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Guts, Glory & Growing Up

Anthony Bourdain, Siqui Sanchez

An evening with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, who talk smelly cheese, creative freedom and fatherhood over pasta and aged rib eye at Perla in NYC.


Bourdain photographed by Siqui Sanchez for SKY while filming in Tangier.

 

Sitting down with Anthony Bourdain wasn't just about the work. We were both born in New York City, both went to Vassar College, cooked our way around the city, ended up at Travel Channel and had kids late in life. We’re friends, and we are both on the road about 300 days a year, so it was the perfect time to reconnect, compare notes and get some work done.

Bourdain isn’t misunderstood as much as he is often mischaracterized. Tony’s not a rebel or an iconoclast as much as he is an anarchist workaholic—and one of the truly original voices of our time. Ironically, in our world of branded personality media, he is at the top of the heap in the food and travel space, despite his near total and complete shunning of the showier salons of the demimonde itself. Guy Fieri can drop the flag to start a NASCAR race; Tony rejects endorsements. He isn’t on the food festival circuit. Here is a man who readily acknowledges that 20 years ago he seemed destined to hack it out in the kitchens of NYC restaurants, but who now creates and hosts the finest travel content on television (wait until you see the Libya footage he showed me for his new CNN show, Parts Unknown); has his own publishing imprint; appears on and produces a smash hit prime-time-broadcast cooking competition show, The Taste; is producing several other television shows (including Esquire Channel’s new The Getaway); writes New York Times bestsellers with the insouciance of a bullfighter; writes for David Simon’s Treme on HBO and thinks taking his 5-year-old daughter to school is the best part of his week. 

Bourdain’s favorite subject on which to opine isn’t Rachael’s show or Paula’s diet, it’s probably his wife’s new mixed martial arts fight career. Gone is the thumb ring and leather jacket, but the razor-sharp machete of intellect and social commentary has never been more refined. Here is a look at the unvarnished Bourdain.

       
Photo by Siqui Sanchez.        

ANDREW ZIMMERN: I read a piece—I think it was in Bon Appétit—that you wrote about your dad. That seemed like something that probably felt really good to write. Tell me about your parents and how they influenced who you are today. It was a beautiful thing.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: My parents were unusually aware of food for their generation, for that time. I mean, I grew up in the Mad Men era. I was aware and curious about food from other countries, and that was unusual. This was, you know, “ham with a pineapple ring” days. 

ZIMMERN: I grew up in the same environment.

BOURDAIN: But my parents weren’t foodies, per se. They were certainly not gourmets. My mom had Julia Child and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook on top of the refrigerator, and she had a small repertoire of French dishes. My father, though, had grown up in a household speaking French and spending summers in France. He saw that as a birthright, as not particularly special or to be celebrated or to be pushed on the kids. It was just something that if you asked him about smelly cheese, he got enthusiastic.

ZIMMERN: Did you have smelly cheese in the house?

BOURDAIN: No, no, no. Our menu was pretty much like everybody else—sloppy joes and all of that. But on the weekends, my parents would make an effort to take us into the city to eat like at a smorgasbord place, at a little French bistro, Tout Va Bien. Chinese was always a delight. You know, there was no sushi back then, but a Japanese teriyaki joint. So there was a curiosity. There was an openness to new flavors. They were very much of that aspirational, Updike‑era America, you know, where you tried to see foreign films, you tried to be aware of what was going on in the world, and the food came with that. When company came over, my mother would cook from Julia Child some French food. I didn’t realize how unusual that was for the time, and it didn’t make me want to be a chef—that, I fell into—but it certainly resonated later in my life. The joy on my father’s face when he’d order a big bowl of steamers was palpable, you know, and infectious.

ZIMMERN: Yeah. I mean, I know nothing about your childhood, but I see that in my own life. I can see it reflected in other people. When I read that piece, that’s what I imagined life was like for you. But everything that I’ve read about your parents and your childhood, I’m surprised you didn’t go into the film business.

BOURDAIN: I was too lazy—remember, I’m a college dropout. You know, from age 17 on, my paycheck was coming from cooking and working in kitchens. I took film classes at Vassar, but largely so I could see the films.  By age 14, I had already seen the entire Janus Films collection, you know, on Channel 13. And my father would do screenings of great movies at home on an old projector when he worked at Willoughby's camera shop. So, no, I was reactionary. It was a political position for me to get in the restaurant business. It was a rejection of all those values. Also, I was lazy and self-indulgent and f***** up.

       
Photo by Siqui Sanchez.        

ZIMMERN: Which brings me to a story that I know is true, because you’ve told it to me, that, essentially, when you sent Kitchen Confidential in as a short piece to The New Yorker, you were picking up the phone and leaving drunken messages on the editor’s ...

BOURDAIN: No, I’d written the piece for the New York Press. It was Sam Sifton who was my editor at the New York Press. He was the food critic, and he said, “I love the piece.” You know, look, I targeted them because I figured they had standards low enough to accept it. I just wanted to be in print and amuse my colleagues in the business. They said they’d give me a hundred bucks for it. They said they’d take it. And every week I’d call Sam and say, “Where was it? Another issue has gone by.” I’d been bumped for some more important article. And in a moment of drunken, late‑night hubris, I just said, “You know, f*** it.  I’m taking the piece back.” And I stuffed it into an envelope and sent it to The New Yorker, period. I mean, I didn’t expect—when I sobered up, I didn’t expect to hear back. I had zero expectation that that postage even was a good investment.

ZIMMERN: Right.

BOURDAIN: But I guess about a month and a half later, I was working at [Brasserie] Les Halles, and the phone rang, and it’s David Remnick. And the rest was literally immediate—the day after that article came out, I had a book deal. 

ZIMMERN: It’s such a great story. To me it’s one of those classic “only in New York” kind of things. But I use those stories to tell other people that anything is possible. I mean, you never stop going for it, because look at what’s happened there. Between A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, a slew of bestsellers that you’ve written and now the publishing deal with Ecco, writing for David Simon on Treme, being a film critic for Lucky Peach, your graphic novels ...

BOURDAIN: Look, I’m a guy who should stay busy. I’m having fun. A lot of these things are not exactly, you know, profitable.

ZIMMERN: Right.

BOURDAIN: They’re fun. If you get an opportunity to work with David Simon, anybody with good taste would. And what overgrown little boy doesn’t want to have a comic book? 

ZIMMERN: That’s exactly right. So, what determines for you yes or no these days?

BOURDAIN: I am constantly on the lookout for interesting people to collaborate with—Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age or Norah Jones [both of whom appeared as guests on No Reservations], for that matter. I like making things. I like doing things alone and I like doing them with a team—it’s a quality of life issue for me. Will it be fun to do? Do I have to talk on the phone with a***holes? It’s very important. You know, can we make something interesting here? Do I get to hang out with people I respect and admire? That is a privilege; it’s not work.

ZIMMERN: Right. So, fun things like the chocolate thing you’re doing with Eric [Ripert].

BOURDAIN: Yeah, I think there are 10,000 [Good & Evil chocolate] bars in existence in the world. All of ours come from eight trees. But, of course, I want to get involved with Éric Ripert and making something really delicious and strange. I’m going to make no money off that, but we’re going to go to Peru and visit our trees.

ZIMMERN: The people you collaborate with reads like a Who’s Who. When you talk about doing things alone, is that discovering new offers through your publishing label or is that writing on your own or both?

       
Bourdain filming a scene for CNN's Parts Unknown. © 2012 Cable News Network. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

       

BOURDAIN: Standing on stage in front of 2,200 people, holding an audience, hopefully, for a couple of hours—it’s all on you.

ZIMMERN: Right.

BOURDAIN: No Reservations and Parts Unknown on CNN—without the shooters and editors and producers and postproduction, it’s nothing, it doesn’t exist, but there’s a lot of weight on me. I’m the a**hole, I’m the guy whose face is up there, so there’s more weight than if I’m collaborating with somebody—you know, being part of a writers table on Treme, that’s fun. You’re at a table with a whole bunch of other smart people who will catch you if you fall. They’re going to tell you, “That doesn’t work. How about this?” That’s a relatively new kind of working relationship that I enjoy.

ZIMMERN: Tell me about the CNN show, because this most recent trip that you took, Libya and then through Algeria ...

BOURDAIN: Parts Unknown, yeah [Sundays, 9 p.m. EST, premiering April 14 on CNN]. We’re well into shooting it: same shooters, same editors, same production team, same production company, same creative partners. It is still, you know, I’m not doing hard news reporting, I’m still looking at the world in a food‑centric way. That’s my way in. As you well understand, when you show a willingness and an eagerness to inquire about the simple things in people’s lives, they open to you in ways that they might not to a hard news reporter. I’m not besotted with the notion of being on CNN to the point that I’m going to suddenly morph into Anderson Cooper or Christiane Amanpour. I’m not a foreign correspondent.

ZIMMERN: But you’re a smart, curious guy.

BOURDAIN: I’m a curious guy who likes food. The major difference is that CNN offers an infrastructure on the ground that will allow me to go to places the Travel Channel never would have allowed me to go, for security reasons. They also allow me freedom . . . we don’t find food in a location and something else interesting is going on, we are free to wander completely off the grid and just do a show. I mean, we’re about to do a Congo show. I do not anticipate a lot of great meal scenes there.

ZIMMERN: No.

BOURDAIN: But there is a lot of great history, a lot of great characters. And if I go in from that vantage point of let’s eat, let’s drink, let’s talk, let’s talk about the past, let’s talk about the present, I think that there’s something there.

ZIMMERN: People mistakenly call you a gonzo journalist. I don’t even really know what that label means.

BOURDAIN: I’m an essayist. And we’re going to try to do something very different from week to week. Each episode should be its own little independent world, with its own sound and look, unique to that location. We take a lot of our cues from cinematographers whom we admire in films. You know, the No Reservations show I’m proudest of is the black‑and‑white one in Rome, because it was the worst possible idea, but it ended up looking beautiful, and most people really loved it. But it fulfilled my highest aspiration, which is [to have] a fan who loved last week and the week before who is flipping through, lands on the channel at the appropriate time and needs a few seconds to figure out: Is this the same show? What happened? What’s going on here?

       
On set with Bourdain while filming in Tangier. Photo by Siqui Sanchez for SKY.        

ZIMMERN: As someone who also makes television, the thing that I admired most about No Reservations was that handcrafted aspect from week to week.

BOURDAIN: We spent a lot of time sitting around in hotel lobbies and remote places around the world, me and my long‑suffering crew, talking mostly to my camera guys and my production people, saying, “What’s the most f***ed‑up thing we can do? Blue sky, what have we never been able to do? What does everyone tell us we can’t do or shouldn’t do or would be really stupid to do? What obscure film that no one’s seen do we want to rip off? How do we make that show?” 

ZIMMERN: One of the things that you’re describing has been an awful lot of freedom, and I think that that kind of wind in your hair, not wearing a helmet, flying against convention, is what not only attracts people to you but it also creates this sort of fetishization of you as well. The other day I saw on Eater that someone was saying that they thought you were the next Julia Child. 

BOURDAIN: It’s flattering but wrong‑headed. I mean, Julia Child changed the f***ing world. I am not a particle of dust compared to her. I am flattered to even be mentioned in postironic jest in the same paragraph. But to be actually compared? No. Absolutely not. She was such an important figure, a pioneer out there ... I’ve tried very hard to do as creative and subversive television as possible for a long time. Anytime anyone thinks they’ve identified the brand, f*** up that whole notion or subvert it. So I really did come to a point where I thought the most subversive thing I could possibly do was a big, noisy competitive reality show on a Disney‑owned channel. It’s deeply terrifying to me to do such a thing. I’ve never tried anything like that before.

ZIMMERN: You’re talking about The Taste [on ABC] now.

BOURDAIN: It’s extremely out of character for me. I love the idea of working with Nigella [Lawson]. Particularly, I love the idea that people—I’m sure people will be surprised that we are, in fact, friends of longstanding. I like relationships and collaborations with people who are very different than me. Nigella and I are executive producers of the show. We had a lot of input very early on in the shaping of it. I knew there were going to be a lot of fans who were going to say, “Oh, dude, I liked you—you sold out. I liked you better when you were an indie.” ... But I don’t want people to feel comfortable in their assumptions of what I’m going to do next. I don’t mind cutting off my own nose to spite my face. I don’t mind poking people in the eye.

ZIMMERN: You like trying new things, too.

BOURDAIN: It’s like somebody says to you, “Hey, come onto my aircraft carrier. Look, it’s an F4 Tomcat! Here are the keys.” Now, I’m pretty sure I can’t fly an F4 Tomcat, and I’m pretty sure also that flying one off the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, much less trying to land again, is a pretty bad idea. It might well end in death. But on the other hand, somebody just gave me the keys to an F4 f***ing Tomcat.

ZIMMERN: Exactly.

BOURDAIN: And I don’t care if my mom approves. ... Look, if I’ve learned anything—I wrote Kitchen Confidential because I didn’t think anyone would read it. That was a liberating moment. You know, writing every morning before I went to work with absolute certainty that no one other than a few cooks would read it was a truly liberating place to write a book. That was a lesson I learned in the bone, meaning the instinct to think about what do they want—What do they expect? What do my biggest fans want me to do next? How will they receive it? Who’s watching? Who’s reading?—this is a lethal, lethal instinct. I have to not think that. We all want to be loved, but I’m not going to even ask what people want, because that will ...

ZIMMERN: Kill your process.

BOURDAIN: I just can’t. That’s the road to madness. ... Like any other job, you show up, you do the best you can, you do the things that keep you safe and happy. And happy is important, because we both know very well what happens when life is either too easy or too unpleasant. I work very hard to not hate myself, and worrying about what people want or expect—I would hate myself. I would say that a very large proportion of my fans would much prefer for me to be chain smoking and drinking heavily all the time. I may well do that again, who knows? But I’m not going to do it for them. You know, there’s no earring. There ain’t no thumb ring. The leather jacket is long, long ago gone. I’m a daddy. I’m aware of my place in this f***ing world.

ZIMMERN: Well, you gave me that advice a long time ago, and it’s one of the things that I always try to remember, because at the end of the day I have to live with me, too, you know. And I’m constantly trying to recapture the first eight, 10, 12 shows that I ever made of Bizarre Foods, when none of them had aired and we didn’t know what was going to happen.

BOURDAIN: Right.

ZIMMERN: The creativity was so carefree, and you weren’t thinking about what anybody thought. Then when the first episode airs, you have to actually work hard to not care what other people are thinking.

BOURDAIN: Right. Yeah, I don’t want to be—well, I’m not Jimi Hendrix. I don’t want to be Jimi Hendrix. I want to be Mark Lanegan [of Queens of the Stone Age]. I don’t want to be George Clooney. I want to be Christopher Walken. You know?

ZIMMERN: The news about The Getaway [on the new Esquire Network] just came out, so is this a new version of The Layover with you producing, where you’re putting celebrities into a city?

BOURDAIN: Yeah, but interesting celebrities. Most important—is it somebody who has something to say about a specific place? Are they qualified either from that place or deeply passionate and experienced in that place or maybe they’ve dreamed about that place? Let’s look at it through their eyes.  

ZIMMERN: With all the stuff that you have going on, is this a point in your life over the next six months where you’re waiting to see what happens next?

BOURDAIN: No, no, no. I say no to 95 percent of what I’m asked to do. I am very much in the “no” phase of my life. I mean, it’s almost an automatic no. I’m being very, very, very careful about what I’m saying yes to, and I’m doing only those things that sound like fun.

ZIMMERN: So, Thanksgiving dinner in heaven, who is at the adults’ table?

BOURDAIN: First of all, we’re having traditional—we’re having turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish, you know. We’re not getting creative with Thanksgiving. Who’s at the table?

ZIMMERN: Yeah.

BOURDAIN: Keith Richards. Are they living or dead? It doesn’t matter?

ZIMMERN: Doesn’t matter.

BOURDAIN: Orson Welles is there, for sure. Ava Gardner, Louise Brooks, Iggy, Marco Pierre White, my wife, she’s funny. Daniel Boulud, Éric Ripert, that would be fun. Nigella, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken and Lidia Bastianich, because they’re old friends. That would be a mother****ing dinner party right there. It would be an interesting and outrageous bunch.

ZIMMERN: That’s a very nice choice. You said you’re saying no often: When was the last time—and I’m not talking in a disciplinary way, where you had to because it was the right thing to do as a dad—you said no to your daughter?

BOURDAIN: Oh.

ZIMMERN: I guess that answers that question.

BOURDAIN: It’s pretty much a yes.

ZIMMERN: Silence speaks volumes.

BOURDAIN: It’s always a yes or—at worst, it’s a later. That’s Ottavia’s job. No, I’m, “Whatever you want, honey. We’ll make it happen.”

ZIMMERN: Is fatherhood the best thing that has happened in your life?

BOURDAIN: Every cliché is true. Everything is true. It’s the best thing that ever happens to you. It completely changes your life. Every minute since the first second that we even suspected that Ottavia was pregnant, every minute of pregnancy, delivery, infancy, every minute, every second has been an unimagined joy. It is constantly amazing to me. It’s so great to not be number one in your own universe anymore, you know. It’s all about the girl now. And that is just a deeply, deeply gratifying thing. My father used to read to me from a hard‑cover copy of Doctor Dolittle. And I remember well as a little boy how I looked forward to that every night, my father sitting down and reading another chapter from Doctor Dolittle. Finally I’m going to go home tonight and read another chapter from Doctor Dolittle to my daughter.

ZIMMERN: We’re doing the same with Winnie-the-Pooh.

BOURDAIN: It is a saccharine sentiment. A while back I read my daughter Winnie‑the‑Pooh, and it had been a long time since I had read the book.

ZIMMERN: What a great f***ing book, right? Brilliant.

BOURDAIN: And I reached the end, where Christopher Robin is dragging the stuffed Winnie up the stairs.

ZIMMERN: I was crying like a baby.

BOURDAIN: I start sobbing. I had forgotten. I had forgotten the whole structure of the story. I had forgotten the most important factor, that he’s actually a stuffed toy. The cruelty of growing up—my daughter is looking at me like, What is the matter with Daddy? He’s going to pieces in front of me. I was f***ing devastated. //


About Andrew Zimmern

Best known for his hit shows on Travel Channel, Bizarre Foods and Bizarre Foods America, Zimmern grew up in New York City and began his culinary training when he was 14. Now a resident of Minneapolis with his wife, Rashia, and their 8-year-old son, Noah, Zimmern spends most of his time on the road, delving into the culinary flavors and traditions of the world's many eclectic corners. He counts two James Beard awards among his accomplishments: best TV food personality in 2010 and best television program on location in 2012. Zimmern is the author of Bizarre Truth, Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World of Food and Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Food, and he is a contributing editor at Food & Wine and Mpls.St.Paul and a senior editor at Sky. Follow him at andrewzimmern.com or on Twitter @andrewzimmern.


Related:

Spotify playlist: In the Kitchen with Anthony Bourdain

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Chris
ZIMMERN: How do I get a my own show on CNN?
4/3/2013 4:01:57 PM

michael
Anthony is an idol,icon d best.he should visit Trinidad and Tobago to do a show.best food in d world.paradise of food.visit sometime.holla at me.big fan
4/5/2013 1:14:48 AM

George
I can hardly find words to tell you how disgusted and annoyed I was, and still am, to see that you thought it OK to publish this article with its **** words in it. You know very well that someone reading silently actually "hears" those words in their mind just as if someone were saying them out loud. Couldn't you have had just a little respect for your readers...even though Mr. Bourdain obviously had none and felt comfortable spewing garbage during his interview? Seriously, ever since I first began to read the article while on a recent Delta flight..it has me thinking to switch to a different airline if that's what I can expect to see in your magazine in the future. /George.

P.S. I never did finish the article. After I saw the second one of those **** words I put the magazine back in the seatback pocket without reading anything else.
5/6/2013 2:19:18 PM

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