Now that Anthony Bourdain has ambled across television screens for a decade, lean and hungry in black leather and sunglasses, it’s easy to forget that he sneaked in through the kitchen.
“I try to remind people as often as possible that I wasn’t a great chef – and when success came along, it was not for my cooking, by a long shot,” said Bourdain, whose “Guts and Glory” tour rolls into Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Monday. “I was 44 years old, standing there in a kitchen next to the deep fryer, without health insurance. I had never owned a car, never owned property, never paid my rent on time. I was desperately in debt.”
Writing saved his bacon, not any culinary genius. Bourdain had already written two novels before “Kitchen Confidential,” excerpted in the New Yorker, became an instant New York Times best-seller in 2000.
His keenly observed, self-deprecating exposition on his cooking career, liberally seasoned with tales of debauchery and excess, was a book that launched a thousand chefs. His swagger and razor-tongued dismissals of the cheesiest icons of American food culture made him a hero to a generation that was coming to believe that authentic, wholesome, nourishing food was worth fighting for, and that feeding people well was a worthy pursuit.
For all his book’s impact, it’s Bourdain’s television career that has spanned the globe. Since 2002, he’s traveled the world seeking adventure and authentic eats to capture for a television audience. He’s currently shooting episodes for “Parts Unknown,” a CNN show that promises the classic Bourdain cocktail of cultural exploration and food worth talking about.
He’s also scratching itches and cashing checks. He did a loud network television cooking competition show, “The Taste,” and a thoroughly intellectual, food nerdish PBS show with David Chang, “The Mind of a Chef.” He even got his wish by guest-voicing a sneering chef on FX’s “Archer,” the animated spy caper series he adores.
His daughter, Ariane, has softened him, though. “All the clichés are true,” he said of the kindergartner he has with his second wife Ottavia. “Everything changes when you become a father, especially of a little girl, I think.”
Bourdain’s knife skills got him into the kitchen, but his pen got him out. “Writing is a privilege and a luxury,” he told a Reddit audience in an online chat. “Anybody who whines about writer’s block should be forced to clean squid all day.”
He took time to talk to us over the phone recently. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Q. For years you’ve been given the run of the planet, and now CNN is picking up the tab? You’ve made the TV world your oyster.
A. I am very well aware of the fact that just being able to make the shows with the amount of creative freedom that we enjoy is already remarkable. Nobody gets to make television like we’ve been able to, with my creative partners, for the last 10 years. On top of that, to be able to tell the stories the way we want to tell them, and the places that we go – I am very well aware how lucky I am, and how strange and incredible and rare and great it is that I found myself in this position.
Q. How do you stay hungry when you’ve seen it all?
A. I haven’t. I just got back from the Congo. For years I’ve had a number of historical, cultural obsessions. I’ve been trying to shoot there for ages and ages and haven’t been able to because of security concerns. CNN has made it possible to go places like that. I just had literally the greatest adventure of my life. Far and away the most terrifying, thrilling, inspiring, confusing adventure. I’ve never had such a melodramatic but thrilling week in my life.
Q. How long were you there?
A. About 10 days. It was an adventure every day. We went up the Congo River to what [Joseph] Conrad referred to as the Inner Station in “Heart of Darkness.” All of us from the crew were just blown away by things we never thought we’d be seeing or doing the things we ended up doing.
A. Just getting from place to place in a country like the Congo, where you’ve got 49 different guerrilla or rebel groups vying for territory, where the government is not your friend, where colonial infrastructure has completely crumbled back into pre-19th-Century conditions. Floating our vehicles across rivers on pirogues, sleeping on boats, driving through the jungle in a no-law-and-order situation. The last thing you want to see is a police or army guy.
Q. You had your own guys with guns?
A. You can’t travel armed in the Congo. In fact we had big signs on our cars saying, “we are unarmed.”
Q. So how, then?
A. Very, very, very good local fixers who helped us navigate though an ever-shifting and always perilous landscape. Pretty much every day someone wanted to put us in jail or detain us. You need good fixers, you need good local people.
Q. Is it not so much about the food anymore, more about the adventure?
A. Well, I’m going right from that show to a Spain show that’ll be nothing but food. The week before it was one of the greatest orgies of food ever on television in Quebec. One of the things I enjoy about my job is I want people to tune in every week utterly confused by what they’re seeing. Any indication that this might be a trend – they’re putting more food on the show, or less – the No. 1 issue on this show is to make it look completely different than whatever we did last week.
Whether what we did last week was wildly successful and much loved or not, we will try very hard the next week to undermine that by doing something completely different. The subject matter, the subject matter and also the look, feel, the atmospherics of the show.
We’re sticking with the program of undermining expectations at every turn, as we did on “No Reservations.”
Q. I read your stories in Lucky Peach, the food magazine. How do you fit in the time to actually write freelance pieces on top of everything else? Do you just get a ghostwriter now? Be honest.
A. I’m too vain to allow that. Look, I like collaborations. I like doing things that interest me. To me, the fun part of whatever level of success I’ve achieved is that I can do things, write film criticism for Lucky Peach, or write scenes for [HBO’s] “Treme.” Some of these projects I’m doing because they’re fun. They make me happy.
Q. Even your voice is a star. Did you get to write any of the “Archer” lines?
A. Only one line. That is fully realized, fully written, by Adam Roberts. I’ve been begging them. I did a podcast with Aisha Tyler and I was just gushing about what a huge “Archer” geek I am. Then I was flogging my comic book at Comic-Con and she got me backstage. I’ve been asking her half seriously, but really quite seriously, “I’d love to join the writer’s table for ‘Archer.’ ” She pointed out that one guy writes everything for “Archer”: Adam Roberts. He was kind enough to let me ad lib one line.
Q. Which was?
A. “I make two cooks like you in the toilet every morning.” Other than that it was all him. That was sheer fun for me. I love that show and I consider it a joy, and an honor, and a privilege.
Q. You’re even going on tour. What can the audience expect?
A. I walk out on stage and talk, and give sort of an audio-visual primer as jumping off point on things that piss me off, or make me happy. There will be Q-and-A, and hopefully I’ll have a surprise guest to introduce me.
Q. On “The Taste,” you were rewarding contestants or sending them to their doom based on a single spoonful of food. Isn’t that the nightmare situation for a professional cook?
A. Look, that was the idea. That it could create a level playing field, where amateurs could compete against professionals. Because you’re really altering criteria. The advantage of good presentation, candlelight, all of that removed, and you’re judging entirely on a very, let’s face it, subjective criteria: one mouthful of food.
If nothing else, it seemed an interesting format. But as is clear, the network gods demand a certain stylebook. I well understood that going on a network show, with that comes layers of makeup, ultra-bright lighting, a lot of noise and cheeseball effects and noisy editing and weeping and rending of garments. That’s the playbook.
Q. The New York Times wrote: “The jury is still out on what an eight-episode season will do to his credibility.” How do you think you did?
A. I well understood that my old-school hardcore audience that grew up with “Kitchen Confidential” were not going to like me on a network show, this network show or any network show. There are always people who loved your first album on an indie label, and when your third or fourth sells well, or is on a major label, there are people who are going to be pissed about that. My feeling, as I’ve said before, is that this bus makes many stops. I don’t expect everyone to like all of them, or get off and spend time at all of them. For me, it’s always a quality of life issue. Am I having fun? Am I working with people I like spending time with? It was a very different experience to me to commute to work every day, which was awesome, honestly. It was a great experience to work with Nigella and Ludo.
The production people who made the show were very straight-ahead, great people to work with. I had a lot of fun. It was a strange, trippy and ultimately very satisfying adventure that I fully understand that my audience for “No Reservations” was probably not going to like.
Q. But if you hadn’t become that kind of figure, would you also get to do more substantial, thinky-er, meatier things, like your PBS show with David Chang?
A. I’m proud of the fact that in the same year that I did a big, loud TV network show, which I had a hell of a lot of fun doing, I produced what I think is the smartest food show maybe ever. “Mind of a Chef” is the smartest, quirkiest food show I’ve ever seen on PBS, and I’m pretty … proud of it.
Q. Is there going to be more?
A. We’re planning on doing more seasons, highlighting different chefs.
Q. The thirst for food content seems bottomless.
A. I think it’s good that people are interested in the creative process. It’s pleasing to me that people responded well to “Mind of a Chef.” It’s a difficult subject, to make television about the creative thought process. We’re producing a series on G4 coming up, like “The Layover,” but full of interesting people with particular connections to places, who actually know what the (expletive) they’re talking about, in Paris or Portland, to take us there. To take the traditional travel informational format in a different direction.
Q. You mention smoking hash and smoking weed here and there. With the legalization of marijuana in some states, do you think chefs will start offering weed tasting menus? Toke, sip, nibble?
A. I know it’s happening already – I can think of a restaurant in Brooklyn that was doing marijuana-based dishes. But I think the novelty will pass pretty quickly. Tobacco desserts, tobacco dishes were hot for about eight minutes.
Q. Your work is part of a great wave of culinary enthusiasm. Everywhere you go, you’re surrounded by fanboys. There are people with tattoos of you. I’ve been reading stories about culinary schools pumping these guys for $60,000 and they end up on the line at Denny’s. I’m not trying to argue that you’re responsible for people’s reactions to your work. But do you ever get a twinge?
A. What I’ve heard from a lot of people is “Thank you, I was thinking of going into the restaurant business and becoming a chef, and I read your book, and decided that was definitely for me.” Just as often, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Thank you, I thought I wanted to be a chef, until I read your book, and realized how hard, how punishing it was going to be. I realized it was not for me, so thanks for saving me from a really bad mistake.” If nothing else, “Kitchen Confidential” pointed out in a way that hadn’t been done before that it’s not easy.
Mine was not a glorious career. Much of that book is spent in pretty harsh, ugly and unrewarding situations. I try to remind people as often as possible that I wasn’t a great chef. And when success came along, it was not for my cooking, by a long shot. I was 44 years old, standing there in a kitchen next to the deep fryer, without health insurance. I had never owned a car, never owned property, never paid my rent on time. I was desperately in debt.
Yeah, people do overromanticize the book. People have come up to me who clearly took away from the book something different than I was saying. People have handed me packets of cocaine at signings. Where in “Kitchen Confidential” does it make it sound like cocaine was a good idea for me?
I don’t feel a responsibility, at all. I told the truth about my career. It was not instructional. I like to think that on balance it’s had a positive effect.
Q. You’re a dad now, with a little girl. How has it changed you? Has it shaved a little of the edge off?
A. Totally. All the clichés are true. Everything changes when you become a father, especially of a little girl, I think. It’s not about me anymore, it’s always going to be about her. It’s the best thing in the world, just like they say. Any notion that you might be in possession of anything even slightly resembling cool evaporates the second you see your baby.
Q. How much time do you get with her?
A. A week to 10 days out of the month, maybe two weeks, and the summer. My wife and daughter come on the occasional shoot. She’s a kindergartner now, so I hesitate to take her out of school for any extended period.
It’s all about the girl. It’s impossible to have any sense of being cool, or relevant. You’re not allowed to be vain about anything when you have a little girl that will tell you the truth, unhesitatingly: “Dad, you look ugly today.”
She loves to cook with me. It’s a big father-daughter thing. She’ll get up on her little chair and we’ll make pasta, or an omelette, some ragout or something. She really likes helping me in the kitchen.
Q. What if she turns out to be a critic?
A. Oh god, please don’t ever let her be a chef. Or more than that, please don’t ever let her go out with a chef.
WHAT: Anthony Bourdain “Guts and Glory” // WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday // WHERE: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. // TICKETS: $40 to $60 (box office, Ticketmaster) // INFO: www.sheas.org