Q&A with Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain doesn’t mince words. The host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations is a one-man antidote to the Rachael Ray “antiseptic” approach to culinary tourism, wherein all food is yummo, and all destinations equally quaint. When Bourdain travels the world, viewers experience the mud, the parasites, the border guards, the local firewater and all the other gritty bits of local color that bring meaning and context to the really great meals.

In advance of his upcoming visit to Minneapolis to promote his new book, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, Minnesota Monthly spoke with Bourdain about his favorite food in the Twin Cities, his appearances on the Bravo show Top Chef, and the worst current trend in American restaurant dining.

Monday, November 26

* Triple Rock Social Club

7—10 p.m.
Free book signing

Tuesday, November 27

* Barnes & Noble, Mall of America

5—6:30 p.m.
Free book signing

MNMO: No Reservations has to be more than a job for you at this point—Are you ready to do this for 10 more years, or you looking forward to settling down and opening up a nice restaurant in New York at some point?

AB: I’ll never be opening a restaurant—there’s no such thing as “settling down” to open a restaurant. That would be an inferno… that’ll eat up your whole life. So honestly, compared to the first 28 years of my work in life, this is pretty relaxed and easy. And unlike the repetition of a restaurant, where you’re doing the same thing presumably the same way every time, every day of work is different for me, and often in a different place. I’m living a childhood fantasy, so I don’t anticipate changing what I’m doing for as long as they let me do it.

MNMO: Watching your program, I’ve always been impressed by how deep you guys delve into local history and culture. How do you handle the research and writing?

AB: The most important pre-production task is finding a fixer on the ground—meeting a local from the country who will either be on camera with me at times talking about presumably interesting things…telling me what’s going on and why, or at least able to set me up with interesting people who can explain certain facets of the country’s culture, or food, or history, or whatever. So the show really kind of rises or falls depending on how well we’ve selected our fixer in advance.

And then regardless of whether we’ve got a lot to work with or a little, I’m writing the voiceover at the end. There are some shows where it’s clear that the shoot was a disaster. We’ll just go with that. I’ll just admit: “I didn’t learn anything, everything went wrong, I hated the country and I hated the food. Don’t come here.”

MNMO: Speaking of disasters, tell me a little bit about the Beirut episode, filmed as fighting broke out in Lebanon.

AB: It was an abrupt bump against the real world that lots of people live in, where really bad things happen to really nice people. I think we were ill-prepared…we found ourselves in a war, and really an awful one where this fantastic city was dismantled around us. And frankly it was sickening, and discouraging, and enraging, and I still don’t know what I took away from it other than maybe a life-long love for the Marine Corps and an utter disgust for what we did and didn’t do there.

MNMO: Tell me about the possible complications of doing No Reservations in Iran.

Photo by Tracey Gudwin

AB: From what I’ve heard, it’s a very two-tier situation. I’m told that if you go as a tourist to Tehran, people are very nice, the food is fantastic, and it’s a great place to visit. It really depends on who you’re dealing with there. As I understand it, it’s a very young country, like Vietnam, where a significant block of the people don’t feel the same way as their president or the mullahs.

As a general rule, absolutely everywhere we’ve been, if you’re dealing with people on a face-to-face basis over food and/or drink, we’ve always been treated well. Good manners and a desire to break bread almost always seem to lead to a very welcoming situation. I think the one exception was Beruit…we were having such a wonderful time, and across the board being treated so warmly, but it counted for nothing in the end. As I think I wrote in the show, the good and the bad got bombed into oblivion.

Have you been to Minneapolis-St. Paul before? What are your impressions?

AB: I’ve been a number of times. We did a show for the old series A Cook’s Tour, back when I was on the Food Network. I have friends out there, and I think Minnesota has some of the best Vietnamese food in America. I’m good friends with Vincent of Vincent’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, and I’m looking forward to seeing him.

MNMO: You’ve made some recent appearances on the Bravo show Top Chef—What’s your take on the show, its impact, and what aspiring chefs might learn from it?

AB: I do it for fun, first of all. I love watching the show, I love being on the show—it’s fun for me. I think one of the things that’s widely misunderstood about the show is that although they like to juice the editing for drama, the judging is absolutely straight. It sometimes takes an hour-and-a-half or two hours to decide who’s staying and who’s going, what was good and what was not so good…it irritates when the blogs they say: “The producers want such-and-such a contestant to stay on longer because they’re cute.”

[Head judge Tom] Colicchio would go batshit if a producer came along and said: “Get rid of this one and keep this one because the audience likes them.” You’ve seen audience favorites axed on the show a lot earlier I suspect than the producers would have liked. So I really like it. You rise and fall on that show depending on the food you prepared on that particular episode. You could be the winner of every previous episode, but if you screw up on that one, you’re out. The judging can be really brutal, but I think for culinary students or chefs, I mean technically, it’s pretty serious food nerdism going on there. It’s frighteningly informative considering it’s reality television.

MNMO: Have you ever hit a hung jury situation?

AB: There have been some tough calls, but never a hung jury. Generally the professional chefs agree very quickly, and we seem to prevail. [Laughs] If Colicchio’s really insistent about something I would imagine that carries a lot of weight. I can’t think of a show that I’ve watched where I’ve disagreed with the judging. I’ve been unhappy about some of the outcomes, but I completely understand—I wouldn’t quibble with the reasoning.

Sometimes it might seem overly technical to the home cook, especially the argument: “But wait a minute, the judge said they really liked the taste!” These people are being judged as the top chefs, not cooks, and a certain amount of technical skill and knowledge really helps.

MNMO: What’s your take on what’s going over at Food Network and how it’s evolved over the last five plus years?

AB: I think they’ve been pretty up front about what their new brand is—it’s not just food! They’re into creating familiar personalities and really selling that. They’re selling a half-hour with Rachael Ray, they’re not selling you a half-hour of food. It’s something of a misnomer to call it the Food Network, but it’s obviously a successful business model, and I don’t think that model will include professional chefs for much longer.

MNMO: If you had to single out a most favorite and least favorite general trend when it comes to restaurant dining in the US over the past year or so, what would they be?

AB: I think the best trend would be towards high-end food in casual settings, you know, over the counter. Like Momofuku Ssam in New York, or L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon —they’re just making fine dining a little less fussy, a little less pretentious and more fun. I think that’s a really great trend.

As far as worst trends: The big box restaurant continues. You know, the giant restaurant with a Buddha in it and you know, novelty martinis… I’m not really a fan of that.

MNMO: You mean the Buddakan model?

AB: Yeah, I’m not a fan.

MNMO: Anything else you wanted to add?

AB: Just looking forward to making more shows, and looking forward to coming up there and having some good Vietnamese food.