Anthony Bourdain is an interviewer’s dream. Despite himself, the guy can’t go two minutes without verbalising the kind of thoughts most of us keep to ourselves or reserve for really, really close friends.
In our brief one-on-one, during his visit for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he shared his always-refreshing thoughts on everything from teaching his daughter how to eat, the (mostly positive) impact of food television, and telltale signs you’re so not cut out to be a chef.
Cooking should be an imperative life skill, like reading
"I think there should be pressure on children and parents to make cooking a life skill. I don’t know if we could legally mandate cooking skills – I’d like for people to learn how to read well first – but I think it’s up there. I think it’s a good and noble thing that’s useful and generally good for the world."
His recipe for pork rillette
"It’s the simplest thing in the world. Basically, get some fatty pork – cubes of, like, pork neck meat – and slow cook it for hours and hours and hours, till it falls apart. You slowly render it in its own fat. Then, while it’s still warm, mash it with a paddle, not whip it, but completely demolish it until it’s a paste, season it with salt and pepper, nothing else, and pack it into a terrine. Throw it in the fridge overnight. Take it out, let it hit room temperature, and use it as a spread on toast – it’s fantastic. Simple and delicious. And old school."
Signs you’re not cut out to be a chef
"If two people are talking to you at the same time and the phone rings and you get stressed out, already, you’re not gonna make it. If you can’t handle being called a really offensive nickname; if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t let insults and slights and injustice roll off your back, the business will destroy you. If you’re not physically fit, you’re really gonna have a problem. If you’ve got a bad back, flat feet, you’re in your mid-30s or morbidly obese, you’re at a real disadvantage – it’s gonna be two, three times as hard.
"If you expect that the business is glamorous and you see cooking as a means to get on television, then you’re living in a dream world. If you’re expecting to get paid, to succeed, you’re living in a dream world. The type of personality that the restaurant business requires is people who almost pathologically have a love of the lifestyle. It’s like running away with the circus. The perfect cook would be someone like Eddie Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen, I’m guessing, even had he not been a rock star with a lot of hit records, would still be a guy, sitting in his cellar practicing guitar. So if you’re looking for fame, success, money, it is an extremely unlikely outcome. But no sense of humour and you are really f***ed from the get-go. You’re not making it a week."
Talking about super high-end meals makes him uncomfortable
"It’s cruel [to the listener]. I just ate at El Bulli, one of the last meals that will ever be served to the general public. I ate in the kitchen with Ferran Adrià. I had 52 courses in about four and a half hours. It was the single greatest meal of my life. Ferran was sitting next to me the entire time, eating each thing and going 'Mmm'. And he said to me, 'This is the greatest single night in the entire history of the restaurant', and I was there. Feel bad yet?"
He’s a sucker for Hanoi pho
"Pho, for me, is a perfect example of a dish, where, if it’s not served on a little plastic stool, on a little table, I can’t… I need the toothpicks on the table, the roll of toilet paper. I need all the dirty condiments. I need Vietnamese going by on their bicycles, the motorcycles, I need all of that. It’s very much part of the experience for me. There are very large Vietnamese communities increasingly in the States, but I find, outside Vietnam, the better the pho is, the worse I feel. It makes me miss Vietnam. You don’t want to be eating pho and listening to Bon Jovi on the radio in the background."
Foods he’ll only eat in their place of origin
"There are a lot of examples. A pastrami sandwich or a bagel? I’m not eating those things outside of New York because no-one else can do them. To expect otherwise would be foolish. Ah, pho for sure. But I will eat it because it’s such a perfect breakfast. If you’re feeling bad and you’re hungry, it’s wonderful. I prefer to eat cacio e pepe [spaghetti with pecorino and pepper] in Rome. But if I’m really hungry for it and have some confidence in the chef, maybe. I generally won’t eat sushi if it’s not made by Japanese. I don’t buy into the really extreme, Japanese sushi-chef mentality, where some believe women can’t make sushi because their bodies' temperatures are different. I don’t buy into that. Oh, and if I see, like, sushi and Chinese food on the same menu, I’m out."
Food values he wants to teach his daughter
"Like it or not, she lives in a household where the mentality about food is Italian. You wouldn’t eat tomatoes out of season because only serial killers would do such a thing. It’s not even on the radar. She doesn’t know that McDonald’s exists because we don’t eat that stuff. She eats like a normal American kid; she likes hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches and pasta with butter. But the stuff that she sees Mummy and Daddy eat, and is likely to grab, is probably very different from a lot of other kids.
"I’m not making food choices for her other than I try to serve her organic stuff. You lead by example and, so far, she’s finding her way to some pretty cool food. She loves sardines, anchovies, olives, pecorino; loves raw oysters; loves shrimp for some reason; is fascinated with sushi. But sushi is something I’d never coerce a kid into eating. The only thing worse than an annoying foodie is a junior foodie."
The countries he's most happy in (and those he isn’t)
"In No Reservations, with all the countries I’m happy in, the common denominator is people are proud of their food. Anyone in the Arab world, South East Asia, Latin America, Southern Europe, people love to eat. You know, in Thailand, the first thing people say to you is, 'Have you eaten yet? Have you had rice?' Anywhere where people feel that way, where food is important and they’re proud of their cuisine, is a place I’m happy.
"Conversely, there are countries that are so screwed up that their food traditions have been eradicated. For example, anywhere in the Soviet Union. I don’t like Uzbekistan, parts of Eastern Europe – there’s nothing particularly identifiable or unique about the cuisine. I’m not crazy about Northern Europe, Scandinavia. I tend to like hot, messy dysfunctional places where people are passionate about food."
His favourite place to relax
"Find me a beach, a palm tree, a big stack of books, a beer, and I’m good. Somewhere like the Caribbean or Italy with my family."
The locals’ reaction to him
"It depends from place to place. Some are crazy super fans who want pictures and it’s difficult to walk. Other places, it’s much more casual. People were very happy to see us in Colombia because they’re very proud of their food and their country, and they’re really happy that someone was there to make television about their food and not about narco-traffickers or murder or cocaine. The whole country opened itself up and there was nowhere we couldn’t go; people were so proud that we had bothered to come to their neighbourhood. Other places, it’s difficult. Eastern Europe is hard. They still have that mentality of, ‘Why you do have a camera? You work for the secret police’. Vietnam is really easy. They don’t know who the hell I am, and they don’t care. I’m a freakishly tall white guy with a camera who seems really interested in what’s going on and that’s enough."
People are developing better relationships with food
"I think that’s an inarguable, good effect of food television, even bad food television. Generally, the level of discourse has gone up. Expectations for your meal are better. Knowledge of the average customer and what they’re eating is up. The fact that people know and care what the chef’s name is, that’s changed. Chef status in general has been elevated. If you were to bring your new chef boyfriend home to Mum, that would have been a horrifying moment 20 years ago. Now there’s at least the possibility that she’ll say, 'You know, that’s kind of a respectable profession'. It’s certainly more respectable than it once was.
"On the other hand, it’s easy to lampoon or laugh at the degree to which we’ve become obsessed about food. If you’re eating and Tweeting and blogging about it, if you spend your entire life sitting in front of a keyboard writing about and fetishising it, it is dysfunctional. It is distorted. I’m in the food porn business so I’m laughing at it, but I’m guilty of it. We didn’t care about food for so long, in the Western world anyway, and now the pendulum has swung in the other extreme. In the end, we’re just catching up with the kind of relationship that most of Asia and Southern Europe has always had about food."
In his ideal world, what are people eating?
"My food utopia would look much like the dai pai dong [outdoor food stall] in Hong Kong, or a hawker centre in Singapore. There’s the duck guy, the chicken guy, the ban mi guy. Immigrants from all over doing one dish really, really well. There’d be small, casual affordable restaurants everywhere. Fast food can be good food – unfortunately, it’s not. In the same perfect world, we wouldn’t make McDonald’s illegal, but we would, by any means necessary, shame them, embarrass them, demonise and terrify anyone who might eat there. We would mock them and you’d be marginalised if you were seen at McDonald’s. You have to play dirty."
You can’t call yourself a foodie if you’ve never been to….
"Spain, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore. That would be a good start."
The one thing he’ll never excel at but always wanted to
"If I could play bass, I would give everything up. If I could play really good, Bootsy Collins bass guitar and play for Parliament-Funkadelic, then nothing else would matter."
The place that most surprised him
"Middle America. The South, all those places that I’ve always kind of feared and maybe even looked down on. I saw how many good chefs are out there all by their lonesome, fighting the good fight. And how many nice people I’ve met with whom I have absolutely nothing in common politically, who’ve been good to me. That is always a surprise."
One thing he hasn’t done that he’d like to
"I’d like to cook steak-and-kidney pie for Keith Richards. Increasingly, we’re finding that people are calling us up and saying, so-and-so is a big fan of the show and would like to come on, and we’re like, 'Really?'. So, hey, we’re trying."
Catch Anthony in No Reservations from June 16, 8:30pm on SBS ONE.