Chef Anthony Bourdain

Celebrated chef, TV show host and writer shares lessons learned in his years in the kitchen and his thoughts on branding; he also talks about his new book, Medium Raw.

Anthony Bourdain began his food industry career as a dishwasher. More than 20 years later, he's a celebrity chef, TV show host and best-selling author. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he's run various restaurant kitchens in his native New York, including Brasserie Les Halles. He also hosts the Travel Channel's No Reservations and has a bibliography that includes crime novels, travelogues, exposés and, of course, recipes. In '08, Bourdain was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Anthony Bourdain is a popular author and TV host who continues his role on the Travel Channel series, No Reservations. He is also out now with a follow-up to his international best seller, Kitchen Confidential. The new book is called Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. Anthony Bourdain, good to have you on this program.
Anthony Bourdain: Good to be here. Thanks.
Tavis: I feel like I know you because I see you so much. I was saying to Vanessa, our producer, on the plane the other day coming back home to Los Angeles on United, I think. I watched you like the whole flight. It just kept looping Anthony Bourdain. I was like, oh, my God, this guy’s following me or something. I told Vanessa you were like eating the whole time. You ought to be like 300 pounds.
Bourdain: I’m a professional. I know I’m eating a big meal for the show. I mean, I’m not taking one bite and then running off to a trailer or anything. I’m eating and I’m eating seconds. So if I know I’m having that kind of meal day, I’m not eating breakfast and I’m not hitting the dessert too hard.
Tavis: I was about to ask you seriously how you manage that. I literally watched this show and I’m like you went from place to place, restaurant to restaurant, eating all the way through and I’m like this guy’s not, you know – so you manage it.
Bourdain: Strategically. Yeah, I do my best. It’s hard if you do too many shows in Italy and France in a row. Then I come back ten pounds heavier.
Tavis: For those who have not seen your show, how does the show work? How does the booking process work? How do you figure out where you’re going? Give me more about the show.
Bourdain: I’ll sit around with my friends, the camera guys, and we’ll drink a lot of beer, we’ll look at a map of the world and we’ll say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to go there and what movies do we love that we can rip off and tell a story in an interesting way?”
So it’s driven very much by the people I work with and my own desire – basically I have the freedom to go anywhere I want. So we’ve chosen to do shows based on idle barroom conversation. The guy next to me at the bar says, “Dude, you should go to Panama.” Okay, we’ll go. I have a good job.
Tavis: From all the traveling that you’ve done over the years doing this, have you figured out – and it may be in Brooklyn, for all I know – but have you figured out yet the region of the world where you most enjoy the delights?
Bourdain: Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, it was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be. I mean, I was a professional cook and a chef for 28 years and, only ten years ago, I was still standing in the kitchen next to the deep fryer pretty sure that that’s the way the rest of my life would be.
So after Kitchen Confidential, I suddenly found myself in a position to travel. When I found myself in Vietnam living the dream and that the reality exceeded even my fantasies, that was really love at first sight. As many places as I’ve been in the world, it’s Southeast Asia that has a real grip on me.
Tavis: As you look back on Kitchen Confidential – I mentioned earlier what a huge success it’s become and not just in terms of the sales of it and the response to it, but indeed how it changed the genre of these kinds of books – as you look back on it, what do you think made that text so successful?
Bourdain: I think it’s that I wasn’t the other guy. I think it’s true of the show also. When I wrote Kitchen Confidential, I was sure no one would read it. I was sure. All I hoped was that people in the restaurant business in New York City would read it and dig it. I really tried to stick with that model of just not thinking about who might like it or why.
I just do the best I can and write something interesting, to tell stories in an interesting way and move forward from there. I would guess, and what I’ve been told, is that people like the show and they like my books because I’m not the other guy. I don’t have a reputation to protect. I made it on the basis of a very pretty obnoxious and frank book, so nobody expects me to suddenly become sort of adorable and cuddly and diplomatic.
Tavis: The difference between that obnoxious and frank book and Medium Raw is what?
Bourdain: (Laughter) I thought I was writing a much nicer book when I was writing this. I’m a dad now and happy everything is going great and I really thought I was writing a kinder, gentler, fuzzier, warmer book, but apparently there’s some pretty vicious, angry stuff in there. I haven’t changed that much, right?
Tavis: (Laughter) You mentioned you have a daughter and you have rather ingeniously turned her off to fast food. Care to share the story of how you have done that and why you did that?
Bourdain: Well, as I see it, fast food outfits have targeted small children with their advertising in a very effective way. You know, it’s clowns and kid’s toys and bright colors and things like that. So they have no problem kind of taking the low ride and getting down on the level of children.
I guess what I’m saying in the book in rather hyperbolic terms is there’s no taking the high road if we want to make the counter argument. If, as concerned parents, we want to win the heart and mind of a three-year-old, you don’t do that by saying, “Well, you know, honey, maybe you’ve read Fast Food Nation and the works of Michael Pollan” or talking about e.coli or factory farming. You talk about cooties. You scare the hell out of them. I mean, how hard is it to -
Tavis: - Ronald McDonald has cooties (laughter)?
Bourdain: Allegedly (laughter). I’ve heard it said.
Tavis: Before you and me get sued. Yeah, exactly (laughter).
Bourdain: How hard is it to scare the hell out of a three-year-old, to mess with a three-year-old’s mind? It’s not that hard. What are kids afraid of? They’re afraid of being the weirdo in the school yard, being picked on by their peers, the outcast.
So I’m not saying it’s nice. It’s not the diplomatic way to go, but we’re talking about a serious issue here, keeping your kid out of the clutches of this, you know, major industry. I think, you know, extreme measures are called for by any means necessary.
Tavis: Yeah, I’ve heard that somewhere before. In the book, you talk about the fact that – I’m paraphrasing – that cooking is a virtue and that everybody ought to know – men and women – ought to know how to cook. News flash. I don’t cook, so are you saying that I’m not virtuous? What am I missing out on because I don’t cook?
Bourdain: I think you would be a better person and you would be -
Tavis: - I’m not a good person?
Bourdain: I’m not saying that. I’m just saying if you could make an omelet, you’d be even better (laughter). I think there are a few simple things. I think in the future certainly, if we make it a virtue the way say that President Kennedy made physical fitness a universal virtue or tried to impart that to school children, that every kid should be pretty good at sports or at least physically fit or at least aspire to that kind of universal education.
I think that if all kids aspire to reach a point where they could feed themselves and a few of their friends, this would be good for the world surely.
Tavis: But singing is not for everybody, dancing is not for everybody, sports is not for everybody. Why should cooking be?
Bourdain: Oh, I’m not saying that you need to be great. You should be able to roast a chicken for yourself if you’re hungry. You should be able to make an omelet for somebody you just slept with. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t the world be a better place?
Tavis: (Laughter) I ain’t got no follow-up to that one (laughter). Wow. I could think of a bunch of follow-ups, but I’m gonna leave that alone (laughter).
Bourdain: I’m not asking for Eggs Benedict, you know (laughter).
Tavis: You started cooking when? How old?
Bourdain: I was 17 years old. I took a job as a dishwasher and fell in love with the subculture. You know, it was like joining the traveling circus or a pirate crew. I just fell very much in love with the life.
Tavis: For all the years that you were in the kitchen, it did what for you?
Bourdain: It taught me a few basic things that served me well, like the importance of showing the respect of the people you work with and work for. Well, in all your dealings in life. It taught me the value of the importance of showing up on time always and doing the best you can, of being the sort of person, if I say I’m going to do something to you today, I will do it. I will deliver on that.
The only absolutes, the only real rules that I respected, in fact, at my time, I was an angry kid and I found in the restaurant business really the only people whose approval I wanted and whose respect I desired and it was the first time in my life that I went home at the end of a busy shift feeling respect for myself.
Tavis: Speaking of being a chef, you get asked all the time, I know – you talk about it, of course. You get asked all the time, should I go to culinary school? You tell people what?
Bourdain: Well, I mean, the short answer is probably not. If you’re 32 years old and you always kind of wanted – you cook well at home, you thought it was a good idea; it would be a great life to be a chef. If the simple question is, should I go to culinary school? I’m considering it, probably not.
If you’re 22 years old and you’ve worked in the restaurant business for six months or a year in a busy restaurant and you experienced the lifestyle, you know what you’re getting into before applying for $60,000 in student loans, then by all means, it’s a great thing to do.
Tavis: But America’s all about pursuing your dreams. All your life, you’ve wanted to be a chef. You’re not 32.
Bourdain: It’s a very, very physical job. It’s hot in there.
Tavis: You’re on your feet all the time.
Bourdain: You’re on your feet for ten, twelve hours a day. If you’re in deep for a student loan, you’re coming out at let’s say at age 32, in a young person’s profession, it’s a very physically demanding, very high-pressure business where people can be unkind, to say the least, if you don’t keep up and you’re probably making $10 or $12 an hour and you’re cleaning squid and chopping onions for the first couple of years. That may be not what you pictured it as when you went in.
Tavis: In your own Anthony Bourdain way, you also hit this in the text and in conversation, when asked about going to culinary school, your weight. You mention you’re on your feet all day long, but if you’re overweight, it’s not something you recommend and yet half the chefs I know are overweight.
Bourdain: Well, most of the really good kitchens I know, most of the really busy kitchens, the backbone of the kitchen are pretty thin, Whippet thin, or at least physically fit. I’m just saying it is going to be difficult for you if you’re seriously overweight, if you’re carrying a lot of extra weight.
If you huff and puff, go running up and down stairs or doing deep knee bends, just understand that you’re going to be doing around a couple hundred of them a day getting into those low-boy refrigerators, running up and down stairs. You’re working in tight confined spaces.
They don’t tell you that before you apply to cooking school. I’m just saying that that’s gonna be tough for you. It’s something that you should consider.
Tavis: No Reservations on the Travel Channel is good work if you can get it and obviously you can. But it seems maybe not as fun, but certainly as lucrative, if not more, you just slapping your name on everything that everybody else slaps their name on in terms of product sales and yet I haven’t seen that from you as yet.
Bourdain: Yeah. I mean, I never say never. You know, I think a lot of people confuse integrity with vanity here when they talk about maybe they notice I haven’t endorsed anything. There isn’t a product line of cheap pots and pans. It really isn’t any integrity on my part. I don’t know how much of that I have.
It’s vanity. You know, I don’t want to be the Immodium guy. It would be embarrassing to me. I don’t like to see myself in that light. But I’m kind of wrestling with it because, you know, I’m a father of a three-year-year, you know, there’s college coming down the pike. Maybe I’m just kind of looking to lose it to the right guy (laughter).
Tavis: You keep setting me up so nicely. I’m not gonna bite, man (laughter). I could have put three of those over the fence in this conversation, but I’m not gonna go there.
His name is Anthony Bourdain. Of course, you already know that. Best-selling author of Kitchen Confidential. The new text from the Travel Channel host of No Reservations is called Medium Raw. Anthony, good to have you on the program.
Bourdain: Really fun.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm