Yesterday we chatted with Anthony Bourdain about the James Beard Foundation, Ferran Adrià, and the death of print. Here now, part two of our interview in which Bourdain sounds off on writing for HBO's Tremé (including the scenes with Alan Richman), his thoughts on being a sellout, and the future of his show No Reservations.
What's been going on with Tremé? How well do you feel your vision for those scenes is being realized?
I'll tell you it's the most fun I've had doing any kind of work in my entire life. I have so much fun working with those guys. I'm so thrilled, honored, and happy to have anything to do with that show.
I write those scenes, they go to some of the best writers in the history of the television medium to work over, who hire an ensemble cast of amazing people. All of the chefs seem to love the show because it was very easy for me to reach out to some of our better known New York chefs to help.
The cooking details, for instance: I think Susan Spicer and John Besh are on board as consultants, half of the people playing cooks in those scenes are actually chefs and cooks, Eric Ripert sent a couple of his team down to help make the plates look like New York, 2006. It's very gratifying for me to see the things that they get right, which is just about everything. But it's also just cool. I've never experienced writing words and situations, how people build sets or hire actors, and then you turn on TV and you'll see an actor with your words coming out of his mouth. That feels pretty damn awesome.
I jokingly said if David Simon wanted me to get him coffee in the morning, I'd do it. I really wasn't kidding. I'm at a fortunate place in my life where I have the ability to work with lots of interesting people on lots of interesting projects. This is just so damn cool. I'm hanging out with the cool kids. It is my privilege and my pleasure.
And what's the deal with the scenes that are going to feature Alan Richman? Are you writing those?
I'll tell you exactly what happened. Initially I floated the idea of referring to that article. Of course, my inclination was to write a character like Richman who has written a story much like Richman's. My writing teacher years ago said that you should never settle personal hash in your fiction writing. It's not good writing, not good TV. Even though I didn't intend for Richman to actually be in it, it wasn't meant as a hatchet job or to settle a score. Even if he's my arch-enemy, that's not good fiction writing.
But then David Simon said, "Wouldn't it be cool if Richman played himself?" And to his credit, Richman agreed to do it. I wrote much of the material and I hope it is both a measure of [my] fairness and a measure of the fact that Richman has a set of balls on him. I admire him for it. I hate the bastard, but I admire him. It shows considerable good humor and no small amount of balls. A reminder that he was a marine in a former life. He lived up to the high standard.
You talk a lot, openly and somewhat jokingly, about being a sell out. How much of that is just self-effacing and fun, and how much about making that admission actually bothers you?
We all make compromises. It's useful to have a sense of humor about yourself, especially when you shove food in your face for a living and write about it or talk about it on television. If you're going on Top Chef and appearing next to the Glad family of bags, whether you're paid for that or not, it's useful to not take yourself too seriously. It's true of me, it's true of anyone who appears as a contestant on Top Chef or goes on television cooking. You join the rodeo. You've agreed to conduct yourself according to certain rules of the rodeo. It would be ridiculous or hypocritical to paint yourself as virginal after that. It's an attitude that I think anyone who knows what real work is should probably adopt.
I really reject the idea that chefs should, somehow, have a moral obligation to die chained to the stove at age 59. I find that a grotesque and elitist attitude foisted largely by overfed, aging, white food writers. "They're not keeping it real. They're opening too many restaurants. They're actually succeeding. They have a weekend off. Oh, they're on television."
Finally, how do you see the future of No Reservations?
I'm going to Virginia to take security training for a couple of days. I'm going to Ukraine tomorrow with Zamir, and I'm also going to Kurdistan and Iraq. I'm told that the insurance company won't let us go if I don't take some training.
As far as where we're going in the future, the way I feel about is that there are a lot of more dignified ways to make a living than making television. If I'm not having fun and I'm not interested, then there's no point in doing it. The challenge is always to do something interesting and different and creative and try to sell a story, basically the same story, in a different way. A way that looks and sounds and smells and feels different than the week before.
I understand, and my partners understand, very well that on a week-to-week basis some of our fans are really going to hate a particular show. It's not what they wanted or expected. A lot of people were very upset with the Haiti show. It wasn't upbeat, there wasn't enough food porn. It's depressing. Well, tough shit. A lot of Bostonians were upset that we didn't cover any really good restaurants, that we only showed a bunch of dives indulging my obsession with early 70s crime. That's also tough shit. I'm out there to have fun and hopefully tell a story in an interesting way.
I'm not worried about running out of places to go. It's about pushing ourselves technically and stylistically and finding new ways to drive fear, terror, and confusion into the network.