A complete transcript of the phone interview with chef/author/TV host Anthony Bourdain:
Q Is it fair to say that your on-screen persona has become a little kinder and gentler since your first show?
A [Laughs] Maybe. I hope so. I definitely like to think so. I mean, I spend a lot of time playing with a 3-year-old these days. I’m sure that’s had an effect. Becoming a parent, it’s a cliché to say it changes everything. But it does. The world no longer revolves around me.
Q Have you gotten any pushback from people who miss the crankier version of you?
A Yeah, but when people liked me for being a bad boy, I never took that seriously anyway. So I don’t take it seriously if people are disappointed if I’m still not, at 53 years of age, lumbering around in a leather jacket with an earring. I’m not uncomfortable with that. It’s a pretty predictable ebb and flow. If anything, I take a certain satisfaction with kind of messing with people’s expectations anyway.
Q But the 53-year-old Bourdain and the 43-year-old when you started on the Food Network, that’s who you were at the time. Those weren’t stage personas, were they?
A I think that who I am in a show is who I am at any given moment. I’m not going to put on the Tony Bourdain suit to go to work. I wouldn’t know how to even if I wanted to. And [laughs] it’s a work in progress anyway. When I look back at a time when people were expecting me to do sort of vicious, snarky, cynical shows, I think one of the more perverse things I’ve ever done is a family-friendly, cuddly-wuddly one in Sardinia with my wife and daughter and in-laws.
On the other hand we did a holiday special that was sort of ultra-violent and ended with a stabbing, so [laughs] we try really, really hard to do, whatever it was last week, to not do that again.
Q I really enjoyed the Sardinia show, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Sardinia.
A Well, obviously so do I. I actually thought that was maybe the riskiest show we did. I was pleased with the response because I had every expectation that a lot of core fans would be wildly ticked off by it.
Q Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of places to visit?
A Naw, this is a big, big planet, and just doing justice to Italy, much less China, could be a life’s work. So between the places that we haven’t done to my satisfaction, that I’m still fascinated by, areas I haven’t visited within those countries, and places I have yet to go, there are plenty of places, I mean, it’s all about staying interested.
If it becomes a job to me, it’s not interesting, I don’t see why anyone would want to watch it, and I don’t think I should make the show. As it stands, there’s a lot out there I’m curious about. There are a lot of places I’d like to go back to, for fun or to find out more.
Q So do you in general aim for a mix of those two, going deeper into a country like China and going to new countries?
A I’m looking to have a good time. I don’t go to a country to mock them. It might turn out that way if things go badly and I have a miserable time, but I’m setting out to have a good time, hoping to make shows with interesting content that are technically shot in a new and interesting way. A really, really important part of the show is the look of each episode. Whenever we’re going, if there’s any expectation, it’s that we can shoot it in a style unlike any previous show, or better yet, like some movie that we really loved. That keeps it interesting for us as a band. It’s so collaborative at this point that that’s a really big factor. Can we tell a story that looks and sounds different, and that will be fun to make?
Q What do you think of your Travel Channel compatriot Andrew Zimmern, a Twin Cities guy?
A Personally I like him very much. And professionally, I don’t know how he does it, year after year, It’s a hard job he sets up for himself. You know, I’ve eaten a lot of the stuff that he eats, but I don’t eat it every day, every meal for a week, 10 days at a time, however many shows a year. I really don’t know how he does it, particularly since the guy doesn’t drink. I’ve said many times that when you’re eating bugs and testicles, alcohol really helps.
Q Do you have a favorite processed food?
Yeah, sure. I have an unholy and shameful weakness for KFC’s macaroni and cheese. It’s so disgusting and vile, and I don’t know if there’s any real cheese in there. But I just love that stuff, with a lot of freshly cracked pepper over the top of it. I think it probably dates back to early stoner days. It has to be sort of a stealth acquisition, like sneaking out for drugs. I’m mortified at the thought that some Twitterer is going to catch me coming out of the Colonel.
Q You’ve regularly made an analogy between Alice Waters and Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
A Yeah, maybe Pol Pot is a little over the top. I mean, I am a fan of hyperbole. I agree with the message; I just think she’s just really an awful messenger. There was a recent article talking to her about In- and Out- burger. And she goes, 'Yeah, it may be good.’ I mean, by fast-food standards, even ['Fast Food Nation’ author] Eric Schlosser thinks they’re wonderful. So given the opportunity to say something nice about it, she says 'Well, they’re just not authentic. I’d much rather eat some street food in Sicily.’ Well who wouldn’t? She just puts her foot in her mouth in the most egregious ways.
She’s very good at preaching to the choir. But unintentionally she ticks off people who would otherwise, I think, agree at least in principle with what she’s talking about. 'Alice World,’ I want the world to look like that, too. She just says some of the most shockingly insensitive, elitist-sounding, pompous stuff that’s bound to just alienate people. It’s like, if you want the world to look like what Alice wants it to look like, winning hearts and minds, I think she’s her own worst enemy.
Q Yeah, and the Slow Food movement has had that problem, too, coming off as elitist.
A Yeah, and I think there’s a way to change behavior, and I think Slow Food is a good thing. But you know she’s not the mother of Slow Food. She happily accepts that mantle, but there’s a guy named [Slow Food founder] Carlo Petrini who’s sort of been painted out of the picture.
Q So you’ve been a champion of peasant food over the years. Do you think it’s making some inroads in this country?
A I think so. What’s happened is really strange. I think the rich are now eating food that the poor used to have to eat. They’re lining up to pay big dollars for thinks like pig’s feet and cheeks and jowls that you have a hard time getting the working poor to eat these days. So it’s sort of turned upside down. [Pulitzer-prizewinning food writer] Jonathan Gold has pointed out that dining and eating have become, for the first time in history, sort of counter-cultural experiences.
There’s a counterculture out there of young kids who pride themselves on finding the most authentic or the scariest or the most off-the-beaten-path foods. I think there is a growing appreciation of both traditional foods — offal, old-school hoof and snout stuff, as well as new riffs on it — and then national foods of countries that might not have made inroads here 10, 15 years ago.
Q Are you going to climb on board the better-school-lunch bandwagon?
I’m, absolutely for it. I think it’s absolutely disgusting what we serve in our school systems. I admire what Jamie Oliver’s doing. Again, I’m all for better and more balanced meals in our school system. It’s shocking that French fries or ketchup counts as a vegetable. I think the stuff they’re serving kids now, this processed and surplus crap, is shameful.
But on the other hand. I think to try to suggest that our stressed economy should pony up for an organic meal for every kid in the school system is a seriously messed-up mixing of priorities. I’d be happy if our kids get some reasonably well made meat loaf, a green vegetable and some frozen corn. The school systems should be shamed by any means necessary to change their ways. But to try to get it all, to try to force our kids out to the farm. I don’t think it’s tactically the best move at this time.
Q If you could eat the cuisine from only one region, what would it be?
If I was stuck on a desert island and I had to eat the same genre of food, I think Japanese, Maybe Osaka cuisine. If I had to be imprisoned within the confines of one city, Osaka would be it.
Q And why would that be?
A It’s not punishing. I love French food and Italian food, but I couldn’t eat it every day forever. Your system would eventually rebel, or mine would. Japanese food is so light and nuanced and stripped down, I could live on sushi for the rest of my life. It tastes delicious; there’s enormous variety within fairly restricted parameters. And it’s easy on the body.
Q After all your experiences, what would be your last supper?
A It used to be roasted bone marrow with some toasted French bread with some sea salt at St. John restaurant in London. But I think some sea-urchin roe, wrapped around some really good seaweed, some spectacularly high-quality rice made by a master sushi chef, that would be a nice last bite.
Q And who would you like to have at your last supper?
A I think I’m like a wild animal. If I know I’m dying, I want to crawl off alone and under a bush to die. I don’t want anyone to see that. I think I want to die alone.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643