The Forks blog

Q & A with Anthony Bourdain

Written by Melissa McCart on

bourdain21Last night at the Benedum Center, Anthony Bourdain of "Parts Unknown" and "No Reservations" and Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert put their friendship on display here in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, back in New York, Mr. Ripert's restaurant won a James Beard award for "Best Restaurateur."

Over the course of two hours, Mr. Bourdain and Mr. Ripert ripped on Paula Deen, quipped on Gordon Ramsay's anger management problems and recalled the lone time Mr. Ripert lost his temper in a restaurant -- not his own-- and decked a diner. 

Prior to the spirited discussion, I sat down with Mr. Bourdain for a interview that covered advising young chefs, the trouble with authenticity, beer nerds and drugs in kitchens. Check back this afternoon for the Q & A with chef Ripert.

Q: Pittsburgh is a young dining scene. People are moving back or starting restaurants on a shoestring. What advice might you give them?

A: What's happening here is clearly what's happening in a lot of places in America. People who worked in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and Barcelona are coming home and starting their own thing.

I think it goes to what Jonathan Gold said, that dining out has become a counter-cultural experience. People are willing to spend money on restaurants. They want to spend money on restaurants. There's value and status and disposable income that used to go elsewhere. So the customer has changed.

In places like Pittsburgh; Asheville, N.C.; Austin, Texas: There's no inferiority complex anymore. People don't feel the need to emulate what they see people doing in Chicago and New York. They figure, "Look. We've got our own thing here. We have our own terroir. We have our own producers."

And people are interested in that, that's the most important thing. People value that. People value their own thing. It is a really important cultural shift.

Q: Food critic Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice has made the observation that we're past peak of the Age of Foodism. Do you agree with him?

A: I think the day will come when we will find ourselves in America more well-adjusted about the place food and chefs have in society. We have undervalued both things for so long. We might be overcompensating now. You know, we fetishize food. We fetishize chefs. What that's meant is that we've empowered chefs and have shed light on them in a way that allows food to play a bigger part in our lives. We care about where it comes from. We care about what we eat.

I think the worst case scenario is actually the best case scenario. We'll end up like Italy or France where food has always been really important. I think in our own halting and often ridiculous way we're just catching up with those countries.

Frankly, I hope he's wrong. I'd like to work this route a little longer.

Q: As a critic, I have to look at service, design or environment as well as food. How do you think those interplay in terms of a dining experience?

A: Maybe a year ago, I would have told you that nobody [cares] about design anymore. An empty room with good food is really all people care about -- you know, the Momofuku Ko model that  . . . people don't want to spend money on flowers. They're fine with a heavily tattooed waiter in jeans who is extremely casual with them.

But I think they're going to want that person to know their wine, to know what they're serving. I think there is a renaissance of service and possibly even service ware coming back. The guys at Joe Beef really threw me with their interest in flatware: old pewter, glassware.  . . .  I don't think we're going to go back to the white-tablecloth model. It isn't where we want to go. I do think will be more attention paid to a consistent environment or atmosphere.

What I think has changed is that people will be just as willing to spend $200 for a meal that's just the food and a 2-by-4. But it may not be all they want.

Q: It seems like a lot of people associate authenticity or lack thereof with David Chang.

I think the Francis Lam/Eddie Huang argument [Is it fair for chefs to cook other culture's foods?] is an important one. Eddie tends to be a little hyperbolic about it, but it's because he feels it very deeply. I empathize greatly with what Eddie is saying, having your family's traditional food mocked as a kid. And now all the hipsters are eating it and all the white guys are cooking it and getting rich off of it.

I think authenticity . . . On one hand I want to see certain things preserved. On the other hand I think it is becoming an increasingly meaningless expression. I think that's true across the board. Food constantly changes. It has always changed. It has never been a static thing.

Q: If you could apply this to New York's obsession with Sichuan right now . . .

A: Well, my favorite Sichuan in New York is not real Sichuan. It's Mission Chinese. It certainly captures its spirit and its heat level. But in no way does it even aspire to be authentic. That said, it is very respectful of the original. If I had to eat Sichuan every night of the week, I'd probably be eating five out of seven at Mission Chinese and two out of seven at a Sichuan place. I have more modern tastes, if I'm honest with myself. Carp is authentic. I don't know whether I want to eat carp.

On one hand, I'm very sentimental. I don't want to see a real blanquette de veau or a real pho disappear. I'm an annoying snob about sushi. All I care about is Edo-style sushi. As soon as you start modernizing it at all, I become annoyed.

Q: So where do you go in New York for sushi?

A: I like Yasuda because it's very straightforward. I don't want mayonnaise in my sushi. I don't want spicy tuna rolls or any of that nonsense. It's all about the fish.

Q: How does your new show, Parts Unknown, reflect you and how your career has evolved?

A: It's a pure expression of my interests, my curiosity. We go to only those places I want to go. We look at the things I'm interested in looking at. We tell the story only the way I want to tell it. For better or worse from my perspective, these are very personal essays.

Q: Would you share a story of someone you have met recently who is not some luminary or a renowned chef -- someone off the map?

A: There are so many, these obstinate characters who determined early on what they want to do, what they feel they're good at, and refuse to care about the perceived popular tastes of the public. I admire that. I aspire to that.

I just ate at a place in Tangier. This guy has been serving this completely off the wall, locally sourced, very personal menu in defiance of every trend that's come and gone. Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Extebarri in San Sebastian: the grillmaster. He knows what he wants to do, what he feels he's good at and he's dedicated his life to it. Jiro Ono [of "Jiro Dreams of Sushi"]: they have that in common: a sentimental and emotional attachment, a certain narrow area of cuisine and that's all they want to do. They don't want to be all things to everybody. They have no interest in doing that.

Q: There's this adherence to pleasing the customer in restaurants. You're telling me stories that demonstrate otherwise. How might you advise a young chef in regard to navigating this dichotomy?

A: Decide what you really, really want to do and be sure of that. Be really sure. Get really, really good at it to the point of extreme confidence and then just do it as well as you can. People will either find you and respect that, or they won't.

It's a very Chinese model: The specialists. Look, how many things can you be good at in life? Focus. Why am I different from the guy across the street? What do I have to offer that's different? Look, it may just be a hamburger, but it better be the [expletive] best hamburger.

Q: You mentioned wine earlier. Beer has been loud in terms of people talking about it, glorifying cicerones, brewers, etc. What's your preference, beer or wine?

A: Beer is a birthright. I'm annoyed by people who want to make me feel bad about my beer choices. Beer nerds irritate me, frankly. I think it's a very positive thing, the craft beer movement. It's great that there are all these alternatives to Big Beer. I'm all for it. But if you see me drinking a PBR because it just happened to be there and it's cold -- if you try to make me feel bad about that because I didn't walk a block down to get something that some guy is working very hard to make, you know, get over it. I have a more Italian attitude: I'll drink the local wine, thank you very much.

It's true in France as well. If they have to talk about the wine for more than nine seconds, it sort of defeats the purpose.

Q: The drug culture in kitchens: From what you've seen, is it any more or less than it has been?

A: I'm not going to say it's over. There are a lot of people who work in kitchens who need drugs to get through the day. But the days when it was an acceptable thing in any kitchen that aspired to quality are gone. I think a lot of that is because chefs are empowered. I think there's a lot of hope that chefs here might enjoy some status. If you meet somebody or you meet their parents, you're not an embarrassment. You might actually someday make a living. If you're getting high before shift, you're letting the team down.

CNN's "Parts Unknown" photo

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