Anthony Bourdain on Food Porn, YouTube Stars and His Intolerance of Gluten-Free Diets

Just don't get him started on Chick-fil-A

We’re deep in the bowels of New York’s Chinatown, down a flight of stairs in the wood-paneled Cantonese classic Hop Kee. It’s late afternoon, before the dinner rush, and Anthony Bourdain is ensconced in a brown vinyl booth surrounded by platters of salted squid with hot peppers, sauteed string beans, Cantonese-style snails and pan-fried flounder while a handful of waiters and busboys silently look on. All of them are waiting patiently for a selfie with the writer and host of CNN’s Emmy Award-winning series Parts Unknown. Bourdain is more than happy to oblige.

Bourdain, 59, is refreshingly humble about the fortune that’s come his way. He spent 28 years as a professional cook and chef, including several years at Brasserie Les Halles (and, beginning in 1998, four years as its executive chef). Bourdain was thrust into the spotlight in 2000 with the publication of his best-selling tell-all Kitchen Confidential. Then, one opportunistic thing led to another—more best-sellers, shows on the Food Network (A Cook’s Tour) and Travel Channel (No Reservations, The Layover)—and in 2013 Bourdain settled into his current gig at CNN where each week he takes viewers on a wild culinary and cultural tour, from Montana to Manila.

As always with Bourdain, there are many projects afoot—which is why it should come as no surprise to find him on Adweek’s list of the 30 Most Influential People in Food. Last year, he invested in Roads & Kingdoms, a digital media company focused on writerly pieces about food, travel and culture. He also made a cameo in the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short, in which he explains big banks’ collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, by way of day-old “fish stew.” Lately, Bourdain is readying for a fall tour to support what he jokingly calls his “dysfunctional family cookbook,” Appetites (on sale Oct. 25), which will include recipes for meals he makes for his wife Ottavia and their 9-year-old daughter Ariane. Bourdain also is forging ahead with ambitious plans for a 155,000-square foot international food market on New York’s Pier 57, scheduled to open sometime next year.

Pausing between his photo session with the waitstaff here at Hop Kee and an evening out with Eric Ripert, the renowned chef of Le Bernardin who moonlights as Bourdain’s travel companion and foil, we slide into an empty booth for a spell. Over beers we talk about topics including the CNN show, YouTube food stars, his love of budae jjigae and his beef with Frito pie.

Anthony Bourdain strolls along New York’s Mott Street. Robert Ascroft

Adweek: You’ve traveled to quite a wide variety of places lately—Chicago, Senegal and Cologne, Germany, which was in the headlines for sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve that many blamed on Syrian refugees. Did you get a sense when you were producing the show there that the town was going to boil over?
Anthony Bourdain: It had just happened when we arrived, and what was interesting was that the attitude, the overwhelming tone of the discussion outside of Germany and outside of Cologne in particular was completely different than the tone within Cologne, which is sort of an ongoing conflict in the show. Cologners remained unerringly positive about a pretty horrendous and terrifying incident. Everything I heard in Cologne from across the board there seemed to be unwavering faith in the German ability to both absorb and fix the situation.

You’ve gone to some sketchy places, like Iran and Mexico City. What happens when you’re interviewing people like The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian or Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, and they say something that could put them at risk? How far will you go to protect them during the editing process?
This comes up a lot. We are acutely aware of the fact that (a) I’m not a journalist, so the story is not the most important thing, OK? I have a point of view, but I’m not ashamed of it. I have personal loyalties. I have personal prejudices. It’s very easy for me to shoot in China, for instance, and, say, do a long, 20-minute rant on Tibet when I get back. I have to think about who we shot with back in China. They’re still there.

We edit very carefully when people’s lives are at stake. I’m not Dan Rather. This is not breaking news. I will cut stuff to protect people on the ground, and I do it all the time. I do not need to present a fully balanced, fleshed-out or comprehensive view within the 42 minutes allotted to me.

And then there was the Frito pie episode.
Yeah [laughs]. You know, late at night, stoned, I will very much enjoy some Frito pie, but I don’t think a human alive could honestly look at a camera and not confess that if you’ve ever cleaned up after a dog … that sort of wet, warm heft in hand. I knew that dead weight well. The New Mexicans did not enjoy my analogy, however.

Would you say you’re a little bit more careful with your food commentary?
No. Look, I didn’t want to offend New Mexico because I like the state. It didn’t cost me anything to backpedal a little bit [laughs] or explain myself. But ordinarily, my attitude would be, fuck ’em.

So, I gather CNN chief Jeff Zucker’s not giving you notes.
Jeff Zucker is being totally awesome. Everything he’s ever said he was going to do for the shows, he’s done. I’ve never gotten a call from him or any of his people saying “Wouldn’t it be a great idea if?” or “Jeff thinks that” or “How about?” None of that.

The networks are all eyeing content partnerships as an alternative source of revenue, including CNN parent Turner Broadcasting. Is that something you’re open to?
I have final approval on all this, so nobody is going to come in and say, “Oh, by the way, you’ll be drinking a Tsingtao in every scene,” or even occasionally. Honestly, it’s not my problem. I provide content. If you don’t want the content, that’s OK.

Would there ever be a case where you’d be open to it?
I could only think of one area where I might bend at this time on this. If we were flying to Hanoi, I get the front end of the plane, but my crew sits in the back. You’re telling me if we include a shot of Vietnam Air so that my crew gets to sit in the front—it’s a quick shot. I’m not pure in this regard, you know—that’s a long flight and some of them are tall [laughs]. But in general, no, I’m not. Look, it’s a food show, and when I look at the camera and I say, “This is really good,” I expect you to believe me.

Now, I don’t drink the best beer in the world on the show. It’s a problem that comes up a lot actually. The angriest mail I get is from beer nerds—people who are craft beer enthusiasts and see me drinking a cold, available beer from a mass production and they get really cranky with me, and they assume that I’m plugging it or something. In fact, I just like cold beer, and my standards rise and fall depending on access to cold beer.

So, for you to become a lifestyle brand is, I suppose, out of the question. What endorsement deals have you passed on?
Oh, you name it. Everything from home furnishings to, of course, being a spokesperson for every variety of gastrointestinal problem. Your full line of liquors, airlines, cars. Curated travel experiences.

What are your thoughts on YouTube food stars?
I don’t know any of them, but I’m all for it. I think it’s a wide open space. People are clearly interested in it. Even the worst of them in principle do good for the world, and the more we talk about food, the more people that are interested in food, the more people that are interested in cooking. It’s not just good for business for me personally, which it is, but it’s good for chefs everywhere. The empowerment of chefs by whatever means necessary is, in general, a positive thing in my view.

That’s interesting because I thought you’d be trashing them given your strong feelings about Food Network host and restaurateur Guy Fieri, for example.
I find Guy Fieri a rich and deep vein of comedy, there’s no doubt about it, and he’s worthy of a solid and maybe relentless mocking as anyone who has made his sartorial choices deserves. But is he bad for the world? On balance, probably not. I would greatly prefer to not have a Guy Fieri restaurant in Times Square. It hurts me. It offends me. But somebody clearly loves it.

Do you use Snapchat?
I installed it on my phone. I haven’t figured out how to work it yet. I don’t really understand it yet. I’m going to make my best effort.

How about livestreaming?
I don’t see anything I do that’s worth livestreaming. Self-promotion, believe it or not, is actually a burden for me [laughs]. I’d rather be just goofing off or reading or eating or sleeping. I see it as a very useful tool, but I don’t have that much of myself that I want to share beyond what I’m sharing. If you want to livestream whatever, I support you. I’m probably not watching it.

Are you cool with “food porn” on Instagram?
Chefs would bitch about it relentlessly in the beginning, but I think everybody’s learned to play now. And I go out to dinner with my chef friends and every single one of them whips out their phones—they’re all taking pictures, they’re all Instagramming it, they’re all tweeting each other from the same table. We are absolutely experiencing food, talking about food, learning about food and just making decisions about where we’re going to eat in different ways.

How do people abroad feel about Americans and our eating habits? Have we evolved?
We’ve definitely evolved, and I think a lot of people I meet around the world now are surprised by the Americans who come. They expect the worst; they expect the cliché, but there are more and more Americans with good chopstick skills and a reasonable, working knowledge of their cuisine, a reasonable attitude, an openness, an eagerness and a willingness to say, “I don’t really know what you do, but I’m very interested and open to trying whatever it is that everyone says you’re so great at—give me something in a bowl, I’ll eat it.” There’s definitely that attitude, and it’s spreading. I think it makes the world a better place.

What food do you see being popularized here now?
Korean is a sort of a bottomless bringer of culture at this point. First of all, it’s so delicious and exciting, but I think what’s particularly interesting to me about Korean is that for so long, it was really looked down on and reviled. Now this is exactly what everybody wants and is craving and what the cool kids want—spicy, funky, fermented, that whole spectrum of flavors.

And what else is interesting is that it was kept really unchanged, unlike a lot of cuisines that came from America. The Koreans kind of learned quickly that nobody wanted their food, and so when they made it in restaurants, it was for other Koreans and they really didn’t dumb it down. Even their mutant Korean-American cuisine that goes back to wartime Korea was for Koreans only. And that kind of Korean War nostalgia did not exist outside of the Korean community.

Is budae jjigae really that good?
It’s awesome, it’s awesome! But it was a uniquely and specific Korean experience, and it’s spreading. Essentially, the tastemakers right now are second-generation Korean and Chinese kids and Vietnamese kids, kids who grew up eating Korean food at home and American food outside of the home. That’s who’s driving the whole thing.

Budae jjigae, also known as Korean army stew is a Bourdain favorite. YouTube: Maangchi

Speaking of trends, in 2009, you and fellow chef David Chang were on a panel at the New York City Wine & Food Festival entitled “I Call Bullshit!” What would you call bullshit on today?
Let’s see. Have we mentioned Kobe? You know, Kobe meatballs, Kobe sliders, Kobe burgers? That’s always bullshit.

I’m going to throw a couple of trends at you now. How about gluten-free diets? Juicing?
Look, before you start boring me to death at a party about how you got gluten-free, you know, if you think you have a disease as serious as celiac disease, shouldn’t you see a fucking doctor before you make this big move?

I don’t think half of these people even understand what they’re talking about. I’m quite sure of it, in fact—juicing and all the rest. On the way to the gym every day, I have a nice, big smoothie of acai. Now, is it actually going to cure cancer or give me superpowers? I don’t know. It seems harmless enough. But I’m not going to bore people to death with something like your month-long program of drinking kale juice. I mean, exercise a little, move around, you know? Think about how many Cheetos you’re going to eat. This is good.

How about government getting involved in where and how we eat? Mayor Bill de Blasio called on New Yorkers to boycott Chick-fil-A given the owner’s anti-LGBT views.
Are we looking for nice people to run our companies? We’re going to be looking pretty hard. I’m not going to go eat at that restaurant or I’m not going to patronize that business because I don’t like what they institutionally support—I don’t like the chairman of the board, I don’t like who created the company, whatever. There’s a whole lot of reasons to just make a personal decision and not go eat at a business and give them your money. I come from a restaurant business where you’re lucky if the guy working next to you isn’t like an armed robber. I support your inalienable right to say really stupid, offensive shit and believe really stupid, offensive shit that I don’t agree with. I support that, and I might even eat your chicken sandwich.

American eating habits “definitely evolved,” says Bourdain. Robert Ascroft

What are the five things you would find in a Bourdain fridge or pantry?
Well, in the Bourdain family fridge, there’s always fresh mozzarella or burrata kicking around. There is always butter. Outside the fridge, there’s always good olive oil. Heavy cream. I love macaroni and cheese. I’ve always got some elbow macaroni around and some processed or not particularly good, easily meltable cheddar-like stuff that I can make macaroni and cheese with. I have a deep love for that.

Do you ever foresee your daughter becoming the Bindi Irwin of cooking?
Jesus. Let me go hang myself in the shower now. Oh my God, it would be just so appalling.

What if she says she wants to become a chef?
I would be horrified at first, but then proud that she would knowingly choose such a difficult thing because it’s a hard, hard, hard business. Harder for women. I would be appalled and horrified and frightened, but secretly very proud. Very proud, of course. She’s like her mom: She’s very tough. She’s got ferocious jiujitsu skills, so no boy will ever exert their will on my little angel.

You have a lot on your plate, including a family cookbook, called Appetites.
My whole life, I stood in kitchens and looked out at the dining room and wondered what normal people live like. And I never really had that life, and I kind of yearned for it. I didn’t have a child until I was 50. To wake up in the morning and prepare school lunch for a small child, to concern yourself with what is she going to eat for dinner today, tomorrow, the next day. To cook for people on Thanksgiving and Christmas. These are completely new experiences for me, and I embraced them with rather more zeal, I think, and enthusiasm and organizational skills than perhaps is attractive.

What kind of recipes will we find in the cookbook?
Meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, budae jjigae, the [Korean] army stew—stuff that makes me happy, that I crave, that I would try out on my daughter, that seems to work at home, but also some strategy of tactics. For instance, how do you get through cooking for a big holiday meal, a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, without killing yourself and your family? Instead of coming out of the oven hot for me to slice table side, I have that shit ready long before you arrive. I have set up, like, a professional meeting. I made my cranberry relish three days ago as one should. There’s no reason in the world that I should be finishing gravy while you’re sitting in my living room drinking my liquor.

How far along is the Pier 57 food market?
We’re a while out. I mean, it’s a huge, huge, huge undertaking, and we’ve got to get it right.

It’s opening in 2017?
Let us hope. It’s a lot of visas. It’s a lot of vendors both here and abroad.

You’re actually going to be bringing people in and they’ll live here. How many vendors?
Over 100. There are some vendors who absolutely, positively need to be here, at least for a reasonable period, to train whatever people they want to bring with them or local people. I mean, if we’re going to be doing Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice in New York City, the expectations of Chinese who’ve grown up here or have lived here for the last 15 to 20 years waiting for just such an establishment are going to be pretty enormous. We cannot disappoint, OK? One grandmother comes in and says this Hainanese chicken is not at all like what I enjoyed back in Singapore or this budae jjigae is totally not anything like what I enjoyed in Seoul, and we’re doomed.

So, you’re working on the market, you’ve got books—fiction, nonfiction, cookbooks—and a media company, you’ve been in an Oscar-nominated film. What’s left to conquer?
I don’t have a plan. Opportunities arise to collaborate with interesting people. I like to play with interesting people who have interesting things to say or know how to do things I don’t know how to do. I like collaborating with musicians a lot on my show. It makes me really happy. It’s just fun. That’s why I’m here, to stay interested and have fun, so it’s truly about that. I don’t have a bucket list. I kind of might have even ticked all of those off quite some time ago.

In the Miami episode of Parts Unknown, you said at the end something to the effect that you’ve been everywhere, you’ve lived your dreams and met your heroes. What makes you happy now?
I like making things. I like being part of a process that makes things. We just shot in Rome. After years of lobbying to do so, we successfully managed to shoot entirely anamorphic—which means letter-box-long, rectangular frame—which institutionally, television networks don’t like to do because it screws up the market for square TVs. And we’re not shooting anything from Roman antiquity—it’s all brutalist and fascist architecture, these gorgeous, rectangular frames.

It’s about everyday life in Rome. It’s about extraordinary people doing very, very ordinary things. It’s a very counterintuitive show—nobody asked for it. I had a lot of fun making it. I’m really proud of the fact that we did make it, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that makes me happy. We, all of us together, did something strange and extraordinary and beautiful, and it might not be successful. It is definitely extraordinary—it will be absolutely beautiful. And putting all of those little pieces together—the music, the people in it from an idea that I had years ago—that makes me happy.

 

This story first appeared in the June 6, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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