The professional hedonist chats to Janice Jann about his love for Asian food culture and how he’s always looking for his next adventure
In many ways, Anthony Bourdain is what we would call a late bloomer. Though the famously hot-headed, foul-mouthed food personality first unwrapped his love for eating at the tender age of nine – when he tried his first oyster – and discovered a passion for cooking at a summer job in a Massachusetts beach town, at the age of 40, Bourdain was still struggling to pay the rent and had given up hopes of moving much higher up in the culinary world. As he has confessed since, he chose the hedonistic side of life – the drugs, the ladies, the good times – rather than pursue a place in the world’s finest kitchens.
In the kitchen, he was hardly an overachiever. But when he authored a non-fiction piece for The New Yorker in 1999 – an essay full of Bourdain’s now trademark blunt, sarcastic yet illuminating foodie commentary – almost overnight, his career would be forever transformed. That piece led to a book deal, which led to Bourdain’s bestseller list-topping 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential, which led to Bourdain the television star, with shows like Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and his latest, CNN’s Parts Unknown – a show celebrating less renowned eating cultures in the world’s major cities. Before the premiere of Parts Unknown’s second season, Bourdain tells Time Out about eating around the world and how, at 57 years old, he’s all grown up now.
You wear so many hats. What would be a succinct way you could sum up who you are?
Storyteller, enthusiast, ex-chef.
So you don’t identify yourself as a chef any more?
Well, if someone yells "chef" at me from across the street, I will respond automatically. I put in my time, I deserve the title, but I have not worked as a chef for quite some time, so I think it would be preposterous to say that about myself.
In Kitchen Confidential, you’ve talked about how being a writer is definitely not something you thought you could make a living from. Has that view changed?
Never in a million years did I think that I would have even the slightest bit of success as a writer, or as anything but a cook. It was all an incredible surprise to me that I’ve been fortunate enough to have all these opportunities. I still can’t believe it. I feel like I’m on a very, very wild, incredibly long and fabulous ride.
Having done all these books and shows, you’ve become – for lack of a better word – a tastemaker for foods all over the world. What kind of responsibility do you feel having that kind of power?
I’m not a critic. I think it would be a terrible mistake to see me as any kind of arbiter of taste. I’m an enthusiast. I’m the first one to admit that the way we enjoy food around the world is extremely subjective, that your experience at the table so often has so much to do with context. With the people you’re eating with, the music on the radio, what’s going on around you. At best, I hope I inspire people to try new things, to travel if they have the opportunity to do that, to do so with an open heart and an open mind.
Well, let’s talk about Parts Unknown. How did the idea for it come about?
It’s the same people I’ve been making television with my entire career. We’ve just moved the band to a better network, who provided us with a better budget, much better access and a smarter appetite for the stuff that I want to do. Parts Unknown could just as well refer to the subject of Paris, which is a very well-known destination. The challenge is to look at it in a way that it hasn’t been looked at before, from a point of view that could be less familiar to most. And our second show is of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is probably the most photographed city on Earth, you know. The challenge there was to find a point of view and an environment within Los Angeles that is less known to people.
And you guys decided to go into Koreatown in LA. What did you take away from that experience?
We looked at Los Angeles through the prism of a very small lens, a very tight focus, the perspective of two Korean Americans who are both similar and very different in the way they look at the world they live in. I learnt a little about what it’s like to grow up as a Korean American in Los Angeles. I was really surprised by a lot of things. We sort of scratched [the surface] of a subject we hardly deal with that’s really interesting to me, which is Asian American identity and assimilation issues. Who do this generation of Asian Americans identify with? To what extent are they ruled by the old expectations of their parents and grandparents, and the extent to which they look to pop culture, their neighbours, for influence on how to express themselves.
You’ve been asked a few times what your last meal would be if you were facing imminent death, and you’ve answered the three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan… has that changed?
No, I’m sticking to Jiro. When facing imminent death, I’d always advise eating light, so just a few pieces of nigiri, maybe some sea urchin, would be enough for me.
We have to wonder, though, if you were facing imminent death, would you even really be eating?
I think I like the old lion idea. I don’t want to be around anybody. I’d want to crawl off into the underbrush and have it done there. I don’t want a lot of friends dropping by, I don’t want to be making love or reading poetry or any of those things. I mean, I guess my feeling is ‘let’s get it over with’, with not a lot of muss, not a lot of fuss and nobody to remind me of what I’ll be leaving behind. I think me sitting alone in a sushi bar, served pieces of nigiri followed by a bullet in the back of the head would suit me fine.
Now that we’ve gotten over the depressing parts of this interview, let’s move on to something brighter. A few years ago, you had a daughter and it’s been kind of crazy for fans to watch you transform from being a bad-ass to being something softer and gentler. Have you been surprised by your own transformation?
I think I transformed the minute that my wife and I decided that, yes, we were up to the job of having a child. All the clichés are true, parenting changes absolutely everything. I am no longer the star of my own movie. It’s all about my daughter. The job I have is nice and satisfying but nothing comes close to the pleasure of a few moments with my daughter.
And what is your daughter’s palate like?
She always surprises me. I don’t try to raise a foodie daughter, but her mum’s Italian and I am who I am, so when she sees some unusual things on the table, she’ll surprise us by reaching out and grabbing and liking it. I’m not trying to teach her to have a sophisticated palate. But she surprises me all the time. She likes raw oysters. I don’t know how that happened. She delights me in a thousand ways every time I’m with her.
What sort of food do you like to make with her?
She loves to cook with me, so she’ll stand next to me at the stove and we’ll cook eggs, omelettes and ratatouille. Also, anything complicated, she likes to be part of.
After having documented all those not so pleasant things that happen in the kitchen, what would you say if your daughter decided to go into the culinary world professionally?
Well, first I would be horrified, frightened and just aghast. The last thing in the world I would want her to do would be to work in a kitchen and hang out with chefs, who – as we all know – are just terrible, terrible people. But after a few hours of weeping, I would be very proud of her if she wanted to do something so difficult, knowing full well the difficulty and the commitment of what she was about to embark on. Of course I’d be very proud and I’d support her, whatever she chooses to go into.
Parts Unknown airs Mondays at 11am, Fridays at midnight and Sundays 11am on CNN.