A Lost Interview with the Late Anthony Bourdain

Upon learning about the suicide of chef, author, and media personality Anthony Bourdain, I remembered that he and I had spoken for an interview sometime in 2009 prior to a Bay Area appearance. The interview was intended for a wine country magazine that, alas, went belly up before I finished or filed the piece. However, here it is, in Q&A form — a previously unpublished interview with a remarkable talent and probably the only man who ever uttered: “Dishwashing saved my life.” He will be missed.

Daedalus Howell: “Did you always have a proclivity for writing?”

Anthony Bourdain: “It always kind of came easy. I wasn’t working away on an unpublished great American novel all those years. I was full-time cook and chef and really didn’t have any realistic aspirations or certainly wasn’t working on becoming a writer.”

DH: “You published fiction as well?”

AB: “I’d written the two fiction books before Kitchen Confidential. Nothing had happened with them, I’d written them while I was working as a chef and they never made it out of the first printing, so they were put back in print and they are doing really well now, and I’ve written another one since but largely because it’s fun and I enjoy somebody who writes about myself and my experiences a lot. So, it’s nice to kind of escape that in a crime fiction.”

DH: “Is it vindicating to have your back catalog prosper?”

AB: “Yeah, it feels good.”

DH: “How was the transition to becoming a media personality?”

AB: “It was awkward at first because I’d just published Kitchen Confidential and I really had no understanding of what was happening. I was really taken by surprise by it. I had written it while I was working 14, 15 hours a day and I was still working like that when I noticed that the crowd of journalists in my dining room were getting bigger and more persistent and I was spending a lot more time giving interviews and less time in the kitchen.

And around that time some people walked in the door and said they wanted to make television. So, the first few shows that I did for Food Network was with an independent production company that made a deal with the Food Network to buy the shows. It was a kind of learn-as-you-go experience, but for me, it was a means to an end. I mean actually I sold a book about eating around the world, I mean Kitchen Confidential did well, I went back to my publisher, no fool I, and said ‘I’ve got a great idea for a second book, I go all over the world to all these cool places and you pay.’ And they bought that book and then essentially a TV company came along and said ‘well we’d like to help pay also.’ It was awkward at first, but I guess I like movies, you know, I’m a big movie fan, I like telling stories and, you know, after banging around for a while I became very close to the people who were doing the actual shooting and production of the show and in the end it became another means to tell a story, a very powerful one. For me, it’s like new toys to play with.”

DH: “Congrats on your success!”

AB: “Thanks, well I see myself as an essayist, essentially I’m just trying to say something or tell a story and I’m using whatever tools are at hand, and have the ability, you know, to mess with music and editing and all of that and, you know, you’re working with all these talented people who know how to use those things. It just makes it, you know, you have new toys to play with, new ways to tell a story more effectively.”

DH: “Are you pretty invested in the post-production?”

AB: “Very. We sit around beforehand, we all decide where we’re going to go, what movies we are going to rip off when we make the show, what the music could be like. We talk a lot about the visual effects that we’ve seen that we’d like to do or new things that might be possible. I’ll do writing on the road, I’ll do writing after, I’ll do a rewrite of the whole show at the end. To a more or a lesser degree, depending on the episode, I’m involved as I want to be.”

DH: “You think you might move into features? You sound like a director to me.”

AB: “No, no, I don’t delude myself. I like watching movies. I don’t delude myself that I know how to make movies.”

DH: “Are you shooting right now?”

AB: “Yeah. Just got back from Sardinia and headed off to Montana shortly.”

DH: “Do you have any food aversions?”

AB: “I mean there are some foods that I like less than others, that I’m not really crazy about or actively just don’t care about. But I’m trying to think of stuff that I hate. There are not many things that I just out-and-out hate.”

DH: “You’re not allergic to anything?”

AB: “I’m not allergic to anything. You know, there are a few things that I’ve tried that I won’t be trying again that’s for sure.”

DH: “You capture community and food almost like it’ universal a language.”

AB: “Well, I think we tend, particularly in Northern California, to fetishize food, which I’m guilty of as well. But at the end of the day, it should be a pretty relaxed, submissive experience. It should be fun; you should be eating with people, in the best-case scenario, that are fun. The more I eat and the more I travel, the more I become convinced that the quality of the ingredient itself while it’s truly wonderful to have the best possible stuff, it’s not essential to the experience.”

DH: “And the ambient factor that comes with it.”

AB: “Ambiance is important. How it’s prepared. You’ve experienced an array of (what I’d consider) rather challenging food. Should we step out of the purview of our palate? I think if I’m an advocate for anything, that would be it. I mean everybody else in the world has been cooking longer than us and chances are they’ve been cooking better than us. And what’s the downside, what can you lose in the end, how bad could it be?”

DH: “Well put, it’s food, not poison.”

AB: “And the gesture, the willingness to try new things is fundamental to seeing other places in a way that you might not otherwise have been able to. I mean your not making friends on the other side of the world if you’re turning your nose up at their food.”

DH: “Do you think your palate has changed? Do our foods taste different to you?”

AB: “I like good food. I like having a good time at the table. I am apt to like someone’s mom’s meatloaf in the states, as something pretty exotic or expensive elsewhere. That said [spending a] significant time in Asia and significant exposure particularly to the chile peppers of Southeast Asia, and the condiments and some of those flavors, does tend to, when I come back to the West, I miss that. The Western food seems kind of bland and uninteresting sometimes compared to the colors and flavors and heat component of much of Asia.”

DH: “Is there a ‘baptismal’ food that crossed you over to other side?”

AB: “I think there were a few. My first raw oyster was certainly important. You know the first time I had really, really high test, luxury sushi. That is a real kind of a transformative, a real ‘oh shit’ moment when you realize that you just gotta kinda rethink everything. I’ve often compared the feeling of going to San Sebastian or Barcelona or Tokyo to what it must have been like for fairly talented Blues guitarist to suddenly experience Jimi Hendrix for the first time. It must have been beautiful but also deeply traumatic. You come away from an experience like that wondering what to do next.”

DH: “You seem to rue not working in the kitchen as much.”

AB: “Well listen, I’m 52 years old now, Kitchen Confidential happened for me I was in my mid-forties, I had no delusions it was going to get any easier in the kitchen for me. There is nothing noble about standing on your feet 16 hours a day in your mid-forties. I don’t miss that. I wasn’t getting any better at it, that’s for sure. I don’t think anyone does. My usefulness as a line-cook certainly was diminishing. I am very aware and I certainly do feel at the end of the day, after 28 years of cooking professionally, that feels like honest work. Writing, making television and talking about myself in public it feels a little dodgily easy.”

DH: “And people love it, you have some really hardcore fans. You’re a cult of personality. Does that interest you at all?”

AB: “Listen, I’m grateful. It’s nice that people care and are interested. I’m flattered. I’m not going to start talking about myself in the third person. I think everything happens for me really late. Even being a nobody line-cook and chef, I still was pretty much, as many of my generation were, were pretty much living the life of motley crew for a long time. So by the time it all happened, I pretty much, I like to think I have a sense of what’s important and what’s bullshit and I think I’ve had enough cocaine.”

DH: “It almost seems better than this success happened in this time of your life.”

AB: “Oh yeah, I can tell you without a doubt, had Kitchen Confidential happened to me when I was 25 or 28, or even 32, you would have found me face down in the pool at Chateau Marmont.”

DH: “Reflecting back on then and now, are there any kernels that are the same?”

AB: “Well, somebody asked me the question the other day, if I could go back if I could talk to my 17-year-old self, would I do anything differently? I know that I wouldn’t listen if I went back and talked to myself, it wouldn’t matter to the 17-year-old me so that’s who I was that’s who I am, you make that decision in your life. I find that you gotta live with your past.”

DH: “You have some regret?”

AB: “Sure, I have tons of regrets but I’m not eaten alive by the ‘if only I had done this,’ or ‘if I’d only done that.’ I don’t know if I would have done that much different if I had to do it again. It’s been an interesting ride so far.”

DH: “Someone from your past creep up?”

AB: “A lot, sure, yeah. I’ve been in touch with and put on the show friends from high school and people that I’ve worked with in restaurants. It’s tough because I’m moving so much. You know, I’m only in New York four or five days at a time, and I like to spend as much of that as I can with my family, playing with my daughter, doing silly stuff around the house. Normal relationships are tough. A lot of my closest friends are people in a similar position, dysfunctional well-known chefs who are also on TV or are traveling a lot. Friendships you can pick up and put down given the weird circumstances of our lives.”

DH: “Everyone gets it.”

AB: “Mario Batali is a friend, Éric Ripert is a friend. These are very busy people like me, and they travel a lot as well.”

DH: “You ever hang out with Guy Fieri?”

AB: “I’ve met him once, I’ve never hung out with him.”

DH: “At your upcoming appearance, what are you going to talk about?”

AB: “I’m going to wing it. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do other than there will be a long question and answer period where the audience is invited to ask anything they want about any subject and I hope it’s an off the wall, confrontational, crazy, drunk, whatever. I always appreciate it when someone asks me something that I haven’t been asked before.”

DH: “Do you have people in the audience that like to get at you a bit?”

AB: “It hasn’t happened much and I’m kind of surprised. The angry vegan, not so much. I don’t think they get enough animal protein to get really angry. I’m hoping for a rowdy and controversial evening out there.”