky to work this hard. I am lucky. I know I'm lucky. I make a living writing. How few people get to pull that off?

On fear of clowns, rats and Paris Hilton:

I'm afraid of karaoke, I'm afraid of clowns and nurse's shoes and rats. I won't be eating rat. I don't care how delicious some might believe it to be. But I'm really afraid of mediocrity. Like, that terrifies me, especially when it's deliberate. Paris Hilton makes a living by pretending to be even more stupid, vapid, useless and untalented than she is, and is famous for it. That seems to be a career for a lot of people on these reality shows. I find that frightening.

Sure, there's public appetite for the opposite. But I think that excellence is still rewarded. Not always, but then it never was. If you look at Renaissance artists, they had to paint portraits of inbred idiots, to find a rich patron, to get by. I'm not saying a certain amount of bullshit and hustling isn't useful in any profession. And I come from a business where there's a certain amount of artifice and show business involved. I always understood it's not enough having something good to sell. But a lot of other people have something to sell, so a good line of patter doesn't hurt.

On people who spend $12,000 on barbeques and use them twice, a trend the New York Times called "Pimp My Grill":

I'd rather people spend a lot of money improving their kitchen than on automatic weapons. Silly rich people are going to do something with their money. Better that than a Humvee or an AK-47 or a monkey-navigated rocket sled.

On eating locally exclusively:

I'm always interested in the best food, wherever it comes from. But I don't think I could ever see myself, no matter where I was, even somewhere like Vancouver, with all of its abundant produce and ingredients, getting all Alice Waters. I'm just not a hippie. I don't care. I always enjoy food a bit too much to really have that kind of an agenda.

Something like the 100-mile Diet? Well great. But that's sort of like building a ship in a bottle for me. It's beautiful, but why? It's not something I'd do. I think they're nuts.

On fast-food "crack for children":

Fast food institutionalizes low expectations. And getting morbidly obese on fast food is tragic. I mean, where's the chicken in the McNugget? Where on a chicken does one find a McNugget? I said once that McDonald's is like crack for children. And eating in proximity to clowns is never a good thing.

On how to start eating better:

Find a foodie, befriend them and let them take you by the hand and feed you well. There's nothing wrong with not cooking. But finding good food isn't that hard. It's a lot like finding drugs. You know: find others with similar appetites and follow them to their source.

On fear of food:

There are a lot of people who are afraid of a lot of things. But people who tend to be afraid of food are also afraid of travel or of germs, of the unknown and the different, and probably sex, too. I understand it, I just feel bad for people who feel that way. Overcoming fear feels good. The first time you swim through a big wave, or successfully ski or order breakfast for yourself in a foreign city where you feel intimidated, you feel triumphant.

I like to keep foremost in my mind the possibility that I am wrong about everything. It's a sheltered life in the kitchen. When you travel, you're forced to learn. I'm a New Yorker and I used to think it was the centre of the world. Then I went to Beijing, Tokyo. And if New York is still the centre of the world, it won't be for long. The fun sometimes is in being wrong.

On cynical cooks and optimistic travellers:

I learned more about human nature from my travels than from the kitchen. However useful and wonderful working in the restaurant business is, you don't see much of the real world. It's a subculture. But having travelled, I take a much more charitable view of the basic goodness of humanity. I tended before to look at the public as hungry and capricious and maybe not so good when things get tough. That's changed. When you go to Vietnam, it's hard to come back cynical.

On food and sex:

But it's counterproductive to take it too seriously. If you're fetishizing food or obsessing over it to the point where you're constantly analyzing, then you need to relax. It's like taking notes during sex: it kind of ruins the spontaneity. Eating, like sex, is best when for a few moments, you kind of lose control, you don't care where you are, you give yourself over to it.

Vanessa Richmond is the assistant editor of The Tyee.  [Tyee]