We look back to 2002, soon after the chef first achieved global attention, with an interview published in The Caterer
Tributes following the death last week of the American chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain at the age of 61 were wide and effusive. In 2000, Bourdain, then the executive chef of Les Halles in New York, gained global recognition following the publication of his book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The book not only propelled the chef onto the global stage as an erudite and gifted writer, but also exposed the extensive drug-taking that was rife in kitchens. In our own tribute to Bourdain, who spoke at The Caterer’s Chef Conference in 2002 at the Hilton London Metropole, we are republishing the interview he gave to the magazine six months earlier.
He shocked the world with his autobiographical account of life in the kitchen, and now the bad boy of culinary publishing has made his own TV series. Gaby Huddart went to meet Anthony Bourdain
Promoting Kitchen Confidential in the UK has meant that Bourdain has spent a lot of time in London, and he says that many of his favourite restaurants are here.
Nevertheless, he feels that London’s dining- out scene lags behind New York by a few years. It will catch up only when the average member of the public starts being an avid sushi eater, he says. “The most important moment in culinary history in New York was when sushi became popular and I think that’s the last barrier you have left here.
When the public is prepared to eat raw seafood the like of which they’ve never tried before – raw sea urchin, for instance – then the quality and variety of seafood in other restaurants will also spiral. In England you have sushi, but you’re not sushi-crazy yet.”
Sadly, some of the US’s less-positive trends have made it to the UK and Bourdain
admits to feeling shame at the enormous proliferation of American fast-food
outlets here, the number of people drinking cheap American beer “when you produce some of the finest beers in the world”, and the emergence of US-style Mexican restaurants.
“We make crap versions of Mexican food in New York. And here there are crap
versions of what was already crap in America. That disturbs me immensely.”
He is also disturbed by the emergence of people he describes as “food nazis” here – those who now refuse to eat beef and lamb because of BSE and foot-and-mouth scares.
“Using steroids to improve meat? If it makes it taste better, then I don’t care as long as I don’t grow breasts overnight. I’m always happy to sacrifice a year of my life to have fun now,” he says. “People seem to take the whole food scares thing too seriously. My god, do people really want to live forever?”
A Cook’s Tour
Between December last year and July this year, backed by his publisher and US television channel Food Network, Bourdain travelled to 13 countries – including Japan, Russia, Australia, Morocco, Vietnam, Cambodia and Cuba – to try the food. During the trip he tried everything from boiled iguana to tree grubs. The experience has changed his perspective on food in two key ways.
First, he has learned that the more refrigeration in a country, the less fresh the food. “In Vietnam you hardly see proper refrigeration, but the food is spectacularly fresh and colourful and crunchy. In Mexico, if you want to eat turkey, you have to go and kill it first.”
Second, Bourdain is no longer happy to waste food, because for the first time in his life he had to look dinner in the eyes. Rather than phoning a supplier to order meat, he watched as sheep, pigs and other animals were slaughtered for him – a
disturbing experience, yet one that has made him want to use every last morsel.
His favourite countries for cuisine during the trip were Vietnam and Japan. He claims that everything he tried in Vietnam was good and he was bowled over by the passion of the people for their food. In Japan, meanwhile, he describes a visit to the famous Tsukiji fish market and eating edo (fish-based) sushi as life-changing experiences for a chef.
However, his travels will not make him more creative, he warns. “Any chef who goes to Vietnam and comes back and starts cooking with coconut milk and lemongrass probably shouldn’t be a chef at all.”
In fact, Bourdain is extremely self-effacing. He admits that he has never been a culinary genius: rustic French cooking has been his love – cassoulets, boudins, entrecÔtes and the like. He says he hopes to continue to be involved with Les Halles in New York as executive chef for some time to come, although these days he is very much a part-timer because of his publishing commitments.
“I swan in and out of there when I can. But to my total shame and discomfort I have a chef de cuisine who does all the work while I take the credit.”
He is adamant that in the future he will never own his own restaurant, as he regards this as a sure-fire way to lose a lot of money. And he doesn’t want a career in television either. “God not TV – no. I don’t want to be a TV personality loved by civilians. I want to be loved by chefs and as far as I’m concerned the film of my travels is 22 halfhours of expensive home movie – it’s me doing just what I wanted.
“I never anticipated Kitchen Confidential becoming so big, so I don’t know what
comes next. But I won’t be totally miserable if the whole writing thing goes sour in a couple of years and I end up cooking eggs benedict in some little restaurant where no one knows who I am. I wouldn’t be unhappy with that at all.”
Asked whether the industry in New York has already changed significantly since the 1970s and 1980s – the era he portrayed so vividly in Kitchen Confidential – Bourdain’s answer is an equivocal “yes and no”.
Chefs are still the same cynical, proud, passionate, paranoid and battered breed
they always were, he says, but these days the professionalism in kitchens is far superior.
Nobody spits in or sabotages food any more – “I haven’t seen that for 20 years” –and sex and drugs are now purely afterwork activities for most chefs.
“If you’re still doing cocaine in New York, chances are you’re hiding it from your friends. It’s not a good thing at all. You’ll inevitably screw up if you do it. And you’ll screw up even more quickly if you do heroin. I’d be the last person in the world to say don’t take drugs for moral reasons – I’m still a big pothead on my days off – but when cocaine is the main priority in your life, it’s not conducive to making good food. I know – I did so much of that 20 years ago, I know.
“If you do cocaine, your attention span is much reduced. You’ll be grinding your teeth, eyes wandering around, sweating and, in the end, you’ll cheat one way or the other – you’ll cheat on the food, or you’ll steal, or you’ll borrow money. And, if you come anywhere near my kitchen, I’ll fire your arse.”
The ritual initiation and humiliation of chefs that Bourdain describes in the book
is still very much part and parcel of kitchen life in New York.
“Better to find out early if someone can handle the pressure of the kitchen by yelling at them, than to discover they freak out on the first busy Saturday night a few weeks in,” he asserts. “What looks like bullying to an outsider, that’s simply the way we talk to each other in the kitchen. Just because you call someone a ‘treacherous scum pig’ doesn’t mean you don’t love ’em.”
Favourite places to eat in New York “Barney Greengrass delicatessen in Manhattan and Veritas restaurant, 43 East 20th Street.”
Favourite places to eat in London “Gordon Ramsay, St John and Alastair Little.”
Most memorable restaurant meal “The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. I ate 20 courses over six-and-a-half hours and it was the most amazing, technically well-thought-out food I’ve ever eaten.”
Favourite country in terms of its cuisine “Vietnam. If I could get on a plane and go anywhere to eat, it would be there.”
The weirdest thing ever eaten “The still-beating heart of a cobra in Vietnam, washed down by its blood – it’s a delicacy there.”
The most awful thing ever eaten “Nato in Japan. I love everything Japanese except nato, which is made from fermented soya beans. They eat it for breakfast and it’s like a bowl of cold mucus.”
Least-favourite TV cookery programme “The one with Ainsley Harriott. And I’m happy to go on the record with that. My god, those shows are awful.”
Bourdain: a biography
Anthony Bourdain’s career began in the early 1970s with a holiday job as a dishwasher in a diner in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was here that he fell in
love with kitchen culture. After dropping out of university in his home town of
New York, Bourdain enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. In 1998, he became executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York and continued a long-term relationship with the restaurant long after he was no longer employed there.
The early, turbulent years of his career formed the basis of his autobiographical book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which later inspired a US television series starring Bradley Cooper.
Bourdain went on to pen Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, A Cook’s Tour, The Nasty Bits and Anthony Bourdain’s
Les Halles Cookbook, alongside numerous articles in newspapers in the US and the UK.
His writing led him to a television career, which included A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Top Chef. He also appeared alongside Nigella Lawson as a judge on The Taste, who described him as “the Mick Jagger of food”.