Overnight Sensation

Overnight Sensation Photograph by Peter Ruprecht. Photograph courtesy of CNN.

Overnight Sensation

Anthony Bourdain's Culinary Quest Crosses Cultures

Chef, TV host and author Anthony Bourdain began his culinary career as a dishwasher and worked his way up to line cook, sous chef and chef in New York restaurant kitchens. Rave reviews for his 1997 article “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” published in the “New Yorker,” helped spawn his New York Times bestselling memoir “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” in 2000. Instant fame launched the Culinary Institute of America graduate’s career from executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles to television host of “A Cook’s Tour,” and two Emmy-winning programs: “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and CNN’s “Parts Unknown.” These programs have allowed Bourdain to swap New York kitchens for worldwide culinary adventures, as local hosts introduce him to their culture and cuisine. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Anthony Bourdain to find out how he went from small fry in the Big Apple to the big cheese on television’s top news, food and travel channels.

TJ: What got you interested in food?

BOURDAIN:I grew up in an unusually food-centric household. My father was first generation French. I spent time in France. But I never thought about food as a profession until much later. I sort of fell into the position of dishwasher.

TJ: In New York?

BOURDAIN: Cape Cod. A summer job.

TJ: Then that led into working in the kitchen, right?

BOURDAIN: Yes, I got a job as a dishwasher and felt very at home in the subculture.

TJ: How old were you then?

BOURDAIN: About 17, 18.

TJ: At what age did you first travel abroad?

BOURDAIN: I think I was 44. I mean, I had been to France and the Caribbean a couple of times, but besides that I had spent my whole life in restaurant kitchens with no expectation of ever seeing the world. So it was late in life that I started travelling and maybe that explains why I am doing it with such vigor now. tj

TJ: How did you become a food journalist and connoisseur?

BOURDAIN: Well, I had a very successful memoir that changed my life overnight. You know, one day I was a dead broke line cook in a working class brasserie in New York and next I had a best-selling book and people offering me money to make television programs. So, it was an overnight transformation of a guy with a very sheltered life, not much experience of the world, a very narrow view. I didn’t know anybody except chefs and cooks and pretty much overnight on the basis of this one book I got in a position to travel the world and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ll keep doing it as long as they let me get away with it!

TJ: Do you still enjoy travel?

BOURDAIN: Sure. I go where I want and when I get there, I decide how we’ll tell the story. That’s as much creative control as I think anyone has ever had in television. I’m pretty happy about that.

TJ: What’s the f irst country you travelled to outside the U.S.?

BOURDAIN: For the show, Japan was my first stop. Way back, right after the book came out and I made my first program “A Cook’s Tour”, the first destination was Tokyo.

TJ: And you’ve been back to Japan since then?

BOURDAIN: Yes, many times.

TJ: What’s your favorite part of Japan?

BOURDAIN: I love Tokyo but I have a real soft spot for Osaka....the lifestyle, the people, the food. There’s a mentality there that I’m very sentimental about.

TJ: I know you know a lot about Japanese nightlife. How does Tokyo nightlife compare to other major cities?

BOURDAIN: It’s a subject I’m only scratching the surface of. Tokyo nightlife is not particularly open to non-Japanese. It’s fascinating but not easy to understand for non-Japanese. From the outside looking in, it looks pretty damn awesome.

TJ: What’s your favorite Japanese food?

BOURDAIN: That’s tough. I’m very happy in a casual izakaya, even here in New York. Date night for me and my wife is usually at the most authentic Japanese izakaya we can find. If it’s westernized, we’re not interested. I love izakayas’ traditional casual foods with beer or sake, but on special occasions I’ll treat myself to very high-end beef.

TJ: I notice from your Tokyo travels that you tend to hit the backstreets more than the famous Michelin Star restaurants.

BOURDAIN: I’ve been to Masa in New York and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, so I’ve had the best sushi, but there is so much good stuff that I can look past the usual suspects and hit the backstreets with my friends in Tokyo. Places like Golden Gai for instance.

TJ: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Tokyo?

BOURDAIN: If I had to... Sukiyabashi Jiro would probably be the restaurant I’d like to die in.

TJ: What about outside Japan?

BOURDAIN: Asador Etxebarri outside San Sebastian, Spain is pretty amazing. It’s old school, very simple, very austere. That guy, he grills steaks, and he’s very fanatical about how he grills them.

TJ: So you’ve travelled all over the world. Do you have a favorite destination you’d like to go back to?

BOURDAIN: I’ve been to Vietnam many times. I love it there. If I had to choose one country to eat in for the rest of my life, I’d say Japan. I love traveling around Southeast Asia. Of course, Spain, Italy, and Brazil. I love them for obvious reasons. Also, Beirut. Lebanon is an amazing country.

TJ: Tell us about Beirut.

BOURDAIN: It’s a great city. I know it’s a complex subject but amazing people and amazing food - a place I’d go back to again and again.

TJ: Wasn’t there a time when you wanted to get out pretty badly?

BOURDAIN: Yeah, we got caught in a war the first time I was there, but that did not put me off. If anything, it solidified my connection to it.

TJ: Was Beirut your scariest adventure?

BOURDAIN: Uhh ... visits to Vietnam have been pretty terrifying. Probably the times I have been closest to death have not been in countries that are at war, but driving in places like India or Vietnam where people really take risks. We’ve been to a lot of places with very uncertain environments, but we try not to be stupid.

TJ: So back to food, what’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever eaten?

BOURDAIN: Once you’ve spent so much time outside the States it’s really hard to look at anything as bizarre anymore. I’ve had reptile parts, penises, bile, brains, bugs... but if I had to name the weirdest and the most bizarre thing I’ve ever eaten, it would be the Chicken McNugget. I mean, what is it?

TJ: Have you ever turned down food during your travels?

BOURDAIN: No. That has never happened. I try to be a good guest. I mean, if you ask me ahead of time, would I like to go to the dog restaurant, I will try to find a diplomatic way of saying, “Perhaps some other time.” But I’ll never turn anything down. An offer of bear bile - as unpleasant as that might be, I’m not going to be rude about it.

TJ: I noticed you’re quite the interculturalist. Is that skill necessary to get your job done?

BOURDAIN: If you want to make friends around the world, being polite at the table and accepting what’s offered is important. It matters. People, in general, are proud of their food. They work hard to put it in front of you. I think it’s important to try and do your best to eat it and be polite about it. When you’re in the wild, especially in a very poor culture and they don’t have anything in the way of refrigeration and where hygiene standards tend to be not so great, every once in a while you find yourself having to take one for the team and eat something that is clearly going to make you sick. It’s happened a couple of times, but that’s the price you pay.

TJ: Do you cook at home a lot?

BOURDAIN: Whenever I can. I love cooking for my family as much as I can.

TJ: Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?

BOURDAIN: One of my favorite places is Yakitori Totto on 55th street because they do really great yakitori just like they do in Japan.

TJ: What do you think about the new food revolution in the U.S. where it seems everyone is becoming a critic?

BOURDAIN: Well, we’re growing up. That’s nice. We have a lot of catching up to do with Europe and Asia. We’re coming along very nicely and you know there will be moments of excess and hypocrisy and silliness and absurdity but in general it’s a good thing. We’ve started to care about food and learn more about food and learn about food culture and think about where food is coming from. These are truly good things.

TJ: How important do you think it is for restaurants to get locally sourced ingredients? It seems Gordon Ramsay places great importance on that.

BOURDAIN: It’s nice if you can do it. It’s nice if you can afford it. It’s nice if you live in a place where the stuff that is local is good. But if you live above the Arctic Circle in Quebec, going local is going to be a bit of a challenge. I think as a general principle, as a goal, it’s always a good thing to try to support local business people if nothing else and to highlight the food of your region. That’s nice but I’m not going to say no to someone who says, “I’ve got the world’s best fish from Tsukiji market” here in my neighborhood in New York. I wouldn’t mind that at all.

TJ: Any thoughts on Gordon Ramsay? Do you know him?

BOURDAIN: We’ve spent time together. He’s a very good cook and very hard-working entertainer.

TJ: What about Jamie Oliver?

BOURDAIN: I admire what he’s been doing with school lunches, changing the way people eat. Both of them have business models that I wouldn’t necessarily follow myself. But I think they are both hard working people who deserve the good stuff they’ve gotten.

TJ: How do you keep in shape? Do you exercise?

BOURDAIN: I do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with my wife. She competes and is very serious about it.

TJ: So with all the eating you do, you never have to diet?

BOURDAIN: If I’m doing a full show in Italy for ten days eating pasta and cheese, I try to make sure I’m doing a poor country afterwards. I’m generally aware of the fact that if I’m shooting in France for ten days that I might want to take a few days off from the carb parade.

TJ: Are you writing a book at the moment?

BOURDAIN: Not at this precise moment. I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next. I’m in the middle of shooting now. I don’t do a lot of writing during the show and when I’m working on other projects.

TJ: I read that you overcame a drug addiction. Is that correct?

BOURDAIN: That’s true.

TJ: How did you overcome it?

BOURDAIN: I don’t think we have enough time to talk about it here but I wrote extensively about it. It was a significant part of my life and it’s not something I recommend anybody to do.

TJ: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve faced in your career?

BOURDAIN: I think once I got a lucky break - not f**king up like some people do when they get a break in life professionally. I got very, very lucky with a best-selling book and for the first time in my life I was able to pay my rent on time. That sort of thing tends to lead to temptation that derails a lot of people.

TJ: So how did you stay on track?

BOURDAIN: I’d already f**ked up in every possible way a human being could f**k up. So that experience was perhaps useful. I try to be a good father.That’s always a challenge but one I’m very happy to face. It’s my greatest challenge and my greatest pleasure.

TJ: Do you spend a lot of time with your daughter?

BOURDAIN: As much as I can. I travel a lot. So, it’s difficult.

TJ: When she gets a bit older, do you plan on taking her with you?

BOURDAIN: She’s travelled with me a fair amount - at least one trip a year with the show. While I’m doing the show, I’ll bring the family if it’s a family-friendly location and try to spend as much time with them as possible.

TJ: So now with all of your intercultural experiences, are you eager to see your daughter learn a foreign language and travel the world?

BOURDAIN: She’s already learning Italian.

TJ: Wow!

BOURDAIN: Her mom’s Italian, so it’s a bi-cultural household. But yeah, this is a big world and there is a lot of good stuff in it. I want her to understand that there are people who live differently than the way that she does and I want her to see as much of the world as she can.

TJ: What’s the hardest part of your job?

BOURDAIN: Being away from my family.

TJ: How much time do you spend on the road?

BOURDAIN: I’ve spent as much as 250 days a year.

TJ: Wow! You must have a lot of mileage.

BOURDAIN: Oh, yeah!

TJ: And what are the “must-haves” for your travels when you go to some remote place like Africa?

BOURDAIN: Not much. A notebook, an iPhone, an iPad with a bunch of books downloaded onto it, anti-diarrhea medicine ... other than that I’m good.

TJ: Where would you most like to go?

BOURDAIN: Well, I’m looking forward to going to Iran sometime in the near future.

TJ: Do you get food poisoning often?

BOURDAIN: Twice in thirteen years. Both times in tribal situations in Africa and both times I had a pretty good idea going in. Let’s just say I knew the risks.

TJ: What are your thoughts on Julia Child?

BOURDAIN: I think probably the most important person in the history of American gastronomy! I mean, huge! Towering, towering important figure! She was a big figure, an important figure in my household growing up.

TJ: Who in your life influenced you the most?

BOURDAIN: Maybe Hunter Thompson?

TJ: Is there someone that mentored you?

BOURDAIN: My old boss in the restaurant business - the guy who taught me to show up on time.

TJ: How long did you work for him?

BOURDAIN: A few years off and on. I learned a very important life lesson as a dishwasher.

TJ: What other lessons did you learn?

BOURDAIN: Show up on time. Do the best you can. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #274 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked as an educational administrator and journalist in Tokyo for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor. He currently works in higher education publishing and serves the Tokyo Journal as Executive Editor.



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