[Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater.com]
In part two of this interview with Anthony Bourdain, the discussion shifts from the TV host and writer's programs and plans to a conversation about the future of food, the end of progressive cuisine, restaurant criticism, and a piece by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni that was "a steaming pile of shit."
There have been recent news items about Albert Adrià, Joan Roca, and Grant Achatz that describe plans in their respective restaurants for arty, interdisciplinary concepts. Roca, for instance, is trying to develop a culinary opera in an igloo-like table next to his restaurant. Do you think this is a good way to go or have these guys jumped the shark?
I don't know. Anything is possible. I was hostile initially to what Adrià was doing, but it ended up being one of the greatest meals of my life. If anyone is going to make art out of food, it's him. Roca I don't know because I haven't been there and tried the restaurant. Achatz I don't know. As I said before, I didn't get Alinea. That said, Next is probably the restaurant I most want to eat at right now.
All I can say is that I'm trying to keep an open mind about it. But I do think Adrià is capable of making that experience interesting and maybe even important.
My feeling was always that food was a noble craft. It's dangerous to aspire to more than that as a chef. Most chefs I know are really great craftsmen working within a discipline. They came up in something that resembles the Medieval guild system — they didn't design the cathedrals but they built them. That said, there is room in every craft or trade for a genius or two. But I haven't met many who I would absolutely say, "That's an artist."
Are there any beyond the Adriàs?
The ones I could call out without any hesitation or confusion for making completely original sounds without reference to anyone else would be the Adriàs. That's about it.
I guess another way of approaching that question about the modernist chefs is by asking if you think progressive cuisine is in crisis?
A number of its foremost practitioners have said to me that it is over. It's utility in a restaurant setting is in decline, to say the least.
In what sense?
I don't know anyone who practices molecular gastronomy and would confess to it. Go to anyone that would be accused of such a thing and they will say, "No, no, that's not what we do!" David Chang has pointed this out: all of those best suited to be doing modernist cuisine have retreated to something else. They're doing something else. They didn't like what they saw down the road — their prospects — and ended up doing something else. I think everyone is now doing that.
Is it because they never stopped getting heat for it or because they've taken it as far as it can go?
I think a lot of chefs realized that people wouldn't like it and wouldn't make a living off of it. It's not going to work and it won't pay the rent.
That's why Wylie Dufresne's such a heroic figure. He's really held the line when it's been hard. More people have ripped off more plates and presentations from that guy than any other. He's one of the most underacknowledged chefs out there. It's a hard road, even for him, and shows why so many people that could have been the next big thing in modernist cuisine decided not to go that route.
There's been serious blowback on sous vide. A lot of chefs I respect say they hate it and will only use it for small things here and there. That said, clearly almost all of these techniques they've developed either already are or soon will be standard practice in kitchens around the world. But clearly that's not the direction we're going in this world.
What is the direction?
Brooklyn rules — communal tables and fatty food. Ludo Lefebvre was talking about how easy it is, since fat tastes good. It's easy and intensely pleasurable. People have definitely been concentrating in the past few years on food that is enjoyable.
So you think that will eclipse vegetables and New Nordic?
I think we're going to see more good vegetables. I had a really exciting vegetable dish the other day. It was at Empellón Cocina in New York. What was the dish?
The carrots! I was like, "Wow! Those are some interesting fucking carrots." There's a guy, Alex Stupak, that you would have thought would end up a modernist prince. He's going to another albeit very interesting place. But I hope that veggie dish is indicative of a more vegetable-inflected future.
But just to be clear, you think the fatty and the casual will continue to rule?
I think we have a few years to go before it really works its way around and everyone is over it. You go out to Australia now and it's only recently that people have gotten into the communal table thing. Porteño in Sydney is the hottest place in town, and it's basically giant slabs of meat on a stick.
Is that the best we can do, though?
Maybe the question is, "Is it wrong?" Is there something wrong with the place we've found ourselves? I think it's a lot better than where we used to be. On one end, Daniel and Le Bernardin are doing good business. A lot of bullshit restaurants in the middle that aspire to that aren't, but should they have ever? And now there are all of these places in the ever larger middle where you can get really delicious food in an un-intimidating situation, where people who would have never thought eating out in a restaurant would be cool or worth talking about fifteen years ago now are making eating the center of planet hipster. That's easy to mock and I'm all for it and I do it, but I think it's a pretty goddamn positive development.
A good number of chefs criticize that direction because they feel it comes with a lack of good service and a measure of discomfort.
The noise level is bothersome to me. I'm at the age where it's a little fucking loud. But I think food will continue to be more casual and democratic. Look at China, Vietnam, Italy. It's always been like that there, where dining has always been a more democratic event. Even in France, where they allow dogs in restaurants. I was just at a two-star Michelin with dogs in it. The casual and the accessible are natural. It's part of the economic changes, the change in who is eating, and in a lot of ways, I think it's indicative of an expanding middle class and new food cultures catching up with old food cultures.
In Italy, good food is a fucking birthright. Very few chefs are well-known in Italy. Who the fuck cares? They know where you can get good food.
I think the people that are scared or offended by this are making a very, very valid point. I don't know what's going to happen, but I can't in good conscience complain about it. More and more Americans are eating better than they did before, and at a more affordable price point.
Do you think food is actually generally accepted as cool, or is that something food people have sort of manufactured?
Food's cool, and there is no question about it. Jonathan Gold was all over that. Like anything that's cool, there's plenty to make fun of, just as was the case with indie bands and art house cinema. Not too long ago, you'd be going out to a movie, then at dinner you'd talk about the movies you had seen recently and the ones you were going to see next week. Now, you're going to dinner and talking about the dinner you had last week and the dinner you're having next week. It's a different world.
They're scurrying everywhere, these foodies. Look at Austin, Louisville, Portland of course. I love making fun of the hipster foodies, because they are annoying and comedy gold, but it's a good thing. Look at all the places where there are exciting culinary scenes: Kansas City, Boston, Seattle. They're all driven by hipster. How can this be bad? Instead of playing hackeysack or opening a bicycle shop, they're making cheese.
You mention the hipsters, but wouldn't they be the first to laugh at Marilyn Hagerty?
It was my first instinct. But then I saw that she writes five columns a week and has worked at that paper for thirty years. I just think that she's where irony goes to die. You can't be a hipster douche around her. That's a woman who has been showing up at work and doing a job.
I worked at brunch for a lot of years and didn't have any illusions that I was involved in a brilliant or creative enterprise. I was showing up at work and doing the best job I knew how. I respect that and respect how she was a wolfsbane to snark. A lot of people that defended her early on said, "Hey, that is a big deal in this town." I saw one tweet that explained that it's 150 miles to anything that even resembles an independently owned and operated Italian restaurant.
So, I'm really interested in this book. I looked at those archives and I want them. I think they will tell an amazing story. There will also be accompanying material explaining whether that restaurant she wrote about in 1972 made it or failed or turned into a dry cleaner. Is it an empty lot? A Victoria's Secret? What has happened to all these hopeful entrepreneurs? What do they eat out there? I think it's something we need as a reality check before we start talking down to people, which is our instinct. We are all too happy to tell people how they should or shouldn't be eating. I'm also commissioning some stuff from her that explains what it's like to be her and what it's been like to do that job for thirty years. I think it's going to be an important book. It may be charming, but it won't be funny. We're not laughing at this lady.
While we're at it, let's talk about restaurant criticism in general. Do you think the traditionally big-time assessments hold less weight now?
The short answer is yes. Nobody gives a fuck about the glossy critics anymore. They're putting out a ten best something or other every ten fucking minutes. They have no credibility, and I don't think any influence over how people eat.
I think the Times and New York Magazine in New York still have significant power, but that's about it.
Is that a good or a bad thing?
If it was just them and nothing else, it would be a bad thing. But now there's a review every ten seconds in this bold new digital world of social media. I like it. A lot of people are defensive about it, because it hurts to open a place and have someone say you're restaurant sucks and that you're an asshole eight minutes after you open. I know a lot of chef friends who get genuinely hurt and enraged by this. It took them a while to get used to this, but now they're prolific fucking tweeters. But some guys understood from the beginning that this is the world we live in now and this is how it's going to be. Some chefs are really sensitive. They work hard. Guys have killed themselves over bad reviews, so imagine getting one every few hours!
But I think it's vastly improved and is part of the democratization of dining. The positives far outweigh the negatives.
Any last words?
I'm pissed about the Bruni piece.
I wasn't going to ask you about Paula Deen.
And I don't want to go there. But when you find yourself with Fox News and the New York Times dropping a deuce on you in the same day, that's a lonely place to be. Something I didn't appreciate. I thought what Bruni said in particular was a steaming pile of shit.
What have I been writing about for ten fucking years? Why am I an elitist? I don't have a message, but if there is a byproduct of whatever the hell I've been doing for a living, it's that people can eat really well and cook with pride in situations much worse than in working class America. So, it bothered me. I was disappointed. It seemed like an easy — I think it was a move to appear populist, and that's something of a signature of Bruni's.
Do you see that in his restaurant criticism or in his recent work as a columnist?
I liked his restaurant criticism. It's this idea: "Many think that this is true, but on the other hand?" You know what? Have a fucking opinion. Come out and say what you want to say.
Did you reach out to him after that piece?
I've had him on the show. He's a good guy. But I haven't seen him since. It would not prevent me from having dinner with the guy, but it was tough to see it all break out and go through news cycle after news cycle. For the first time in my life, I was genuinely frightened.
I felt like the villagers were up in arms and coming at my head, and they might get me this time. People thought I was beating up on a sweet little old lady.
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