Bourdain: 'I think there's a real desire among foodies to use what they eat and where they eat it as a means of separating themselves from others.'
The biggest enemy of the antihero rock star is his own popularity. Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, Henry Rollins -- they've all been accused of selling out at various points in their snarling, growling careers. Trashed hotel rooms and massive amounts of heroin have kind of lost their cachet, however; perhaps the closest thing to the rock star of this millennium is the celebrity chef. At least on this side of the Atlantic, there's no greater example than Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain made his bones in the restaurant world working various low-level stations at a number of New York eateries. In his newest book, Medium Raw, he describes these early jobs with the nickname "McAssCrack's Bar and Grill." Running the kitchen at New York's Brasserie Les Halles took him off the most miserable of the restaurant jobs, but it was his bridge-burning book Kitchen Confidential that lifted him out of the grind on the power of his own venting frustration.
In Medium Raw, Bourdain has come beyond full circle, from a wholesome childhood to a drug-fueled nascent culinary career, into the occasionally unwelcome bright light of print and television celebrity, and finally to his current position -- father and husband, dealing with the increasingly inaccurate label of "bad boy."
On November 18, Bourdain (don't call him "chef") will appear at the Overture Center for the Arts to deliver what will likely be a profanity-laden dissertation on good food and bad, friends and enemies, and possibly some pot-shots at Chicago for briefly banning foie gras. This won't be Bourdain's first trip to Madison, or to Wisconsin. He appeared at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee last winter, eventually using some of that trip for an episode of No Reservations, his Travel Channel series.
Previous trips to Madison haven't exactly been high points in his previous books. In 2001's A Cook's Tour, he described a large number of Wisconsinites as "pale, doughy masses," victims of a fast-food diet of "cheese that contains no cheese."
Bourdain reassures, saying "I liked my first trip to Madison," and that he bears no ill-will against Wisconsin. I spoke with Bourdain to find out what's the act and what's genuine Tony.
The Daily Page: Obvious first question first: Is there any chance that Madison is going to see itself on No Reservations next season thanks to this visit?
Bourdain: I have no idea. I mean, we don't have any plans at the moment, but anything's possible, I guess.
Madison's a pretty liberal town, but even we haven't banned any food items yet. Where's your tipping point between useful food regulation, such as E. coli prevention efforts, and Chicago's foie gras ban?
I personally wouldn't allow people to put cleaning products in ground meat, and yet we do. I'm pretty libertarian.
You were slightly more complimentary of Wisconsin in 2007's The Nasty Bits -- though you did use the word "grim" to describe many of the menus in Madison. What are you hoping or expecting to find in the Madison of 2010?
[In the Madison of past visits,] if you were a talented chef, and you cooked as well as you could, you were punished for it. I'm sure things have changed a lot in that time. People are a lot more knowledgeable about food, a lot more sophisticated about food, have much higher expectations, and I would anticipate, given what I heard the chefs talking about, and how keen they were to sort of do more contemporary, edgy stuff -- I would be really surprised if the food wasn't good. I remember it was an unusually foodie town, with a large number of chefs who were really very eager to push things forward, farther than where they were at the time.
With the "Heartland" episode of No Reservations, you covered a lot of terrain, beyond just the Midwest. It's probably the first time Denver's been the heartland of anything other than Colorado.
What do you see as defining characteristics of a Midwestern, or even a Wisconsin kind of regional cuisine?
Wow... Midwestern's a big word. It's come to be about as meaningless as Heartland, actually. I mean, it's a big place. Chicago's the Midwest and it's a hell of a lot different, and is able to have a completely different dining scene than a place that's one-tenth the size, and doesn't have the customer base of wealthy people willing to pony up big money for expensive ingredients and big wines and large numbers of cooks. All I can tell you is that some of the cooking I've seen in-between the coasts over the last ten years has been really, really extraordinary, and some of that has been in the Midwest. And I'm not talking about Chicago; it should come as no surprise, of course there are a lot of great chefs there, and great ingredients, because it's a big metropolis. One of the best meals I've had in a while was in Minneapolis.
Was that Piccolo?
Just really extraordinary. Tiny little restaurant, heroic. Piccolo, yeah. Just terrific.
Your Alice Waters criticism in Medium Raw is fairly epic; what do you think is the difference between Alice or someone like her, and Jamie Oliver, whose socioculinary virtue you more or less defend?
I admire that, like Don Quixote, he's chosen to use his money and his celebrity on a mission that is probably doomed. But I admire him for doing it. And I'd like to be careful to point out that when you talk about "someone like Alice Waters," I mean, there are a lot of people out there who I really admire. I admire anyone who has made a real effort to create a restaurant that patronizes local farmers and local producers to the greatest extent they can, who highlights local culinary traditions and ingredients to the greatest extent they can. So, I agree -- I am in sympathy with just about everything that Alice says, I just think that she herself is a bad messenger for the cause.
Is it the two-foot spoon? [Waters attained true infamy in Bourdain's mind for using a long copper spoon to cook a single egg over what he describes as "a couple cords of firewood" for Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes.]
It's the fact that she's ridiculously insensitive to the real world, and I think it hurts the cause.
There are times in the new book where you almost seem to be readying for a weaponless class war. Do you worry about that type of movement when you see things like the Tea Party?
We're seeing it. We're seeing Glenn Beck coming out against Michelle Obama's lunch initiative. Like it's our God-given right to eat ourselves to death. If anyone should want to be concerned about this, it'd be the Tea Partiers. My God, what about our state of military readiness? If you posed the school lunch initiative in a framework of patriotism and preparing our generation to fight the alien hordes, it might be more appealing to the Tea Partiers.
But I think there's a real desire among foodies to use what they eat and where they eat it as a means of separating themselves from others. I think class war is unfortunately a major part of this whole foodie mania.
And it just comes down to this: when you have a really fantastic meal at a really good restaurant, and you tell a friend the next day, are you doing your friend a favor, do you think? Are you doing it because you think your friend will enjoy hearing it? Or are you really sticking it to your friend and looking to make them feel envious or small in some way. Maybe we should be asking ourselves these questions.
We had a very distorted relationship with food for a long time, and the pendulum has swung from undervaluing it to perhaps overvaluing it and fetishizing it. So yes, I think there's a risk of using food and dining as a weapon of class war. Oddly enough, I think the chefs are going in exactly the opposite direction. The chefs are trying hard to democratize fine dining, and make it less bullshit-oriented, and go back to more hoof-and-snout, quotidian dishes that the poor used to have to eat, but we're clearly going through a period of flux, here.
I take it that's at the heart of your anxiety about killing the things you love, as you put it?
I fetishize food, I write food pornography, I am an instrument for changing the character of small businesses, so yeah, I'm arguably part of the problem.
One thing I've been encouraged to ask you is if, when you're in Madison, you're going to be sampling any of the local beer. You've taken some heat from people here about, for example, drinking Shiner.
Taking shit for drinking Shiner?
Yeah, a little bit. Are you expanding your horizons a little bit on beer?
I try to drink the local beer wherever I go, but I think there's a real need to check yourself. I mean, good beer is great, and it's nice to be proud of your local beer, and even nicer to be proud of your local craft beer. But if you're snorting at people for drinking the wrong beer... You're just as bad as a wine snob if you're snorting at people. I drink Heineken all the time. It's a decent utility beer. I see good beer as a birthright in the best of possible worlds. I just don't take it that seriously. I like a hamburger too, you know? I'm not going to sneer at anybody for not having foie gras with every meal.
I have two items on my rider when I do these public speaking things. One is the music that plays before, while people are filling up the theater. I don't want to hear Paul McCartney out there. And the other is having some local beer in the dressing room.
One last TV question: are there any chefs that you wish had been included in the Top Chef: All-Stars lineup?
Off the top of my head? Well, obviously, no one who won, since it's only runners-up that could get in as I understand it. I think they pretty much covered most of them.
It'll be interesting to see Tre come back.
Yeah, and Antonia, who I thought was a really strong contender. Richard was an awesome contender. That's a guy who should have taken that season, but he choked. I thought that season -- as I recall, the level of competition was very, very high. That was a great season. Richard, Antonia, and Stephanie, that was all in one year. Pretty amazing.
How much of the crowd at your speaking engagements has never picked up one of your books?
A fair amount, but it depends. It depends on what day of the week the gig is. If it's a Sunday or Monday night, there's going to be a lot of restaurant people, lot of restaurant industry people, so I would say that a larger number, a larger percentage will have read at least one of my books. Later in the week, like Friday or Saturday, where cooks and restaurant people are less likely to be able to get off, I get an older crowd who know me from TV, and that's about it.