Hard News by Russell Brown



The email record shows that I worked pretty keenly to get an interview with Anthony Bourdain in 2005. I had been wholly captured one summer holiday by Kitchen Confidential, then loved A Cook's Tour, the book and the TV series. Now, he was coming here to promote the Les Halles Cookbook and I really wanted to talk to him.

He was as you'd expect on the day: cool, lanky, extremely dedicated to cigarette breaks. I did sense there might be a limit to his patience, and I now know that at the  time he was at the sharp end of a divorce from his wife of two decades (their split was reported in the New York Times three or four weeks later). But he was a generous and thoughtful interview subject and the transcript below is only minimally edited. I gave him a copy of the then-new D4 album and he perked up noticeably when I explained that they were big in Japan.

I was shocked and saddened to wake up to the news today that he had died; apparently succumbing to a long-term depressive illness. I admired the snap of his writing, his attitude to food, his cutural habits (music and comics!) and, to be honest, his way of being a man. His globetrotting came rather late in life, and I've always loved the respect he showed to the people he met on his travels, and the way he increasingly began to use food as a way into the culture and politics of the places he visited.

This past week, I watched three episodes of his final CNN series, Parts Unknown (you can find them pirated on YouTube, with a bit of patience) and felt I was getting a perspective on those places, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uruguay (where he toked up large and legally), that I wasn't going to find anywhere else.

I'm not sure I ever actually cooked a dish from the Les Halles Cookbook, but one section left a lasting impression one me: the one dealing with stock. Why, I asked myself, was I not making stock like Bourdain did? It's something I love doing now; I find it meditative and satisfying. And therapeutic. I take stock while I make stock. Last weekend, I was tired and anxious, but I was vastly the better by the time I'd finished the chicken stock now crowding the freezer.

I'm very sad that Anthony Bourdain is no longer in the world. I'm glad I got to do the following interview.

So you got to taste some whitebait?

Yes. Some people bootlegged it into Australia for me. It was some of the sexiest food I've had in a while. Any resistance I might have to to putting in the extra flight time to come here evaporated at that moment.

The news is that Fox has picked up Kitchen Confidential for TV ...

They've ordered up a pilot with Darren Starr – I know they were talking to Robert Downey Jnr to play me.

How do you feel about that?

Well, we share such a similar CV that I think it's entirely appropriate. That would be great, but one learns very quickly that when it comes to Hollywood or television it's foolish to hope for anything. I've seen the script and it's pretty good. In the first episode there's hardcore drug use, oral sex and a dismemberment. So it's looking pretty good.

Is is strange to think of your life becoming the basis of a sitcom?

Is it any weirder than anything else that's happened to me over the last few years? I'm okay with it. You sell your baby to Hollywood and you don't end up as a Hasselhoff vehicle, you're way ahead of the game.

The Les Halles Cookbook – the thing that struck me was how easy to relate to it was, especially the introduction. Is there a sense in which none of this should seem forbidding?

I certainly was looking to take the intimidation factor out, and I wanted you to sense that there's actually someone standing next to you talking to you while you're trying to cook this stuff, rather than this disembodied, removed, authoritarian voice telling you "this is the recipe, you're on your own – waddaya mean it didn't work?"

People should know that you're probably going to screw up some of these things the first time out – and it's not big deal. I thought of the cover first: brown butcher paper. I want you to smear food on it and, and for it to be rude and utilitarian and useful. And not food porn. I just didn't want it to be bullshit.

Do you dislike food porn?

No, believe me: The French Laundry Cookbook, I take that to bed with a flashlight - it's beautiful. I'm not actually cooking from those books, but I like looking longingly at them.

Do you see cooking in some sense as something that you can either do or you can't?

I think it's a character issue. It's trial and error. All my cooks are Mexicans who've never cooked before. But they have good character. They come from a culture where they're predisposed to enjoy food, where food is an intimate and important event. They have good character and a sense of humour and a good work ethic. I think that's really all that's required. There are a few geniuses in cooking, a few artists – but not many. Chefs are generally the second or third smartest kid in the family – we're misfits and losers.

You talk a lot about Mexicans in the first two books …

God's people.

And then there's Jose from Les Halles. All these people are Catholics. Do Catholics make better cooks?

The greatest cooks I've ever met are Confucian, so no. But a history of poverty, oppression and struggle is always useful when you talk about good cooks. I think it's no accident that the best cooks on earth are the Basque and the Vietnamese. Where people are proud, food tends to be an expression of cultural identity, or even of a personality. That's when it's good.

Did doing A Cook's Tour make that clear to you? Because there's quite a respectful tone in both the book and the TV series.

I'm humbled by travel. And I was devastated by Vietnam. You realise how little you know and how great and how big the world is. I like being in a country where I don't speak the language, I don't know anybody, I don't even know how to order breakfast. Every little thing you learn to do is a triumph.

Cooking professionally is a dominant act - it's about control. Eating well is about total submission.

Is that the key to the difference in tone between Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour? That first book was so full of bravado …

Right. Chef mode. I'm talking to you as if you were in my kitchen. You are mine, I control things. It's about not just me controlling you and telling you to do things, but you controlling and dominating your area of responsibility. It's the same in a home kitchen: getting your shit together, organising your time, your space, your expectations, your plan. But eating is a whole different thing. It's time to let it all go, sit down and put your faith in a stranger.

How much do you miss cooking professionally?

I miss sitting at the bar after work, getting drunk with the cooks and feeling on top of the world. I miss the sense of elation, the sheer adrenalin rush of having pumped out 300 meals. On the other hand, my life now, everywhere I go in the world, I end up getting drunk with chefs at two in the morning.

Is there any comparison for you between cooking and writing?

Yeah. Show up on time and do the best job you can.

Can we talk about the first chapter in A Cook's Tour where you – the meat-eating guy, the anti-vegetarian – confess to being squeamish and disturbed at the sight of a pig being slaughtered?

I'm a city boy! I would pass out if I saw a cow being milked. Proximity to livestock is not something that really comes up. I've been a cook and a chef my whole qworking life, but meat was meat, it wasn't an animal. I'd never seen a 300-pound pig stabbed in the heart and spraying blood and struggling and wheezing for two solid minutes. That was pretty goddamn disturbing. I still don't like it – I'm a product of my environment."

And then there were the vegans you met …

I don't think much of them. They seem contemptuous of the world - and not curious. And that's just the enemy to me. Certainty and the lack of curiousity seem absolutely sinful to me. To be certain of anything.

Is there anything you won't eat on moral grounds?

I'm not going to eat a live monkey brain out of a screaming monkey's head. Because I don't think it's food. When I've been in Asia, people have offered it to me but it was clearly something where people were going to go out of their way for me. For shock value, I'm not going to torment the little monkey. Under any circumstances."

Would you eat the pulsing cobra heart again?

I wouldn't go looking. But if I was surprised by it at a party in Vietnam and people had spent a lot of money getting for me specially, I'm not going to offend my hosts.

I often got the impression that you were trying not be the Ugly American in those places.

I tried very, very hard. I'm blessed, I'm utterly humbled by how kind people were to me, and how generous. I will do almost anything to avoid being rude - but you can't help but rude anyway. American, I'm six foot four. My very gestures, the way I speak, is probably offensive in ways I don't even know. Eating a traditional Japanese meal: my god, I don't mind being clumsy and looking like an idiot and being the tall, ugly, hairy foreign devil. You're this big freak in their house anyway! But I'd like my offences to be forgiveable.

How different is it when you come somewhere like this? Because you are the celebrity chef here …

It's not something I'd like listed on my passport as an occupation. I think I'd rather have "arsonist" or "serial masturbator" written down. Those two words together - "celebrity" and "chef" – it's a such a working-class profession, it just seems like a bad fit. Like "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence".

I thought you were bit harsh on Jamie Oliver …

No, no. He was very nice actually. Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, both of whom I like and respect, like him. I don't think he's bad for the world, but on television he looks like a twat.

And yet on the other hand he's got young men thinking about cooking good food for their friends …

Yeah, he's good for the world. It's sheer mean-spiritedness on my part, I understand that and other people should too. I come from a culture of working chefs where's nobody's just that fucking adorable. I just hate all that mockney shite.

Did you ever go somewhere where the food was just awful? I thought you were pretty kind to Scotland.

Oh, I like Scotland. I love that. I could be in the chippy eating deep-fried crap all day. I love Glasgow over Edinburgh - it's one of the world's bullshit-free zones. If you're not enjoying a deep-fried Mars Bar, you're just not drunk enough.

The Hospitality Association here has recently proposed compulsory drug-testing for waiters and kitchen staff. What do you think of that?

It's a bad idea. This business attracts people who have drug problems, who have alcohol problems, who are dysfunctional who are misfits. And hopefully it corrects and weeds out on its own – it inspires people to reach their own personal crossroads and say "do I want to be good at this? Do I want to be the sort of person my colleagues can depend on?". It's the last meritocracy, where you are judged solely for your job performance. So to start imposing political correctness, meaning you can't say certain things, where the druggies are weeded out beforehand – where do they go? You're marginalising.

It's one of the last environments where people from completely different backgrounds who would never otherwise be able to work together do. My sauté man Manuel, who comes from the mountains of Mexico, not a sophisticated guy, not used to taking orders from women – yet he is forced into a situation where he has to rely on women cooking next to him and because she is as good as him, or even better, they will develop a respect and a relationship and a degree of intimacy that would be impossible in another workspace, where he'd probably get fired for speaking to her inappropriately.

It's so intimate that if you're talking shit about anything, you will be found out and exposed, so there is no pretence. And because at the end of the day you will be judged entirely for your performance. That's such a beautiful thing.

So when you start making it safe, clean, politically correct, inoffensive and drug-free – where's the fun? Where's the good? It's the last refuge for the underclass and the misfit, and to take that away is a really, really bad thing.

I presume you've had people working under you who were on a similar trajectory to yours when you were headed for rock bottom. How do you deal with that?

Once I became a chef, after I kicked heroin and crack, I became notoriously draconian on the subject. I'd say listen, I love the job you're doing, but if you're still doing heroin or crack, I don't care what you do after work – but the fact is I'm looking at you hard, and the first day you disappoint me, you show up late or steal from me or lie to be, I'm waiting and you're fired. You're through. You get zero strikes.

Were you treated that harshly?

Yes. When I worked for Bigfoot, it was you show up late, you get sent home. You show up late the second time, you're fired. I find that completely appropriate. There are two types of people in the world: the people who do what they say they're gonna do, and everybody else. That's all I care about. Unless you're my sous-chef – you always need one bad apple, there's always one guy you give allowances to. It's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Your job means you go to a lot of restaurants. Are they getting better or worse?

There's a terrible sameness to modern cooking right now. All the restaurants start emulating each other. You see the same dish. If I see another tuna tartar or something with truffle oil I'm going to kill myself. I'm not a fan of foamed sauces. So there are a lot of overrated restaurants, but particularly in the English-speaking world, it's a new and exploding scene, bubbling with possibility and enthusiasm. It's good to make mistakes and over-reach and fail and to make bad food for a while. There's a process where chefs eventually find out what they do well. When I tried to be a creative genius, people got hurt.

What's next for you?

More travel. I've got a crime novel I'm writing now, I have a collection kicking around somewhere. And I'm moving to Vietnam and I'm just going to write about living and eating in Vietnam for a while. I'm going to live there for a least a year.

What is it about Vietnam?

I don't know. I've described it as like meeting the woman of your dreams. It's a pheremonic x-factor. I don't believe in metaphysicals, but it is almost metaphysical. It smells right.

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