Anthony Bourdain talks about his new book, no longer being a chef, and the pain of watching the Food Network

anthony-bourdainImage Credit: Alexander Tamargo/Getty ImagesWhen Anthony Bourdain wrote his acerbic, behind-the-cuisines memoir Kitchen Confidential, he had very few expectations for it, having written it mainly for himself and his fellow chefs. Ten years later, Bourdain has published more non-fiction, penned three novels, stars as the host of the popular travelogue series No Reservations, and possesses a cachet of cultural cool that very few can ever hope to achieve. Now, in his new book Medium Raw, he returns to what he was first known for: Booking the cooks. In it, Bourdain shares his unfiltered opinions on the current food scene and his own experiences in the ten years since Confidential. We spoke with the constantly globetrotting gourmand in between trips to Italy and France about his latest book and what it’s like to have one of the best jobs in the world.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to write another book?
I guess because it’s been ten years since Kitchen Confidential and the book still sells. A lot. But the food industry has changed. So in some ways it’s a sort of correctional reassessment for what I’ve seen changed in the decade since I wrote that book. That’s a profound change in the business, and I wanted to address that. I’ve been out of that business for a while, but I still swim in that pond. My friends are all chefs.

Have you changed too?
I’ve changed, although I don’t think I’ve changed fundamentally as a personality, who I am, but I think the bad boy thing is getting a little old. It’s always useful to remind people that I’m a dad now, I’m not going to be buried in a leather jacket, for f—‘s sake. Immediately upon the birth of your child it’s pretty much time to burn the Ramones shirt. The earring’s gone. It ain’t dignified. No one wants to see their parents rock. I think it’s just I don’t see myself as the angry young man anymore.

But you definitely don’t pull any punches in this new book.
Eric Ripert’s my best friend, he’s a Buddhist. He’s a live-and-let-live guy. We have a lot of similarities, things we have in common. But he’s a live-and-let-live guy, he believes in karma. I believe in vendetta, I believe if you hurt my friends or people I care about then if there’s some way to make your life more difficult, I’m happy to do that. I have the luxury at this point in my career of having neither a reputation nor a restaurant to protect. So I’m free to say things that a lot of chefs I’ve worked with over the years, or a lot of chefs I’ve met around the country, have been wanting to say, but can’t. I don’t see myself as a spokesperson for the downtrodden, but it pleases me to be able to talk about the things that genuinely piss me off. For example, I think it’s outrageous that for decades some people can proclaim to be honest reviewers or chroniclers of the dining scene when they are taking services and things of value from their subjects. If the Gambino family did it, we’d call it something else.

You’ve also made clear that you’re not a huge fan of the Food Network.
Just like there’s not much music on MTV, there aren’t many chefs on Food Network. Their brand is really, I think it’s clear, not chef-driven. For a period of time, the last thing they wanted, it seemed, was anyone who actually worked in a restaurant or cooked professionally or was authoritative on the subject of food.  I think they figured out very quickly that their audience liked to look at barbecue and certain types of foods, particularly familiar ones, that they could imagine sinking their teeth into, so there’s the sort of porn aspect. Then of course, they wanted friendly familiar personalities that made them feel better about themselves.

And who could teach them tablescaping
I don’t think anyone’s actually doing that. I think they look at it and say, “I could do that if I wanted. I’m not going to, but I could.” To me, the high water mark of the stand-and-stir cooking shows on Food Network was Molto Mario. That was a great show. Mario [Batali] is a really smart guy, a professional, who actually shows you how to do things you don’t know how to do, but that you could do. It was accessible information, it was good food properly made.

On the other side of the spectrum, have you seen Worst Cooks in America?
Something like that that’s guaranteed to make my eyes bleed, I’m not going to watch. There are some things that are just morally wrong. I understand the world we live in now, the reality show, and people making themselves into these tragic-comic cartoonish freaks so they can be on TV, I get that. But when it claims to be about food, it makes me cranky. Television shouldn’t affect you so much that you’re yelling at the TV screen, but it does.

It’s been a decade since you wrote Kitchen Confidential. How do you feel about it now?
There’s no question that the book is obnoxious. I wrote it in a voice that’s familiar to anyone cooking, working in a kitchen at that level. It sounded like me as a chef, the tenor, the tone, that sort of bravado. That may not have been me after work, but it certainly was me during work. It was obnoxious and over-testosteroned, and would be certainly to somebody who doesn’t recognize that dialect. But it’s like slipping into a warm bath for a lot of people who spent a lot of time in the restaurant business. That kind of momentum and bravado is what got me through the day. It was an honest reflection of how I talked in the kitchen. I didn’t think that anyone was going to read the book. I just wanted to sound familiar and genuine to people like me, who worked in the New York restaurant industry. Honestly, I had no expectation or even hope that anyone outside of the Tri-State area would even read the book, so it kind of caught me short when it did so amazingly well.

You talk in the book about how you’re not really a chef anymore.
Well, I’m not. It’s been almost ten years now since I’ve been a working chef. I respond to the name. If I’m walking down the street and someone yells, “Chef!” I think I earned that title, but my definition for chef is just a cook that leads other cooks, who worked as a chef. Chef isn’t a name that means you’re the best cook, or run a great restaurant. A chef is anybody who can walk into a professional kitchen, effectively serve the customers who come in the door, and somehow manage a staff and get them to do what you want and execute your plan. That’s a pretty low threshold, but by that standard, I had 28 years in the business, so I can live with being called “Chef” now. I’m always going to look at the world from that point of view, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a chef anymore. But all my friends are chefs, the sensibility’s the same, and I’ve been spending the last ten years eating and drinking and swimming in that pond so it’s an area of, I don’t know if I’d call it expertise, but a strata of society that I’m certainly familiar with.

Watching you on No Reservations, it seems like you enjoy your new employment.
We make the show any way we want to make it. I work with friends. We shoot with whomever we want.  We just shot an episode in Rome in black-and-white, letterbox, entirely dubbed, even I’m dubbed. To be given the freedom to do that is extraordinary. I’m well aware of how unique a situation that is and how lucky I am. And, of course, I’m milking it for everything I can.

It’s better than a fry station.
I remember viscerally what real work is, so I’m well aware of how lucky I am. I’m never going to be someone who gets upset at walking through an airport and somebody asks for an autograph. It’s not like, “Everybody wants a piece of me, man!” If that’s a problem for you, you need a serious reality check. Who gets to do what I get to do? I have a good, good life. I can’t complain about where I’m spending my time because I decide, or who I’m working with, because I decide, or creatively, because I’m with my friends who are these amazingly talented editors and post-production people and camera people and producers. We get to sit down and drink a lot of beer and look at a  map and watch some movies and figure out, “Man, I really like Wong Kar-wai, let’s go do an hour of Wong Kar-wai in Hong Kong or Taipei. Awesome, high-five, let’s go!”

Do you ever find yourself running out of places to go to?
No, I’m asked that a lot. Of course not. This is a big world. First of all, we don’t ever try to comprehensively cover the destination. It’s not about what you should know about Paris, or Ten Best Places or anything like that. It’s personal essays in video or film form, so as soon as I could figure out another take on the same location, nothing wrong with going back to Paris for the second time, which we’re doing tomorrow. Or a country like China, where it’s just so big, with so many different regional cuisines that I could do three, four, five shows a year there and still never touch, never come close to a comprehensive picture. There’s a lot of places I’ve never been to at all, that for one reason or another never got a chance to. South Africa, the Congo. I don’t know what kind of food we can anticipate in the Congo, but we’re free to do that. We can go up the Congo River and retrace Conrad’s trip, or talk about the Belgian genocide. I’m OK with pissing off all the foodies. Any foodies tuning in that week will be disappointed, but I think it will make a hell of an interesting hour.

I’ve never seen Rachel Ray’s Heart of Darkness episode.
Not yet.

Although I suppose you could argue that every one is a Heart of Darkness episode
[Laughs.] I certainly would.

So if you’re no longer a chef, what would your job title now be?
I have no idea.

You can use as many hyphens as you like.
I hate the sound of TV host. Writer? Maybe. Ex-cook-who-tells-stories. I kind of like that one.

Comments (74 total) Add your comment
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  • Bob

    Tony seems like he would be a horribly demeaning boss to work for in a restaurant. But as a host I definitely would love to hang out for the whole night with him.

    • minister

      I dunno, reminds me of 2 cool bosses I had back in my salad days: overeducated, profane, funny, hard-partyin’, competent, and fairly goofy. It’s a kitchen archetype.

    • Mark

      Every boss I ever had in the restaurant have been focused and hard driven. In that environment you don’t have time to hold someones hand or worry that you might have hurt their feelings. I have had bosses that said if you have a problem with something I do to you talk to me after the shift but when the rush is on I don’t care about you.

    • Kevin

      All chefs are… they need to be. But at the end of the day, once the dust of the evening rush has settled, they can laugh about it all with you over a bottle of wine or a pitcher of beer. Restaurant work is really rough and ugly, but at the end of the day everyone in that kitchen has a lot of respect for one another because every shift is like going to battle.

  • RH

    Can’t wait to read it!!

  • 4rocket

    I wouldn’t compare the Food Network to MTV, since FN actually does show programming related to food and cooking, whereas MTV hasn’t shown any music-related programming (save for the annual VMAs) for years. And I think what FN has done is to make the art of cooking less intimidating for those who want to learn how to cook but are afraid to. I consider that a good thing. Making it a snooty affair, as Anthony seems to want it to be, isn’t beneficial to the viewer. Yes, having people who are knowledgeable about food is absolutely crucial here, but who says that only professional chefs are knowledgeable? I think having cooks who aren’t chefs by professional standards, helps reassure the viewer that cooking isn’t something that requires you to be a genius to do. Besides, Julia Child wasn’t a chef, yet she is one of the most beloved cooks who is also highly respected by professional chefs. And the last I checked, aren’t Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay chefs? So FN isn’t completely devoid of chefs.

    • April

      Agree with you here. What a snooty comment about The Food Network. I think the point FN is clear – to teach the home viewer how to cook.

      It beats the unknown, and sometimes astronomical, calories in fast food and dining out.

      • thin

        His point is that the Food Network really *isn’t* about that anymore. There are some cooking shows on during the day, but nothing they run during prime time is about showing people how to cook.

    • Tarc

      Actually, Lagasse and Flay are much more TV personalities and restaurant owners these days. They aren’t cooking – they just manage.

    • Hillary

      Back when food network first went on the air in the 90’s it had a very different feel– all professional chefs- so a lot of the cooking shows were ones that you watched but never bothered to try yourself– Emeril’s show has been cancelled, Ming went over to PBS, Flay rolls with the punches, Mario works on PBS travel food shows, and David Rosengarten writes. I can see how that would annoy a “chef” but the network realized they could reach more viewers with EVOO and fifty recipes for mac n cheese.

    • who cares

      agreed. its the ‘food’ network. not the ‘chef’s’ network.

    • Boof

      Most of the chefs that were on the Food Network in the beginning are gone. Bourdain has always voiced his dislike for the Rachael Ray types. That’s part of the reason he left.

    • minister

      Watch Bourdain’s Basic’s episode. You’ll learn more in an hour than the Food Network can teach you in 48. Then again, FN doesn’t have Jacques Pepin, Thomas Keller, or Laurent Tourondel in the Rolodex, so I guess it’s no surprise.

    • Allison

      FN has become a haven of wanna-be chefs. It’s getting boring. All the shows are looking the same. I now watch the Cook network and Fine Living sometimes. The Green channel is coming up with some amazing food shows, too. I love Tony; he’s the reason I stayed in the kitchen when I was ready to toss in the cleaver. I’m glad I stayed in as long as I did (and now it’s time to retire as well). FN needs to wake up before it actually becomes the MTV of food.

  • Tom

    Ask any current or former waiter, and they’ll tell you that chefs are the biggest prima donas in the world. Wonder if he mentions that in the new book…

    • Momo

      Oh, so not surprised. My sister used to have a habit of dating chefs, and boy, were they handfuls. “Prima Donna” is a good way of describing them. Anyway, as much as I want to hate Bourdain, I can’t help but admire him, too, snootiness and all.

    • Marcus

      Still less obnoxious than snarky internet poster. Wonder if you mentioned that anywhere in your comments…

  • james

    I wish the interviewer would have asked “Bethenny Frankel: Chef or Cook?”

    • Noelbelle

      Hahaha. Based on the criteria he set out here, I guess she would be a cook because she doesn’t manage others. But I always thought a chef was creatively in charge of a menu, and a cook just prepared it.

  • Tarc

    I could dislike Bourdain any more, or think he’s a bigger azz, but he’s dead correct about food network. It’s completely devoid of any real food content or expertise. I stopped watching that chaannel completely, and can hardly wait until there is a new *real* food channel. Maybe the makers of Gourmet should resurrect the brand as an internet/network combo. At least then, we’d be able to see some actual cooking from knowledgeable chefs.

    • who cares

      they have programs about food, no? its not the ‘gourmet’ channel, or the ‘chef’ channel, or the ‘food snob’ channel. its the food network. granted some of the personalities are annoying but some of the shows are really entertaining and help the average person learn things they wouldn’t necessarily have tried to do without it. i like bourdain and i like his show but i also like guy fieri, bobby flay, chopped, challenge, iron chef, etc. these things aren’t mutually exclusive.

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    handbags that you never thought…………will bring you into a marvelous world, so you put it down!

  • Jon

    I’ve seen enough episodes of “No Reservations” to tell that Bourdain is one of those “Food Purist” aka stick-up-his-ass. No need to bash Food Network, buddy.

    • thin

      If that’s what you think, then you haven’t seen enough of No Reservations, if any at all.

    • Kevin

      Yeah, he loves street food and beer… he’s a pretty no-nonsense kind of guy. I think his disdain is for Food Network “stars” like Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee, and Paula Deen who make recipe meals rather than really cook.

  • Richard

    Bourdain’s 100% right. The Food Network has nothing to do with cooking anymore. It’s all about reality shows, barbecue contests, and watching Guy Fieri stuff himself with disgustingly unhealthy food from diners and reacting like it’s the best thing he ever put in his mouth. It’s a joke. But to be fair, it’s a smart joke. It is a sad fact that viewers would much rather watch someone eat a giant cheesesteak than ever try to learn how to make anything themselves.

    • gigi

      You are 100% correct .Food Network has become a joke
      however ,Bourdain is p.o’d because they dumped him .

      • Matt

        How wrong you are. Bourdain *left* FN, because they didn’t want to cough up the money for him to actually travel and instead wanted him to do another Bobby Flay style show. He’s commented on it a number of times.

    • Lou

      “reality shows, barbecue contests, and watching Guy Fieri stuff himself with disgustingly unhealthy food from diners and reacting like it’s the best thing he ever put in his mouth.” THAT is hysterical. I also think you are 100% correct. If I want to watch an instructional show about cooking done by actual icons in the food industry, then I avoid FN and tune in to the local PBS station.

      • LA

        I completely agree. Well said.

  • Tom

    If people here can bash on how much of a “food purist” Bourdain is, then he has every right to bash FN. Much of his criticism for the network is warranted, though the interview is too broad to include his liking of a few FN shows like Good Eats, which is the best food instruction show I’ve ever seen.

    His love for good food seems to be perceived as snobbishness, when it actually is a love of real food, as opposed to the pre-packaged things in vending machines and the stuff served by fast food incorporated. On his show, he constantly speaks most positively on food created by the least fortunate, by those who make good food because they had to.

  • stephanie

    I’d love to see him match food knowledge with Alton Brown. His show has been on forever and he has more food info that I Beverly actually used. And a lot of the people on these shows are chefs or have owned successful restaurants. Just because someone didn’t study at a Culinary school doesn’t mean they don’t know there stuff.

  • MomC

    I have been watching FN since the beginning and could not agree more with Tony Bourdain. Previous posters are correct. FN does make shows that are accessible to the common viewer and may take some of the intimidation out of cooking. The problem is that (other than AB and possibly Secrets of a Restaurant Chef), there are no shows that challenge a viewer to become a better cook. The shows revolve around a personality sharing recipes. That is all fine and good, but is repetitive and boring after several years. IT has become a network of lowest common denominator shows. Networks are about ratings. so they have done what works for the audience. I just wish there were some ambitious shows worked in with the entertainment fluff. ABC had Lost. Fox has Glee. FX and AMC have all their shows. Come on FN, show us what your made of!

  • john

    Was not Bourdain a junkie ?

    • thin

      That’s completely irrelevant to any kind of points being made here, but yes, he was, and he’s quite open and honest about it.

  • Harmony

    First….4rocket….Julia Child WAS indeed a chef. She graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and studied with chef Max Bugnard (among others).

    Second….the truth is the Food Network programming lies somewhere between the two extremes mentioned above. The name of the game is always ratings (money) and FN tries to appeal to as many viewers as possible. I think they accomplish this, although personally I find myself longing to see some of the older shows that have fallen away.

    • tich1030

      Hey hypocrite according to Bourdain a chef is one who works in restaurant(Julia Childs never did). Plus he complains about Paula fatty(ie buttery foods)?! What about fatty and buttery french cuisine(Tony’s speciality).

  • Kris

    What happened between Bourdain and Top Chef? Didn’t they have a falling out? He was an awesome judge.

    • the other

      What I heard was Bourdain made a snarky comment about Padma and it made it to the media.

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