“I feel compromised, a part of an evil empire, when I eat a McNugget.” On Bourdain Day

Born this date, 1956: Anthony Bourdain.

There are few voices I miss today more than that of Anthony Bourdain. His warm-hearted embrace of the entire world, his endless curiosity, his willingness to bridge gaps and accept differences–these are qualities our world is deeply lacking today. I, myself, fall short of his example…but I do try. Obviously I’m not able to travel as much as Bourdain did, but I do what I can. His oft-cited bits of travel advice, starting with eating where the locals eat, are always well taken.

By pure good luck, I read a book of Bourdain’s wisdom this very morning, after I checked it out of the library yesterday. I didn’t even know that today was Bourdain Day, as we’re all calling it now, honoring the life of a man who modeled a way of looking at the world to which we should all aspire. The book, Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview, is actually a short collection of several interviews, ranging from one he gave in the early 2000s to several he gave in the last few months of his life. I realize that the temptation may be there to read those last few and try to find any hint of the demons that were lurking in the dark places of his mind, but I strongly advise against it. Bourdain’s life should stand for more than just the fact of its ending.

Here are a few excerpts from the interviews in this book:

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: How do you distinguish between tricks–and I don’t mean it in a circus sense, but just secrets–versus ten years of doing it? You serve a food to someone and they say, “what’s your secret?” as though they can just tell that to them and then tomorrow they can do exactly what you made. At what point do you say, “Look, I’ve been at this my whole life?”

BOURDAIN: There are no secrets. The secret of the restaurant business and professional cooking is there are no secrets. It is a mentoring business. Chefs spend their whole lives learning stuff, and then, because of the nature of the business, every few months teach everything they know, invest time they don’t have, in teaching somebody everything they know so that they can maybe have a Sunday off, and that they can count on a crew. It is a military hierarchy, and it is import–there are no secrets. There are no secret recipes. There are no secret techniques. Everything that you learn in a kitchen you are either told, open-source, by your immediate supervisor and that’s been shared with everybody in the kitchen, or you have learned it over time, painfully. You know, the ability to tell when a steak is cooked by listening to it in the pan or on the grill. Or determining that a piece of fish is probably ready to come out of the pan just from the sound of it–these are things you learn through repetition. And that is the great secret. It’s that this is how professionals learn, this is how home cooks should learn. People shouldn’t be intimidated by recipes. They should understand that professionals learn through getting it wrong, getting it wrong, getting it wrong, getting it wrong, starting to get it right, eventually getting it right, until it became second nature. It’s repetition, repetition, repetition. You learn all of these things, even if you don’t understand the technical, the science behind why your stew is transforming, why it’s becoming thick as it cooks longer, why your egg scrambles, why the steak gets dark on the outside when you expose it to heat. You may have no understanding of the science behind that, but you instinctively–of course through repetition–understand it, you learn to use it, and you count on it.

Bourdain on writing (this interview is from a writing conference in Sydney; the interviewer is author Jill Dupleix, whose name is apparently misspelled in the book):

BOURDAIN: I don’t work for a living. I mean…

DUPLIEX: You’re making it sound good.

BOURDAIN: I mean, writing–I have no sympathy for anyone fortunate enough to get paid any kind of money to write whining about writer’s block or how hard it is, or some sort of internal torture. You’re doing it in a sitting position, so right away, you know? I spent my whole adult life on my feet. I feel very, very lucky that anybody even gives a shit what I think. It’s not something I’m used to, and it is a privilege to be able to write and have even eight people care what you’re saying.

[A bit later in the same interview]

BOURDAIN: I’m gonna tell you something that aspiring writers or writers here will really hate me for: I’ve never written anything in my life that hasn’t been published.

DUPLIEX: Yeah, we hate you.

BOURDAIN: I have never toiled away in a garret for years writing unsuccessful or unpublished manuscripts. I wrote the article that Kitchen Confidential was based on for a free paper in New York. I figured they were lame enough to buy my piece. It ended up in The New Yorker. I got lucky. I’m always talking, telling stories. Being a little provocateur with a way with words was something that was true of me when I was a little kid. I’ve always used that skill to get the things I want, to manipulate events to my liking, to get myself into trouble, to get myself out of trouble, to hurt my enemies, to seduce people, or make people do things I would like them to do. So I was always a little…you know, my parents very early on said “You should really be a lawyer, you’ve got such a way with words.”

Bourdain on differences and contradictions within people:

BOURDAIN: I used to think that basically, the whole world, that all humanity were basically bastards. I’ve since found that most people seem to be pretty nice–basically good people doing the best they can. There is rarely, however, a neat takeaway. You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first–as a guiding principle. Otherwise you’d spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing. Do I pipe up every time my Chinese host serves me some cute animal I may not approve of? Should I inquire of my Masai buddies if they still practice female genital mutilation? Express revulsion in Liberia over tribal practices?

Fact is, the guy who’s been patting my knee all night, telling jokes, sharing favorite Seinfeld anecdotes, making sure I get the best part of the lamb, being my new bestest buddy in Saudi Arabia will very likely later, on the drive back to the hotel, guilelessly express regret over what “the Jews and the CIA” did to my city on 9/11. What do you say to that?

Bourdain wasn’t one to hold an opinion for life, if he learned otherwise. He was very open to changing his views as his perspective evolved. I remember that he was rather disgusted by the degree to which Emeril Lagasse became a big “brand” in the 90s and early 2000s, but later on he would write an article in which he acknowledged Lagasse’s skill, knowledge, and the fact that he had paid his dues. Bourdain also famously sprang to the defense of a small-town newspaper food critic in the Midwest who praised her town’s new Olive Garden restaurant, even though he has made clear his general distaste for corporate food (see the quote in the title of this post). Here’s an example of Bourdain’s shift in perspective altering a previous strong opinion:

PETER ARMSTRONG: You said in an interview I read a couple days ago that you’ve changed your take on brunch as a result of having a kid.

BOURDAIN: Well, I hated brunch because for many years of my life, for many low points of my professional career, when I was fort of unemployable by any reputable restaurant for various reasons, I could always get a brunch gig. Because restaurants are always desperate to find somebody to cook three hundred omelettes for drunks on Sunday morning, and that was me. And so the smell of eggs cooking and French toast was always the smell of shame and defeat and humiliation until I became a dad. And now, if I want the fast track to looking cool in front of my daughter’s friends, it’s make a pancake bar for them, you know, “Your choice: chocolate chip, blueberry, or banana?”

I think what I appreciate most about Bourdain is that he rarely talks about food the way a “foodie” talks about food. He talks about the people who make it, why they make it the way they do, maybe a bit about the method of how they make it, and what it means to them in a cultural way. You almost never hear Bourdain talking about the acidity of a dish or the way it “elevates” certain ingredients or any of that Master Chef bullshit. Even when he visited a high-end restaurant on his shows, he always focused on the human connections involved with the food.

My God, I miss Anthony Bourdain. He was to food and food exploration what Carl Sagan was to science and space.


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