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My 2004 Interview With Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain inspired all modern food writers, whether they know it or not. He loosened up the genre, made it funnier and more honest. A generation of imitators followed, but even those of us who didn't mimic his particular style were nonetheless influenced. May he rest in peace. 

I interviewed Bourdain ouside his restaurant Les Halles in Coral Gables in February, 2004, upon the release of his then-new Les Halles Cookbook.


In an old New Yorker cartoon, two men stand in front of a luncheonette with these words emblazoned upon the window: "COOKED FOOD." One man turns to the other and says, "It was the first theme restaurant." Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking, published this past October, is a gastronomic ode to the magic and beauty of simple, properly prepared, "cooked food." Mr. Bourdain, whose restaurant exposé Kitchen Confidential catapulted him to fame, revels in puncturing the pomposities of the culinary world -- and Brasserie Les Halles, New York's classic French bistro where he's been executive chef since 1998, serves as a refuge for those who are, as Bourdain puts it in his new book's introduction, "simply sick to death of the little-food-big-plate-candy-ass-low-fat creations of the day." The irreverent author has also penned A Cook's Tour; two satirical thrillers, Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo; and the "urban historical" Typhoid Mary. He lives in New York City with his wife Nancy, but is in Miami this week to take part in the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Expect his presentations to be among the liveliest: Saturday 3:45 to 4:45 p.m., demonstration stage B; and Sunday 4:00 to 5:00 p.m., stage C.

New Times: What do you consider the three essential cookbooks to own?

Anthony Bourdain: Fergus Henderson's visionary The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. It's an inspiration to chefs everywhere. [Henderson is chef/owner of London's St. John restaurant.] Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook, the most beautiful ever -- it's a must-have, even if you never cook from it. And probably Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's fundamental.

Do you get to dine out much during your occasional visits to Miami?

Not really. If I can get some real Cuban food down here, I'm happy.

What dish do restaurants never get right?

Few people get steak frites right. They use the wrong steak, sirloin, which is gutless, an accommodation to what they perceive as American taste. And of course they inevitably screw up the frites. Follow that up with onion soup gratinée. It's beyond me how anyone could screw up either thing. It's like why people insist on making pasta badly when it's so easy to do right.

Most overused ingredient?

Truffle oil. [Los Angeles Times food writer] Jonathan Gold calls it the ketchup of the upper classes. I'm over it.

You get to choose three American chefs for a culinary Olympic team. They are ...

Thomas Keller [French Laundry], Eric Ripert [Le Bernardin], and Scott Bryant [Veritas].

Best celebrity chef?

Mario Batali is my hero. I think he's doing God's work out there. He gets people to eat traditional foods they wouldn't ordinarily eat. I really admire that. Instead of going the easy route, making a lot of cash on crap, which he could have done, he does the difficult stuff, plays with tripe and shanks and things.

What's the dumbest thing you've ever done in a professional kitchen?

My first chef at the Rainbow Room told me to soak some black beans, white navy beans, and some other type of bean, and I dumped them together in a bucket and added water. I spent the next few days sorting them all out.

If you were hiring a sous chef and had to choose between a pothead, a cokehead, or an alcoholic ...

It's not an attractive choice, but the alcoholic every time. The pothead will space on me, the cokehead will steal from me and not show up at all. The alcoholic -- well, you know, it's part of a grand and glorious tradition of the business to be a functioning alcoholic, so realistically he'll probably become one sooner or later anyway.

Should there be a mandatory retirement age for chefs?

It's a young person's game. You don't have a lot of options when you hit your midforties as a chef. If you don't have an outpost in Vegas by then, I really don't know what happens. Young pigeons and old chefs -- you just don't see them.

You've made fun of anti-foie gras activists who object to force-feeding.

I don't think it's funny what they've done to terrorize chefs and their families, nor the fact that they've been winning the day. I'm quite certain that in our lifetime we'll see the last of it [foie gras] in this country. I mean, who's going to step up and defend it?

How would you defend it?

It's good. It's a tradition stretching back to Roman times. I know how I'd like to defend those who are videotaping the wives and children of chefs, from their back yards, and using the videotapes and threatening phone calls to coerce these chefs into taking foie gras off their menus: I'd like to beat them upside the head with a fucking board. You'll notice these chickenshits don't go and try to break up organized dog-fighting rings in Oakland and East LA. Why? You know, they might get hurt.

Best food film?

Tampopo best food film, Big Night best restaurant film.

A film version of Kitchen Confidential was in the works but didn't make it to production. What actor would you have liked to see play you?

Gary Oldman.

That would be quite a stretch. Oh wait, no, I was thinking of Gary Coleman.

That would be a stretch.

What's next?

I'll be moving to a little fishing village in Vietnam for a year to write a book. I've got a collection due out next year called The Nasty Bits, a new series for the Travel Channel, writing a column for Best Life magazine, and some other newspaper and magazine writing.

It sounds like writing comes easy to you.

Yes. I write like I talk, and I talk a lot.

Your favorite nonfood writers?

Graham Greene is one, and I'm a huge Nabokov fan. I think The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins is the finest crime novel ever written. I also read a lot of history and biographies.

What does your mother think of your success?

She's confused by it. I mean she's proud of me, but confused because I've never followed her advice and I've basically done every wrong thing a human being can possibly do, screwed up in every possible way, and it seems to be paying off.