Anthony Bourdain, Uncut: A Q&A
One of TV's most outspoken chefs and host of the Travel Channel's No Reservations is coming to Madison
TV star and celebrity author Anthony Bourdain is known for his strong opinions, and his appearance at Overture Center in November is no different: "I'll talk for an hour and take questions. It’ll be me talking off the top of my head—hopefully some new stuff, and things that piss me off. As long as it’s lively and belligerent."
We spoke with Bourdain about his author experience thus far, his Travel Channel TV show "No Reservations" and his worst food experience thus far.
Tell us about your new book, Medium Raw.
It’s an update. I wrote Kitchen Confidential in 2000. [Back then] I had seen nothing of the world and it was a very different environment—now I’m doing nothing but [traveling]! It’s catching up on my life and how it’s changed.
What are the major changes you’ve seen in the food industry since then?
People care about chefs now; before, no one really cared what they thought. Back when I started cooking and in the period of time I was writing about it, which was basically an account in my career, it was a misfit profession, it was for dead enders, they couldn’t fit in anywhere else. Now there’s a future. If you cook well, your public will allow you to cook well. You might be appreciated, you might gain prestige, you might even gain some money. These are relatively eating good times to be cooking and eating in America. Cooking is a glamour profession now.
“No Reservations” celebrated its one hundredth episode in September. Why has the show been so successful?
We’re not the other guys. All of the things we can do, we do. I’m not cheerful all of the time. I don’t feel compelled to do the top ten, or the fair and balanced overview. These are personal overviews and essays of my life. I look at the camera and I can say, “I hate this food, I hate this country.” I have the privilege of being honest. It’s refreshing and unusual, and I don’t know anyone else that’s allowed to do that.
When I wrote Kitchen Confidential, I didn’t expect people to read it. So, [on the show] we don’t pander to anybody, and people respond to that. I haven’t figured it out, but I’m grateful that the network allows my partners and myself to be more creative than anyone else. I hear from fans. I’m rude, I curse—people seem to like that.
Why didn’t you anticipate Kitchen Confidential doing so well?
I didn’t think anyone would read it. At best I thought it would be but a cult favorite of cooks, chefs and restaurant people in New York. I wasn’t looking to write an exposé. I assumed anyone who had worked a waiter job knew all this stuff. The book wasn’t written for that. I didn’t think about what the reaction would be. I didn’t have a reputation to lose. I was given an opportunity to write a book, and I did.
Since you travel the world in “No Reservations,” what’s your favorite type of cuisine?
My in-laws are from Sardinia in Italy. I love eating there. I like a simple, local pasta. Or good regional salami or cured meat and local cheese. Good wine makes me happy. It’s the simple stuff.
It sounds like you’ll eat pretty much any food—there’s got to be something you don’t like.
Bad fine dining is like the worst for me. I don’t mind a country that doesn’t have much more than meat on a stick. Or Eastern European food. I’m OK with home cooking at someone’s home in the show. That’s stuff I like. When you find yourself at a fusion restaurant in Moscow or Bucharest that’s not ideal, that is torture. I’d rather eat rough, rustic food at someone’s mom’s house than bad, pretentious food in a restaurant.
Also, nothing makes me more beserk than fake Italian food. Olive Garden makes me want to go on a murderous rampage. If you see me across a parking lot walking toward an Olive Garden you should probably call the police. No good will come of that.
What’s the most unique dish you’ve tried on the show?
Name a reptile part, been there, done that. Yeah. I can’t even pick [the weirdest dish] out. I guess the rotten shark in Iceland wouldn’t be one of my favorites. They ferment the shark. The stench alone could stop a charging rhinoceros. But I did my best to eat it. I didn’t like it, but then I had a couple of drinks and I felt better.
Have you been to Madison and if so, what do you look forward to doing while here?
I was in Madison in 2001. It’s been a long time. I met a bunch of chefs there who were really, really motivated and were trying really hard and struggling to do the kind food they wanted to do. I went out drinking with a bunch of the local chefs and they talked about what they wanted to do. It was cool environment; an unusually creative one for chefs, judging from the conversations that I had. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s happened in nine years.
What are some food trends you’ve been seeing in the industry?
I’m pretty happy with the way things are going. Some trendy things are food trucks and pop-up restaurants.
The biggest trend I’ve seen is a move away from bullshit. It’s more democratic, less attitude, better ingredients and better quality of food in a casual environment. You don’t see the crystal and stodgy waiters. Not just here, but in Paris. There’s a move to less pretense. And that’s a good trend. Good food at a affordable price—that’s a good thing.
What’s your favorite comfort food?
Any stew like a ragu of slowly stewed oxtail, wild boar, beef cheeks or something like that with pasta with a cheap glass of local Italian wine. I also love cheap macaroni and cheese.
[When I’m away] I could be eating at the best restaurant in Spain, but what I really miss is a good pastrami sandwich in New York.
Why do you like having your own show?
I like the technical satisfaction in seeing it, experiencing it, and the reconstructing that into a story. I like manipulating film and tape, and that allows people who weren’t there to experience it as much as possible. It’s just like someone building a house. I enjoy seeing the show come together in whatever extent I can be a part of the process. I guess carpenters or chefs have that feeling too.
What are your favorite foods to eat on U.S. soil?
I like American food. I like a good hamburger, steak, deli, pizza. And what do we do in New York better than anyone else? Delicatessen. If I’m looking to spoil myself I like a good causal Japanese restaurant with chicken on skewers or sushi. I’m always happy to eat good Japanese food.
Are you ever intimidated meeting some of the people you meet on the show or not being able to speak the language?
In general you sit down, take it as it comes and be a grateful and good guest. People are nice no matter where you go, across the board. A hell of a lot nicer than you might expect.
You made a reference earlier to Olive Garden, a chain restaurant. Do you ever frequent chain restaurants or do you only dine local?
Chain restaurants don’t have to suck, it’s possible to serve good food, fast and cheap. I happen to really like In-N-Out Burger. It’s important to acknowledge that with the working poor or two income families with kids those places do fulfill a need among people on a budget.
I just wish there were other alternatives than the clown, the king and the colonel. Some of [those places] have embraced these irresponsible, unhealthy foods in a way that’s not a good thing. If you’re eating deep fried mac ’n cheese or the cheeseburger between the donuts, someone should go to jail.
Do you ever watch any other food shows?
I like Mario Batali very much; he’s good friend. He’s a good chef, and I think his cooking show is terrific. I think there are other chefs out there that do good food. And then there are some people that I don’t like their shows but I like them personally. But Mario’s got it all, he’s my hero. I am a Top Chef fan, of course.
What’s your favorite cooking ingredient to use?
Salted pork. There are so many different flavors on one animal. It’s easily one of the most versatile foods there is. If you’ve got a pig and salt you’re in good shape.
Read more about Bourdain's Overture Center appearance here.