Anthony Bourdain: The Toqueland Interview

The Kitchen Confider on Life-Changing Moments, the Nature of Fame, Meeting His Heroes, and New Projects

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

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?… 

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Milestones: The Long Haul

On the Occasion of Gotham Bar and Grill’s 30th Anniversary, A Few Thoughts About Alfred Portale

[Note:  This is our monthly sister post to the Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater.  Click over there to read my just-posted interview with Alfred Portale. – AF]

Alfred Portale in 1985, the year he took over Gotham's kitchen (photo courtesy Gotham Bar and Grill)

Alfred Portale in 1985, the year he took over Gotham’s kitchen (photo courtesy Gotham Bar and Grill)

NEW YORK, NY — Alfred Portale once told me:  “There are two ways to become great.  One is to be born brilliant; the other is to work harder than everybody else.”

He paused for effect, then added:  “I did it the second way.”

He has a point: The history of Gotham Bar and Grill, which celebrated its 30th Anniversary with a gala benefit Monday night, followed by a late-night industry party, is dotted with evidence of Alfred’s constant striving. (He became chef there one year into the restaurant’s lifespan.) In our Eater interview, we discuss how he and his partners have periodically shepherded their prized possession through several of what Alfred calls “restorations,” revamping everything from the restaurant’s logo to its color scheme and artwork to keep Gotham from developing a middle-aged frumpiness…. 

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TALKING SHOP: Jody Williams (Buvette, New York City)

The Buvette Chef and Author on Her New Cookbook, Loving Vague Recipes, and Why Intentions Matter

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams’ new cookbook Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food (Grand Central Life & Style; $30) debuts today.  Written in collaboration with Julia Turshen and with an affectionate foreword by Mario Batali and exquisite photography by Gentl & Hyers, the book is a real charmer.  It shares not just a number of mostly simple and high-utility recipes fashioned after the European fare served up at Williams’ West Village restaurant, but also pantry notes and essays on savoring food and drink that help explain the mindset that makes Buvette such a respite from the madness of Manhattan.  With a recently opened Paris outpost and the mother ship on Grove street in a state of perpetual bustle, Jody’s pretty busy these days, but took time out last week to to sit at the long communal table just outside the kitchen door at Buvettte, and chat with us about her debut book.

TOQUELAND:  The book really conjures a sense of place and what this place is all about, largely through you just talking about the food. It’s transporting.  Was it a goal to create a mood as much as to share recipes?

WILLIAMS: I wish I was capable of consciously creating a mood. If there is a mood or a sense of place, it came out of this body of work subconsciously, and it makes sense for me that it would because the food that I’m cooking really is tied to a place.  It doesn’t really change much when I learn a dish in Rome or I learn a dish in France and I bring it back here and try and cook it. I love the culture.  I love the language.  I love where things are from. Maybe that’s why it feels that way.

How long had you had it in mind to do a book?  Is that something you’d always wanted to do? … 

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Depictions: Back to the Future

For Three Days, A Bunch of Philly Chefs Relived the Restaurant Trends, and Kitchens, of the 90s… on Twitter

Kevin Sbraga, whose Tweet started the epic

Kevin Sbraga, whose Tweet started the epic. (Photo courtesy Spraga restaurant)

I thought my Saturday night was over. Drinks at Il Buco Alimentari, dinner at Gato, more drinks at Pearl & Ash. It was past midnight, and I was fighting for consciousness in a taxi crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.  What more could one ask of the weekend’s apex?

As it turned out, things were just getting warmed up:  Checking my Twitter feed from the cab, I saw that Philadelphia chef Kevin Sbraga was engaged in a virtual romp down memory lane with some fellow whisks from the City of Brotherly Love.  It all started with the following exchange.

90sConversation1

That doesn’t seem like much does it, especially given the typo in the very first tweet, which should read “portion sizes and plating back.”

But that exchange sparked a spontaneous nostalgic combustion as Sbraga, David Katz, Justin Swain, Matt Levin, and Michael Falcone began listing a nonstop hit parade of trends, dishes, restaurants, and chefs from the 90s, much of it laced with inside cook humor.

I called Kevin yesterday and he explained to me that his first tweet was inspired by a dish he saw go by in a restaurant, “an eight-ounce portion of salmon, dry and overcooked, on lentils with beurre blanc. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘It’s the 90s all over again.’”… 

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Bon Voyage

Boulud Sud’s Executive Chef Travis Swikard on His New Dinner Series, Working with Daniel, and Moving Up the Kitchen Food Chain

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex)

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex Group)

At just 30 years of age, Executive Chef Travis Swikard is already a young veteran of the Daniel Boulud empire, having spent five years with the company here in New York City, first at Café Boulud under Executive Chef Gavin Kaysen and now at Boulud Sud, where he was promoted to Executive Chef in the fall.  On Monday night, Travis introduced a Voyage Dinner Series through which he’ll present the cuisine of a different Mediterranean country or region one night each month. This week explored Israel and the next three dinners will serve up Greece (Monday, May 12); Sicily (Monday, June 16); and the Côte d’Azur (Monday, July 14).  All dinners are at 7pm and the cost is $95 per person, exclusive of tax and gratuity.  Tickets are available at events.danielboulud.com.

We sat down with Travis the morning after the Israeli dinner this week to discuss his career, and the series:

TOQUELAND:  How did you first get interested in cooking?

SWIKARD:  I grew up in between my parents’ houses.  I lived with my mom most of the time and my dad every other weekend.  My dad was a really good cook. I loved to cook with him and cook for my family. I think I was four years old, five years old and my dad was making a steak Diane in the house and he put the cognac in the pan and almost blew up the house.  I looked at him and I said, “I want to be a chef.”

How did you start cooking professionally? … 

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The Sous Chef Takes Center Stage

A Live Chat with Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney, Monday night, April 14, at The Strand in New York City

Strand-Logo

A quick note:  It will be my distinct privilege to converse with Michael Gibney, author of the wonderful new book Sous Chef, Monday night in the Rare Books Room at The Strand.  Details here.

If you missed it, my interview with Michael ran recently here on Toqueland in two parts.

If you’re in NYC, we’d both love to see you there.

- Andrew

 

Rooting for American Food

Imbibe and Inspire Founder Stephen Torres Chats About Partnering with Christopher Kostow for the Second Annual “Roots of American Food” Conference (September 7 and 8, 2014; Chicago, Illinois)

Meadowood's Christopher Kostow has signed on as co-curator of this year's conference.

Meadowood’s Christopher Kostow has signed on as co-curator of this year’s conference.

Do you know the website Imbibe and Inspire?  I didn’t, until its founder, Stephen Torres, asked me to do an interview on it a few years ago.  It’s a fun project, and more or less what the name promises: videos in which culinary figures sip on a beverage and talk about what inspires them.

Stephen’s a well-liked guy, and he’s bagged some big names there, from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas to Michael Anthony to Wylie Dufresne, among many, many others. (My interview’s here.)

Last September, Stephen took things to a new level bringing food folk and interested observers together in a live situation by kicking off the Imbibe and Inspire: Roots of American Food Conference in Chicago.  This year’s conference will take place September 7 and 8 at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Chicago, and Stephen promises bigger and better things, thanks in part to a new collaborator: Christopher Kostow, three-Michelin-starred toque of The Restaurant at Meadowood, has signed on as co-curator for the 2014 conference, bringing not only his marquee name, but also his team’s organizational prowess (they produce a 12 Days of Christmas series of visiting chefs each December) to the endeavor.

I interviewed Christopher for Imbibe and Inspire,” Stephen says.  “He’s very inspiring and focused and very eloquent when he speaks about his team and what he wants to do.  I wanted him to be a part of it the first year, but he had another commitment.  Late in 2013, we agreed we’d do the next one together.”

“I am looking forward to turning our attention inward and exploring all that makes up what is, in my opinion, some of the most exciting cooking in the world,” says Kostow. “I am excited to examine the historical roots of cooking in modern-day America.”

According to Stephen, the conference “grew organically from my website.  I started meeting different people in the culinary world.  At the same time, I saw what was happening at MAD [the René Redzepi-founded symposium in Copenhagen], which was more international; I thought it would be cool to focus on what’s happening in the United States and what chefs are doing here.”… 

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Slice of Life: Enzo and Elvis

My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter

ENZO AND ELVIS - My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter and the author, minutes before saying goodbye. June 2012. (Photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc)

BROOKLYN, NY—On November 5 of last year, reports that Charlie Trotter had died, at the tragically young age of 54, ripped through the restaurant industry.  In a quirk of timing, I was interviewing Jeremiah Tower in the lobby of the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco that morning.  When he had to take a phone call, I sneaked a peek at my iPhone to see that my wife, Caitlin, had texted me the news.

Tower called it “a shock.”  I agreed. It was shocking, but not as shocking as it should have been.  I had visited Trotter in Chicago for an interview sixteen months earlier, in June 2012.  He didn’t look well.  I won’t speculate as to why because it would be just that–pure speculation–although on the heels of his demise, friends and the media pointed to both a heart condition and a brain aneurysm; a few weeks later, the Cook County Medical Examiner ID’d a stroke, resulting from high blood pressure, as the cause of death.

When I heard the news, and for days afterward, it wasn’t to my actual interview with Trotter that my mind traveled.  Rather, it was to what had happened on its margins, our personal interactions when the recorder wasn’t running.  It was an odd, at times infuriating, and ultimately heartening twenty-four hours, but it was none of those things for the right reasons.

I started writing this piece that fateful week in November, then set it aside; it didn’t feel right to share it then.  But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and enough time has elapsed that I wanted to now.  Having finished it, I wish I had posted it back in the fall, because at the end of the day, it’s a positive yarn:

A few months before Charlie Trotter shuttered his eponymous restaurant, I had been invited to interview him for this website and made the trip to Chicago to do it in person. He was granting a great many audiences in those months, and I had just sold a book project about his generation of chefs and had been meaning to ring him up anyway, and to visit the restaurant before it served its last supper.  Nevertheless, I was a bit hesitant to invest time and money in the trip because he was the only chef who’d ever stood me up for an interview, albeit just a phoner.  I’d also had an uncomfortable encounter with him at the Bocuse d’Or tryouts in Orlando, Florida, in 2008. Nonetheless, having been repeatedly assured that a last-second cancellation — or, worse, a no-show — was out of the question, I bought a ticket and made a date via his publicist.

Part of the reason I decided to go was that I’d long been fascinated by what I referred to as the Two Trotters.  Even those who were close to him, or admired his gifts from afar, acknowledged or had heard that he could be difficult. This was not a secret in the industry. On the other hand, he was a chef of great passion (see clip below) and relevance; counted among his best friends two of the most amiable guys in the industry, Norman Van Aken and Emeril Lagasse; was relentlessly philanthropic; and many people who once cooked in his kitchen—Marcus Samuelsson and Graham Elliot Bowles to name just two–cherish their time with him as invaluable and formative.

My plan had been to have dinner at Trotter’s during my Chicago visit, and to interview the chef while in town.  By the time the trip came together, two chef friends from New York–one a peer of Trotters, one a contemporary of mine–had decided to come along for the ride.  When Trotter heard who would be joining me, he invited us to be his guests for lunch.  The plan, I was told, was that we’d dine at the restaurant and then the chef and I would spend the rest of the afternoon interviewing at his home around the corner.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Chicago that I realized Charlie Trotter’s wasn’t open for lunch.  I called the publicist, who explained to me that we’d be dining in the kitchen.  This was just hours before our lunch, so I also took the opportunity to assuage my lingering doubts and re-confirm that the interview was on.  Etched in stone, I was told.

It was an insanely generous meal at the famous kitchen table.  Each chef de partie cooked a dish for us, personally presenting it.  Veteran sommelier Larry Stone, back in his old stomping grounds for the final summer, was also on hand.  Trotter himself joined us for a spell, sitting at the table’s fourth chair, then disappeared.  It was a splendid, marvelous time, almost surreal in both setting and service.

It was after lunch that things got strange: The three of us were led on a tour of the wine cellars, then ushered to the front door.

“Is Chef meeting me here, or at his home?” I asked.

None of the be-suited staff knew what I was talking about.  I explained about the interview.

“He’s going to call you on your cellphone,” somebody bluffed.

“He doesn’t have my number,” I said, gradually realizing that history was repeating itself and that I was about to be stood up once again.

A lengthy, awkward silence followed.  Not wanting to shatter the halo of our lunch, I said goodbye and left.  Outside, I called Trotter’s publicist and explained the situation.  She was shocked, and hung up with me to try, fruitlessly, to find him.  I told my friends to push off and that I’d meet them for dinner, then called the publicist, told her — among other things — that I was going to plant myself on a bench in a nearby park and not move until I heard from somebody.

And there I sat, in a suit and tie. In the June sun. For two hours.  Periodically, the publicist called to update me:  Nobody could find Trotter, not even his wife.

Finally, my phone rang.  A private caller.  I answered it.

“Andrew, it’s Charlie,” came the voice on the other end, excited and happy…. 

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Amuse-Book: Gramercy, via Aspen

Gramercy Tavern was Born at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen. Tom Colicchio Remembers.

B 6745

Tom Colicchio (photo courtesy Craft Restaurants)

[Welcome to a new feature I'm introducing here on Toqueland: Amuse-Book.  Basically these are a quick way for me to share a nugget from interviews from the book research trail that seem especially timely or relevant and that I don't want to sit on until publication day. - AF]

NEW YORK, NY – I had the chance to spend a few hours interviewing Tom Colicchio yesterday. It was a far-ranging conversation that turned up a timely tidbit for this day, on which Food & Wine Magazine announces its Best New Chefs for 2014, and fetes them at a party in New York City tonight:  Gramercy Tavern began life at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen.

As Tom tells the story:

“In 1991, I got a phone call saying, You’re going to be a Best New Chef.”

Was it a big deal?

“Oh, yeah.  It was one of the big [four]:  Getting reviewed in the Times, getting reviewed in New York Magazine, Food & Wine Best New Chef, and the Beard Awards.  These were all good things.  You checked the boxes.”

[Note: For Toqueland's thoughts about the early importance of Best New Chefs, posted at the time of the 2010 inductions, click here.]

“It was the same year we got three stars [at Mondrian restaurant, from the New York Times].  They announced it in Aspen then; it wasn’t the same as it is now … so you had to keep your mouth shut until you got to Aspen.

“I remember the dish I did [in Aspen]; in fact, I’m cooking Tuesday, so I’m doing the same dish Tuesday that I did in Aspen:  a squab dish with soubise … I had ramps then– there are no ramps yet, so I’m doing baby leeks tomorrow – pickled chanterelles, honey-glazed onions. So it’s essentially the same dish I did then.

“It was great.  This was awesome stuff.  I remember going there.  I brought Kerry [Heffernan, his sous chef at Mondrian] with me.  And another chef named Jeff Perry, who was a sous chef at Mondrian, and it was, like, ‘road trip.’”

Those were heady days for Tom.  In addition to being named a Best New Chef, his three stars from the New York Times came at a time when only about a dozen restaurants could claim that distinction.

But the truth was that Mondrian was under-performing, and Colicchio was beginning to think about shutting it down.

“In 1991, Michael Romano [of Union Square Cafe] won Best New Chef so I had met Danny [Meyer] there.  Plus he’d been coming to the restaurant, so I knew him there, but spent more time with him in Aspen.  In 1992, I went back and I was having lunch with Danny [in Aspen].  I said, ‘Danny, in about a month you’re going to hear I’m closing Mondrian.’

“He said, ‘Why are you telling me?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we should do something together.’… 

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Depictions: Eat, Drink, Boy, Women

Five Thoughts about The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue

NYT-Magazine-Food-Issue-Flynn-McGarry

The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue broke this weekend, with wunderkind Flynn McGarry on the cover and a terrific profile of Barbara Lynch, among other pieces, inside.  Herewith, a few thoughts and observations about the most cheffy articles of the bunch:

1.  The Kid Stays in the Kitchen.  Did it bother you that there was a teenage chef on the cover of the food issue?  From a purely business standpoint, it made sense to me.  If I were an editor or publisher looking to generate some attention, I’d stick the kid with the Alinea-inspired kitchen in his bedroom, a talent agent on speed dial, and an Uber account on my cover over just about anybody else. Nevertheless, I gather from some Twitter action over the weekend, that an anti-Flynn wave has commenced:

Personally, I’m not hopping on the backlash bandwagon.  Quite the opposite: In our home, my wife showed the magazine to our twin 9-year olds as evidence of what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it.  Both of them have aspirations–our daughter to be a graphic or fashion designer; our son a professional athlete–and their eyes were just about popping out of their heads when they saw McGarry there. I know there was disappointment among some friends of mine that Barbara Lynch and Kristen Kish weren’t on the cover (indeed, they might have at least been mentioned there) but in our home, children of both sexes found inspiration there based on age and accomplishment, and that’s got to be worth something.

I’ve wanted to meet Flynn McGarry for some time, having known about him for a while.  But much as I’d like to make his acquaintance, I’m even more curious to taste his food.  Carina Chocano’s story was an interesting, though coincidental, follow-on to Alan Richman’s piece this week about “egotarian cuisine,” which I must say I found timely, refreshing, and important. (Lost in much of the naysaying was that Richman didn’t dismiss all of the food out of hand, just the stuff that isn’t enjoyable and/or satisfying to eat–is it actually a radical thought that those should be the baseline standards for any dining experience?)

Truth be told, though I’m rooting for him, I’m a little worried for McGarry.  Not because of an outsized ego; I know many people who have met him, and he is very well liked, hence the invitations to stage in major kitchens.  No, I’m concerned about what appears to be a narrowness of experience, and I don’t mean kitchen experience, because he’s obviously got that in spades.

The story–and it’s not the first one I’ve read about this prodigy–reminded me of a conversation I once had with the head of the Columbia University Film School.  I was a first-year student and interested in a program Columbia had at the time in which you could earn an undergraduate degree and a masters of fine arts in a total of five, rather than six, years.  I met with the head of the film school to ask what he’d be looking for when the time came for me to apply.

“Don’t just come to me with a bunch of film classes on your resume,” he said. “If that’s all you have, then what are you going to make movies about? Show me you knocked around Europe for a year, or worked some crazy job in Alaska.”

When I read Sunday’s article, I felt tremendous admiration for McGarry and also a twinge of concern.  (I didn’t realize before this particular piece that he was home-schooled.)  It was the same concern I felt when I saw an episode of Master Chef Junior last fall:  that the technique being developed by these wonder-whisks is astonishing, but what vision do those who have done little more than cook bring to their craft?  Professional cooking, like many arts or art-like pursuits, expands with the worldliness and curiosity of the individuals who practice it.  A related point is made in Rosie Schaap’s bartender article in the magazine, which reveals that, like many of America’s first “celebrity chefs,” whose groundbreaking food was informed by their pre-culinary lives, many of our top celebrity bartenders are career changers, and bring a world of non-food reference points to their work.  For example, Todd Maul, of Boston’s Clio, is a former furniture maker, and references that craft in relation to his provided cocktail recipe in the piece. I just hope that McGarry makes time in his young life to get out of the kitchen and away from the media to be — you know — a kid, and to bring that life experience to the plate.

It’s probably none of my business what McGarry and the other young toques out there do with their lives, but this was my personal response to the story.  There are too many cautionary tales (Andre Agassi comes to mind) of childhoods prematurely surrendered to the hard-to-deny combination of talent and ambition.  The kitchen will always be there; one’s sixteenth year comes and goes, in hindsight, in a millisecond…. 

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