The Kitchen Confider on Life-Changing Moments, the Nature of Fame, Meeting His Heroes, and New Projects
NEW YORK, NY — Where do you begin when it comes to Anthony Bourdain? There are no shortage of options, but I’ll start here: As far as I’m concerned, with Kitchen Confidential (2000) he more or less created the interest in chefs’ lives and the inner workings of professional kitchens that gave rise to the audience (at least in the United States) for everything from books by authors such as Gabrielle Hamilton and newcomers like Michael Gibney to shows like The Mind of a Chef (which he narrates) to myriad other toque-focused entertainments, this blog included.
All of which is to say, I was delighted and humbled that Tony — whom I’ve met a few times over the years — graciously accepted my invitation to do a Toqueland interview. We connected on Tuesday, two days after the wonderful Lyon episode of Parts Unknown debuted, and one day before he took off for China to film an upcoming installment. He’s a busy man, who in addition to all of the above, oversees his own line of books under the Ecco imprint and is developing a food hall in New York City, among many other endeavors.
The interview took place over a leisurely lunch at The Breslin during which we covered a wide range of topics. He also casually gifted me some news about previously unannounced upcoming projects, featured in our dialogue, below.
I may run some other bits from our conversation next week, but for now, here’s the meat of it:
On How We Got to This Point
TOQUELAND: OK, so you write, you’ve got the show, you’re developing a food market, oversee your own line of books, among other things you’re involved with in some way or another. And this all started with a New Yorker article that grew into a book.
BOURDAIN: [laughs] Right.
TOQUELAND: When you think back to when things started to snowball, what was the tipping point when you really started to understand that your life was beginning to mutate into what it’s become?
BOURDAIN: About six months after Kitchen Confidential happened. I was on the best-seller list. I signed for the television series A Cook’s Tour. People were calling and offering me all sorts of wonderful things. But I was still very much working under the assumption that it was all bullshit and it would all vaporize and that I should keep my day job.
TOQUELAND: When you say “it’s all bullshit,” you mean you didn’t trust it? Or you thought people were full of it?
BOURDAIN: I didn’t trust it.
TOQUELAND: It seemed too good to be true?
BOURDAIN: Yes. Well, I still kind of believe that. I thought it could all ‑‑ as these things do when you’re talking with television or movie people, for instance — tend to vaporize. I knew enough by then. I was forty-four. Who believes that you can make a living writing, you know? I spent my life with waiters who wanted to be writers or wanted to be actors, so I very much felt, “This is all great. I’m going to make the most of it while I can, but I’m not going to be so foolish as to think that I should quit my job.”
I finally had a job that I was good at where I was appreciated and we were actually a successful restaurant, which was just about a first for me in my entire thirty‑year career. Les Halles was really the first time I was working for a restaurant that was busy before me, busy during me, and would be busy after me. I was very aware of that. I was onto a good thing. I was happy.
So it took me about six months and then from that point on I have been careful. I’ve been very careful. I, on the one hand, have tried to make the most of my opportunities, but I’ve been very careful about what I say yes to and what I say no to. And I think seriously always about, look, this may be a good idea right now or it may be a lot of money right now, but will it be good for me five years from now? Will it be fun? Will it make me hate myself? I think about all of those things.
TOQUELAND: I first met you in 2005 when we were promoting Don’t Try This at Home.
TOQUELAND: And we all went to dinner after a book signing, and at that time the Kitchen Confidential TV show starring Bradley Cooper was on, and my wife asked you, “What’s your involvement with the show?” And you laughed and said, “When they air one, they send me a check.” But I always wondered if, based on the timing, you actually became more careful about what your put your name on after that experience.
BOURDAIN: No, I knew beforehand. They were paying me as a consultant. I think largely when they do that they don’t really want you to consult; they want to pay you to not badmouth your own project. I had very low [expectations]… remember, that project was sold initially to be a David Fincher film with Brad Pitt.
TOQUELAND: I remember that well. Was it the same producers who took it over to television?
BOURDAIN: No. Look, I had low expectations when I sold the thing. It was not an unpleasant experience working with [Sex and the City producer] Darren Star to the extent that I did, which was I think we had lunch once, went out to the studio. I saw the set before they actually showed up but I never was “on set” or anything like that. I had low expectations. I mean, so you go maybe to Hollywood. You get what everybody gets. I wasn’t brokenhearted when it turned into something else. It was a half hour sitcom on Fox; what the fuck do I expect? In retrospect, it’s something of a historical curiosity. I haven’t seen it in many years. I didn’t go hide in a closet when it came out. When I looked at it, I didn’t think, “That’s me” or “What did they do to my book?” It wasn’t my book. The minute I sold it to Hollywood, it’s not my book. It was not an unpleasant experience. It didn’t scar me or mark me in any way. My attitude towards these things was reasonably healthy before that experience, and remains that way. I have a pretty good idea of how these things work.
TOQUELAND: What was your ambition for Kitchen Confidential when you were writing it?
BOURDAIN: I wanted the guys in my kitchen and a bunch of other kitchens in New York to find it funny and to say, “That’s not bullshit. That’s like our life. This guy, he’s one of us.” That’s it. I wrote it for the New York Press, that first article, and I expanded on it for the book. I really, really, really didn’t think ‑‑ I didn’t understand or see any reason for anyone as far west as Philadelphia to read it. So it all came as a surprise to me. It’s in, like, thirty languages. It was very quickly in that many languages. I had no clue.
It’s so New York‑centric, the whole fish on Monday thing, all of these rules were very much, 1998 in New York. I didn’t see how any of that would translate. I never, never for a second considered what people might want out of a book or what they might expect or whether this would translate to another city.
I was given an opportunity. I wrote an article wanting to sell it for $100 to the New York Press. It ended up in the New Yorker. I got offered a book on the basis of that so I just did more of that because it seemed to work and it was fun. I had the luxury of not having any idea what was expected or understanding of it or I would have been paralyzed with fear and uncertainty if I had any clue what the reading public wanted. I wouldn’t have known what to do.
TOQUELAND: I remember very well when that book came out. I connected it to White Heat, which was published about a decade earlier in 1990. A lot of times when you would read about chefs or read cookbooks, there was this sort of idealized, sanitized presentation of the chef’s life, like the professional kitchen almost went away. You never really read about that. I felt like the photographs by Bob Carlos Clarke in White Heat were important in that respect.
TOQUELAND: And I feel like your book was the prose equivalent of that. Did you make that connection?
BOURDAIN: I looked at White Heat, I wanted to be that guy. We all did. We saw Marco leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette. We all connected with that. “My God, it’s a chef in a cookbook smoking a cigarette”. He’s gaunt and scraggly and dirty and stressed like we are. It was finally a chef who looks like us. There’s hope.
I wanted to connect. I wanted the reader, who I envisioned as a cook, to feel that same sense of connection as I felt when I saw the pictures in White Heat. But it was a book that was written without guile. I was fucking clueless. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have the luxury. I mean, I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and would light a cigarette before I brushed my teeth even, and I’d write for a couple of hours and then I’d look at the clock and realize I had to be in [to work at Les Halles] and I’d go. It was a book written very quickly. I was thinking about Down and Out in Paris and London and how that book made me feel when I read it. I was looking for that response from cooks. That was as far as it went with me when I wrote the book.
TOQUELAND: Obviously professional cooking’s really hard work. Obviously at some age it starts to become taxing physically, but do you miss being on the line? Do you miss being in a kitchen?
BOURDAIN: I miss the camaraderie, of course. I miss the lack of bullshit, because you can’t bullshit in the kitchen. You can’t inflate yourself because everyone will know tomorrow. I liked living in a pure meritocracy. I liked that first cold beer after work. I liked hanging with cooks and people who work for a living, men and women who prove their mettle every day, every hour, who when they say they’re going to do a thing, do a thing, or they’re quickly no longer in your orbit.
But the work? I had twenty-eight years of it. I don’t delude myself into thinking that I’d be useful. I’d be a liability. I was in decline already at forty-four. Kitchen Confidential was very good timing for me, as it turned out. Cooking is fucking hard. People who don’t do it for a living pretend to acknowledge it but they don’t know how hard it actually is. Because we’re not talking about a hard thing; we’re talking about a hard thing every day the same and that is difficult indeed.
TOQUELAND: The monotony of the actual work?
BOURDAIN: The pressure of doing the same job just as fast and just as well to the same standards and identically, looking and tasting identical again and again and again with no variance. That’s hard.
On Fame and The Life of a Professional Globetrotter
TOQUELAND: What’s the most surprising place you’ve ever been recognized?
BOURDAIN: Wow. Look, the show’s seen everywhere now so … Borneo? If nothing else, there will always be somebody from another country — whether it’s rural China, or a Singaporean or a Malaysian tourist –- who will recognize me. The question is more, “Where are the crazy fans?”
TOQUELAND: “Crazy fans” defined how?
BOURDAIN: Like the enthusiastic fans in Paraguay who were sitting in the lobby, who somehow found out what hotel I’m staying at and were sitting there for six hours waiting for me to wake up.
TOQUELAND: And wanted what from you after all that time? A picture? An autograph? To hang out?
BOURDAIN: A picture.
TOQUELAND: Just a picture? Does that blow your mind?
BOURDAIN: It’s weird. I mean, it’s strange. It feels odd. It’s a jarring difference between the way I used to live and the way I live now. I don’t feel puffed up by it or freaked out by it or annoyed by it unless I’m running for the bathroom in between flights. But, look, it’s easier than filling up the steam table in a shitty restaurant you don’t like in the morning knowing you’re about to cook food that you hate for people you hate.
BOURDAIN: Brunch is hard, you know? Posing for selfies in Paraguay in a lobby, not so hard.
TOQUELAND: I was watching the Lyon episode of Parts Unknown the other night and the way you were talking about Paul Bocuse really struck me. You were clearly very humbled to be in his presence.
BOURDAIN: Struggling to not weep. I can’t stress enough, for most of my life, I never, ever thought that ever would I eat at Bocuse, much less sit with him, much less hang out, go hunting, hang at his lodge with him and his mistress. Day one I met his wife; day two, I’m hanging out with him and his mistress. I mean, you can see it: I had the vapors. I was totally in the presence of a lifelong hero of mine. Very, very aware of it. Very nervous and excited and emotional and grateful. I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Still can’t believe it. I look back on it, I can’t believe it.
TOQUELAND: It reminded me, not to the same degree, but early in your career as a writer and on-camera personality, you visited The French Laundry in a reverential piece that to me that captured the Laundry like very few things have. Who else would be in similar territory for you? Who else would it be hard for you to be cool around?
BOURDAIN: Oh, Keith Richards.
TOQUELAND: Have you met him?
BOURDAIN: No. Bill Murray was on the show, but it’s like it happened in a fugue state. Still my voice gets all high and squeaky and weird. Iggy [Pop].
TOQUELAND: On the Lyon episode we see Bocuse and his farmer friends and the guys he hangs out with, it was a place for him to be where his celebrity doesn’t matter.
BOURDAIN: Yeah, they don’t call him Monsieur Paul. He’s the neighbor.
TOQUELAND: Do you have a group like that?
BOURDAIN: No. This is a reason why hanging out with chefs and cooks is more comfortable than hanging out with writers. There’s no sense of anything outside of the moment. I feel very comfortable hanging out with even chefs who I don’t see often. I mean, Eric [Ripert] is my closest friend. I probably see him more often than any other friend. In fact, I’m sure I do. José [Andrés]. But I travel 250 days a year. There are chef friends who I only see every couple of years, but I’m always moving. By conventional standards I’m a bad friend. I’m not there to remember your birthday or to offer you words of support about [something I'm not aware of] through Twitter. I’m not up on what you’re doing in New York because I’m not in New York. I’m not what they call in parenting circles “present.” I guess it’s no coincidence I get along so well with Eric and José. We’re all sort of half in, half out of the public eye, traveling a lot. So I’m not offended if I call José or Eric and they don’t call me back for a few days.
TOQUELAND: You get it.
BOURDAIN: I understand. I get it. This is the way we live now. If I want to get together for drinks with my closest friends, my assistant calls their assistant because that’s the most efficient way to do it, and most respectful way as well. It’s a very weird, freakish situation a lot of us find ourselves in. That’s just the way it is.
But, no, I don’t have a country place. I don’t have an organized anything. I don’t have bowling buddies or a regular card game or a regular anything because I wouldn’t be there for most of those regulars. There’s no regularity to my schedule. And any regularity there is, my first fucking priority is going to be spending that time with my daughter. That’s it.
A “Jiro” Prequel, A Jeremiah Tower Documentary … and a Book by Supermensch!
TOQUELAND: Can you catch me up on what other projects you’re getting involved with? I just recently read that you’re going to do something with Shep Gordon [the music manager who started representing and advocating for chefs in the early 1990s] as part of your line of books under the Ecco imprint.
BOURDAIN: Yes, I’m going to be publishing Shep Gordon. I chased him down. I saw [Mike Myers' new documentary about Gordon] Supermensch, and around a half a second later I was: “Oh, my God, we’ve got to get Shep to write a book.” I’ve known him for a bit. I met him when we shot with Alice Cooper. And of course he manages Roy Choi. And one of the really awesome things is everywhere Roy is, you’ll see Shep, flying in from Hawaii. And of course Shep goes back to representing Emeril. And his relationship with Roger Vergé is epic.
I mean, he told me this story about Chef Vergé being hired to do this big black tie event out west. They put him in this shitty little room in another hotel. They flew him in the back of the plane. They wouldn’t even let him walk through the front door, enter through the front door or eat in the dining room. Shep was actually there too soon. He was way too far ahead anticipating the celebrity chef thing. (By the way, we need a new term for celebrity chefs. “Empowerment of chefs” or “acknowledgment of chefs.”) But yeah, I’ll be publishing, and I’m very excited about it.
TOQUELAND: It’s going to be a straight memoir?
BOURDAIN: A memoir, and there are certain things that we’re talking about him reflecting on. He watched a lot of really brilliantly talented people move from obscurity to the peak of success to death and madness. So it’s a reflection on fame as well.
TOQUELAND: What else are you most excited about that’s coming down the pike?
BOURDAIN: Doing another comic book. A prequel to Get Jiro!, about a young Jiro.
TOQUELAND: Have I missed this? Has this been announced already?
TOQUELAND: I assume this will be with the same team?
BOURDAIN: Different artist. The artist who worked on Jiro [Langdon Foss] was fucking amazing. Amazing. I’m looking to do something kooky and very different. Different book, different look.
I’m working hard on the food hall, the hawker center, which is looking to be pretty big. Can’t really tell you more about it but we’re getting some very, very, very interesting people involved. I mean, really mind‑blowing people. This will not be just another food hall. Not even close. It’ll be, “Holy shit.”
TOQUELAND: When I was in San Francisco for a Stars reunion dinner in November, Jeremiah Tower was being shadowed by a film crew from Zero Point Zero, the company that produces Parts Unknown. He said there might be a documentary in the offing. Is that happening?
BOURDAIN: Yes. We’re doing an independent film on the life and importance of Jeremiah Tower.
TOQUELAND: So it’ll be a theatrical release?
BOURDAIN: It’ll do the festival circuit, limited theatrical release, followed by CNN.
TOQUELAND: What about Jeremiah Tower drew you to him?
BOURDAIN: He was the original. He was the first chef in America that you wanted to see in the dining room. He was the guy who transformed American menus from what they were to what they are now. He’s a hugely compelling personality, a dangerous man. He’s the history of everything. I mean, cautionary tale, inspiration. It’s all there. It’s a great story as well as an historical correction that needs to be made.
TOQUELAND: How do you mean?
BOURDAIN: I just don’t think he’s been acknowledged. I don’t think he’s received his due. I mean, the full significance of things that Jeremiah did first is not acknowledged to the degree it should be, not recognized as widely. And look, bottom line, people who have no idea who Jeremiah Tower is, who are not much interested in the restaurant business would and should still find it compelling viewing in the same way the Bob Evans film The Kid Stays in the Picture was.
TOQUELAND: Just by dint of personality?
BOURDAIN: The Kid Stays in the Picture was a great story. This will be a great story.