Anthony Bourdain preps in a Soho kitchen in 1980. (Photo courtesy Anthony Bourdain)
"If you were wondering, by the way, if this hurts, two guys hammering away at my sternum with a bamboo club and sharp needles, yes. Yes, it hurt a lot. And you can be damn sure that if I wasn’t on television while it was happening, I’d be whimpering and yelping like a gut-shot poodle."
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Late in 2015, I had a chance to sit down with Anthony Bourdain in Houston and pick his brain about a few things. We discussed (all too briefly) France, Spain, New York City, wine, fame, mendacity, talent, fakes, craftsmanship, and, of course, food and cooking. He was opinionated, and blunt, and spoke in a matter-of-fact manner — all traits and behaviors I admire —but he was also accommodating and generous. He wasn’t phoning it in. And that’s the secret to the Bourdain success: He works, and he doesn’t take the easy way out.
I knew our conversation was going well when he turned to face me and began unbuttoning his shirt. We were discussing the hand-tapped tattoo on his chest, his most recent ink, which he had received on the island of Borneo. “I thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to get one on my chest, but it hurt like hell,” Bourdain told me. His ordeal took place during a second visit to the island; he had experienced its wonders a decade earlier, and promised his hosts he’d return.
“The people who I met there, 10 years ago, hosted me and my crew in their longhouse, fed us, looked after us and treated me with great kindness,” he wrote about his return trip. “When the chiefs invited me back for their yearly harvest festival, Gawai Dayak, I said I would come. It took me a while, but in the end I did return.”
We were sitting in an office in Silver Street Studios , a cavernous building that hosts a multitude of events and exhibits and is home to myriad studio spaces. The former heroin addict and chef was in town with The Balvenie Rare Craft Collection tour — he’s the curator of the distiller’s campaign, which is introducing the masses to five individuals Bourdain selected as being among the top craftspeople working today, including a watchmaker and a sculptor.
One thing that has always impressed me about Bourdain (my introduction to him was his books) is his, for lack of a better phrase, no-nonsense devotion. A devotion to people who work hard creating something that is worthwhile, backed by his realistic, no BS approach to hard work. (Yes, he went through his, shall we say, less productive years, during which his addictions and dissipation nearly killed him, but his work ethic has for a long time been something to admire. Hell, he’s even given up cigarettes.) Balvenie chose a perfect curator in Bourdain; at the Rare Craft event, which took place in Silver Street’s huge main hall, I observed him speaking with several of the craftspeople, and his interest in them and admiration for their work were genuine. Bourdain disdains all things fake.
“He has the best job in the world.” I tend to, on most days, agree with that statement, which I hear all of the time. Bourdain makes many people jealous. He has dined and hunted with Paul Bocuse, one of my personal heroes, and palled around with Sean Brock, a young chef I greatly admire. He hangs out with Bill Murray in Charleston, and counts Eric Ripert and Michael Ruhlman among his friends. Lucky, indeed.
“Sitting at the table with Bocuse was a life-altering thing,” Bourdain told me. One gets the impression that he does not take these friendships for granted. (Bourdain said that he now enjoys eating at little spots — street stalls, carts, small restaurants that are not necessarily famous — more than he does at Michelin-starred places. I like that about the man, that he wants you to know about the best taco in L.A. or the finest piece of pork in Hong Kong, food made by people who don’t have the money to hire PR agents and are too busy cooking to appear on Chopped.)
Bourdain thinks big. Really big. “We haven’t started hiring yet, but we have been looking at some people,” the peripatetic star of CNN’s Parts Unknown told me, referring to his ambitious — some would say world-beating — food market, slated to open in about two years in Manhattan. The emporium will occupy the main concourse and mezzanine of Pier 57, one of the largest shipping piers on the Hudson River, and be home to about 100 retail and wholesale vendors, everything from butchers to fishmongers to bakers to restaurant outposts.
“I haven’t asked Mario for any advice on Bourdain Market, because it’s going to be completely different from his place,” Bourdain answered when I asked him if he had consulted Mario Batali, who, along with Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich, helped bring Eataly to NYC. “But if I needed tips on how to live a successful and full life, Mario is one of the first people I would talk to.”
I knew that Bourdain admired Juan Mari Arzak, at whose restaurant I briefly staged in 2012, and when I mentioned the name of the Basque chef, he nodded in appreciation, adding that Elena Arzak, Juan Mari’s daughter, who runs the Michelin-starred (three) restaurant along with her father, was world-class. Whom else do you admire today, I asked. “He’s a chef a lot of people have never heard of, but he has influenced so many cooks and chefs: Fergus Henderson. So many things that people think are cool today, Fergus was doing years ago, and writing about them and running a great restaurant, with no vanity or ego. Just a great man.” We toasted the Arzaks and Henderson with the Balvenie we were sipping, and I led Bourdain back to New York.
I first encountered the future star years ago, in Manhattan. He was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a place that served, among other things, excellent confit de canard and a really great hangar steak; both dishes are still on the menu, and are, I am certain, as good now as they were back in 1999. One evening that year, I was at Les Halles with a few friends, and we were drinking some wine and deciding what to eat, having a good time in the large (and crowded) dining room.
At one point during the meal I walked to the men’s room, and on the way back to the table passed the tall and angular chef; he was slightly disheveled, and we exchanged a nod, perhaps a “hey, how’s it going?” I knew who he was, and had become a fan of what he and his team cooked at the Park Avenue restaurant, but this was before he became a household name. It was not long after that evening that Bourdain began publishing those books on his experiences in the food world (he is also the author of culinary mysteries), and then came the television shows, and the rest is history, or something like that.
Back to Houston now. I didn’t care where Bourdain liked to eat in Texas. I didn’t, and don’t, want to know if he had ever dined here, so I didn’t ask him. He did say that he and his crew were planning a filming trip to Houston, scheduled for some point in 2016, and added that Tex-Mex and barbecue would not be involved. (I share Bourdain’s opinion about (most) Tex-Mex. As he told CultureMap Houston’s Eric Sandler, “Not a big Tex-Mex fan, unless drunk. In which case, it seems like a really, really good idea. I have eaten airport nachos. Just as, if you run out of water for two days you start thinking about killing your neighbor, give me a few hours in an airport and I’m thinking about nacho grande.” I have yet to eat a meal at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the Houston area that is better than the food made by Oscar Gutierrez in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m still searching, but growing tired of bland beans and blander enchilada sauces and clumpy rice.) I suspect that he will hit Chinatown, and if he asked me, I’d tell him to go to Gerardo’s one morning for some great barbacoa and sweetbreads.
What I did care about were the lessons he had taken away from his years spent cooking, the hazy days and long and crazy nights before he became famous. I started to ask him about that, but our time was up, our whiskey gone. Besides, I know what he learned, because he was showing it to me right then: respect the people who give their all to put something of value in front of you, who work their asses off because they know that is the only honest thing to do.
If you haven’t already done so, get ahold of Bourdain’s books and start reading them in the order he wrote them. You’ll care.