A Conversation Between Cooks
Anthony Bourdain, blessedly, is still Anthony Bourdain.
November 17, 2016 ● 11 min read
By Richie Nakano | ChefsFeed
It’s been 16 years, seven books, and four television series since Kitchen Confidential came out. Somehow, Anthony Bourdain is still cool.
Meeting Bourdain in person is like meeting anyone else you know mostly from TV. His height, his voice (carved from years of cigarettes snatched between shifts), the deep lines in his face — they all seem an exaggeration of what you’ve seen onscreen. Talking to him feels like talking to an old friend, perhaps because he's been the narrator in your head for years.
As a general rule, if you get a group of cooks together, they'll all hit it off in about five minutes. Hanging out with Bourdain is no different. He’s one of us, even as his role in the food world — existing simultaneously in foodie culture, the restaurant industry, and even politics — feels more vital than ever. He’s the adopted spokesman for several generations of cooks and chefs, and when he isn't low-key dining with Obama, he’s helping to inform the opinions of the food world. No matter what you make of him, his popularity and influence cannot be overstated.
The last time I saw him, we shot a scene for his show then got respectably toasted; this time, the setting is a little more civilized. We met up on a recent afternoon to talk about his latest cookbook, Appetites: A Cookbook, which is full of the kind of food, photos, and stories cooks like to geek out on. It's Bourdain at his best, even 16 years later. — Richie Nakano
Photograph by Bobby Fisher for Appetites: A Cookbook
So I read the book, and it's really great. I'd also read the Les Halles Cookbook, so it was interesting to see the difference between the two.
Much different enterprise. First of all, Les Halles Cookbook were recipes from the restaurant, developed for large numbers of people. It was the repertoire of that particular restaurant. This was a co-authored book from the get go, one in which had a completely different intent, but much more personable in that it reflects what I actually cook for my family. It’s intended specifically for home cooks. Laurie [Woolever]'s done a lot of the writing and a lot of the general contracting. As a package, this is a huge team of food stylists, photographers, photographers' assistants, artwork, graphics. It was a huge undertaking, so it was a very, very different product in every way.
It has this vibe of what a professional cook would actually cook for themselves, either for family meal or when they got home from work. Do you feel that it's sort of like a greatest hits of the things that you like to eat as an adult?
What do chefs like to eat? Chefs want mommy food. They like to eat food that they can respond to emotionally. It doesn't even have to be your mommy, it's somebody else's mommy. I'm not Chinese or Korean, but I'm seldom happier than when I'm eating that type of cooking. I think, in that way, the book is very reflective of chefs' after-work tastes, because they want food that's comforting and that they don't have to analyze or think about critically.
I noticed that soups, sandwiches and pastas dominate big parts of the book, which I think is very refreshing.
Yeah. I think a lot of sandwich stuff is as much about what you’re doing as it is what you shouldn't be doing. These sandwiches are very simple, good, perfect. Do you want a tuna salad sandwich made from the highest quality Bluefin tuna? No, of course you don't. You want some decent canned tuna. Do you want homemade mayonnaise in it? This is the question. You could go either way. Some things, there is a platonic ideal of childhood flavors that often incorporate ingredients that, house-made, we'd be uncomfortable with. I don't hate Velveeta.
American cheese is great.
Oh I love it. If you're making a burger — and Nathan Mhyrvold supports us on this — it is the ideal substance. It's the ideal substance for a structurally sound, pleasurable, burger eating experience. Let's not call it cheese.
You talk about pigs in a blanket as your secret back-up at a cocktail party?
That used to break my heart, then I learned, painfully. I used to run a nightclub kitchen, and they would order towers of shrimp and blinis and caviar for parties, it was so wild. They'd be hitting this stuff really, really hard. We'd find ourselves like, "We need to go another hour and a half of hors d'oeuvres. We need to buy ourselves some time. Look in the freezer. Throw that stuff in the convection…”
But man, when those little fucking pigs in a blankets went out the first time? The waiter is going, "Oh my God, they're loving those things. They're going batshit, they think it's such a post-ironic statement. It's so retro." It's like, no, it's fucking desperation. We had a couple cases in there left over from the previous administration, but who doesn't like those?
In Les Halles, you say this about roast chicken: "If you can't properly roast a damn chicken, then you're one helpless, sorry ass bivalve in an apron." In Appetites: "It's as easy, if not easier, to fuck it up as it is to do it right." Have you softened your position?
I think there was more of a professional sensibility in the Les Halles book because these were restaurant recipes, so a little less forgiving. Look, I want actual families to roast chickens, so I don't want you to start quaking in fear before you even try to roast the thing. Let me tell you something: there's a fair number of any recipes in cookbooks you are going to fuck up. It's hard. Professionals do it again and again until they get it right. But I do very strongly believe that every citizen, every sentient human should know how to roast a chicken by the time they reach adulthood.
I used to work with a chef: steaming asshole, horrible human being, great cook. I'd work lunches and he would cook dinner, and he did this roasted chicken that was so damn good that I would stay after. I would hang around after my shift and sit at the bar and pay full price for roast chicken at the restaurant I worked in. It was that delicious. A chicken. I had been in the business for 20 years at that point.
It seems like restaurants and food culture as a whole have gone through this adolescent rebellion phase of molecular gastronomy and then crazy foraging and ferments, and now maybe things are kind of coming back around to an appreciation for classical dishes and simplicity, in a way. If food's going to return to the classics, who’s a chef leading that charge?
There are a few guys who have been champions of that cuisine ancienne, who, without irony, do boeuf en gelée, pâté en croûte, choux froid, Beef Wellington. Look, Daniel [Boulud] has been rock solid all the way. All the way. Never walked away. He was doing these incredible — still is doing — elaborate old-school pâté and galantines. Nobody was asking for that. He did it. He kept it alive. Joe Beef, they love that stuff. They respect it. They're scholars on the subject, bon vivants, raconteurs, and twin fountains of wisdom.
A more rustic, but, again, dead-on heartfelt example: you go into Prune, and I think [Gabrielle Hamilton] was the first to do this — way ahead — the radishes. Beautiful radishes with butter and sea salt. It's fucking perfect, and again, nobody was asking for it. Her cooking is always so personal, and she was always so confident. It's funny because she had a reputation for sort of talking trash about the French, but her food is so connected to, not just the [Mediterranean], but to France in general.
You also talk about cooking for your daughter in the book. Is there a recipe that you look forward to teaching her when she becomes older that you couldn't put in the book? A more technique-driven thing?
That I'd love to see her be good at it? I'd like to see her make sauces and pasta, because those things make me happy. I like finishing pasta in the sauce — that moment where it starts to sit right and sucks up the sauce — so to see her get that same satisfaction would make me really happy. The knife work, it's frightening to me. She likes making ratatouille because she gets to cut a lot. Anything with knife work she loves, but I'm like [shudders]. I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it.
Is there anything that she won't eat?
No, she's super open to all different types of food. She has a really, really acute sense of taste, like her mom. I don't know if she's a super taster, but there's just no getting over. I'll make her mac and cheese and then I'll make another batch, like two weeks later, and I'll just go a little heavier on the nutmeg, and she's not having it. If I over-salt, she calls me on it. Pepper she can pick up. Cannot get past her. If it tastes different than the version that she really, really liked, unh unh. She's not charitable about, "Oh, it's pretty good Dad, I'll eat it anyway." No.
She could be a food critic.
Please, God, no. We'd nip that in the bud.
You mention her friend Jax, a Filipino boy. I was thinking about Filipino food and how it hasn't really had its moment in America yet. What do you think it would take to make that happen? Thai food, Chinese food, Japanese food, Korean food, they've all had their moment.
Why didn't it take immediately? I think there are a couple of things. I think maybe because of the closeness between the states in the Philippines, Filipinos who came here were able to slide in relatively easily, eating American food. I think there was some insecurity about whether or not Americans would like some of the traditional flavors, because who wouldn't love sisig, or adobo? These of course are incredibly delicious and would have taken off right away, but I think Filipinos understand that some of their preferences are difficult. The sour and bitter notes, using bile in dishes, are in many ways sort of the last flavor frontier. We have crossed the rot frontier with the funk and fermentation, but deliberately adding bitter notes...
Then again, what's the most famous Filipino food? Balut [duck embryo]. I think they understand that a lot of the food they love is kooky to us from the get-go. I think they understood the difficulty and maybe shrunk from pushing it.
There's a lot of delicious food in the Philippines and a lot of Filipino hipsters who are out there introducing these flavors. I think of Angela [Dimayuga] at Mission Chinese. If you were to appoint an official ambassador, somebody with the juice, the trust, the confidence to open a place serving Filipino food, I think she would be a good advocate.
I hope the day is coming.
It’s inevitable. My daughter grew up eating it. She knows how to curse in Tagalog. She has a very rich Tagalog vocabulary.
Is there a food trend that you think is a good thing?
All things Korean. It's a zone. A zone of flavors, and an attitude and some techniques that I find really useful. We cook Korean fried chicken, because it's the best fried chicken. That's a good trend. That appreciation of funk and fermentation is good for the world.
One that you would like to see go away completely?
A bad food trend is just overuse of a good instinct. House-made is a good instinct, to do stuff yourself, but it doesn't necessarily make everything better. House-made ketchup is the classic example of taking ourselves too seriously, losing sight of what's good and what's dazzling. "Ooh, house-made ketchup." Yeah, fine, but will it make you as happy? Which do you really want on your fries? I know what I want. I want this shit [gestures at a bottle of Heinz].
Umami too. You get over umami. I love bone marrow. I love it. I’m an advocate for it. I love uni. I love pork belly. I love bacon. But all together? Are we doing anybody a favor? You're blowing people out. You're destroying your palates. All of those separate ingredients are so wonderful, but together ... and there's a bro aspect to it that I find troubling. Bro food. Hate bro food. This I would really like to eradicate. No one should ever high-five over food.
You’ve talked about that TV-ification of cooking and cooks before, about how cooks try to build their brand and all this other bullshit.
Right, before anything. Like step one. Signature haircut and pants.
What do you say to cooks that say to you like, "Oh, I wish I had your job”?
Fine. Do that. But one doesn't necessarily lead to the other. I'm a freakish act of fate and luck, and I don't do a cooking show. I understand anyone's desire to say, "Yeah, I'd really like to just travel around the world eating and drinking and see cool stuff." Who wouldn't? It's somebody who rolls right out of cooking school and wants to be Bobby Flay. That's worrying to me. Whatever you think about Bobby Flay, the guy put in his time. You throw him behind a line in a kitchen and the man knows how to cook, and to be fair, if you walk into a Bobby Flay restaurant it's going to be — at worst — good. I've eaten at his place in Vegas. Pretty damn good.
The point is, people want to leapfrog all of the things… Bobby Flay and Emeril put in their time in real restaurants before they cooked on TV. There's always one dickwad in particular who's got an entire synchronized outfit that matches the restaurant brand, and his own make-up artist. I find this worrying. It irks me, the signature haircut. Signature pants.
That sounds exhausting, actually.
Look, some people are just born for the entertainment business and they're going to survive anything. Slit whoever's throat is necessary. Good. You're there but for the grace of God. But the restaurant business has antibodies that attack the false and the bogus. If you suck, nothing's going to save you in the long run.
What culinary sins do you see on the same level as, say, truffle oil?
As bad as truffle oil?
Because that’s pretty bad.
It’s bad. It's bad for the world. The Kobe thing seems to be tailing off, but the Kobe slider, Kobe meatball. What would the word be? Gratuitous use of Kobe, where it just has no impact. You're wasting Kobe if it is indeed Kobe. That I hate.
I don't want aioli on my burger. This is something that really upsets me. If I order a cheeseburger and I am not told ahead of time that I've got some fucking onion quince marmalade and aioli on there, I'm pissed. I'm really pissed. Offer me the option on your little oblong tray full of relishes, fine. Don't fuck up the burger with that.
At the end of the book, there is an image of a bottle of Fanta next to a bottle of Dom Perignon in the fridge.
That’s my fridge.
Which do you identify with more?
To be honest, I'm drinking Fanta much more than I'm drinking Dom Perignon. I never drink champagne. Very, very, very rarely. That's just not my world. I'll drink it, but I'm not sitting at home having a champagne by myself, pondering the day. I will come home after the gym and I'll have a fucking Fanta, or, if I have a hangover, a Coke Zero and some aspirin. That's pretty much the beverage of choice.
I have a lot of really good bourbon and whiskey but that's a special occasion thing. If I'm sitting alone drinking bourbon at home, this is not a good sign. This is cause for real worry.
Appetites: A Cookbook, by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, is now available.