It's a bit weird seeing Anthony Bourdain sitting on a brunch-swarmed sidewalk café on the Upper East Side. Yet it's not totally jarring. Bourdain, whose television show No Reservations enters its eighth season this evening, is about to turn fifty-six, has a five-year-old daughter, and, on the particularly sunny afternoon we meet, keeps his optical frames hanging from his shirt while sporting a killer set of shades. He's tired and he's reached that blissful point where all that matters is doing what makes him happy. As a conversation propelled by Parisien sandwiches and beer at Cafe d'Alsace revealed, spending two thirds of the year traveling doesn't do that. What does: his family, writing, puttering around the house, and for the foreseeable future, the show that airs tonight. Here's part one of the interview:
You travel more than two-hundred days a year, and I imagine the network and other people push for you to commit to more and more things. How much can you handle, and is there an expiration date on any of this stuff?
I'm not going to do more than I can. The Layover was a burden.
But that's coming back, yes?
Yeah. I'm going to do one more season of The Layover.
What happens after that? It's over?
I'm looking at maybe transitioning someone else into it. I don't know who, but that's a job that's up for grabs after this season. You heard it here first.
Why'd you make that decision?
I like doing what I do and I like doing sixteen episodes of No Reservations a year, but The Layover was hard on me. It was hard with that much food and liquor in a two-day shooting period, back-to-back-to-back. And that's after shooting No Reservations.
No Reservations is a pleasure most of the time. You know, you have bad days and shit goes wrong, but I do truly whatever the fuck I want. I don't have to care if something is useful or any of that. It is a pure creative enterprise, whereas Layover has its utilitarian aspects.
I think I'm already at the point where I am doing things because they are fun rather than because they are paying a competitive amount of money. I write for Tremé because it's really fun and makes me feel good. Comic book? Fun. Imprint? Fun. It makes me feel good.
And The Layover wasn't fun?
The Layover is hard. Hot on the heels of No Reservations, it's hard. Whether it's two series or one, the point is that I'm good for sixteen a year and that's it.
Are you happy with how the show turned out?
Yeah, I think the lion's share of the credit goes to Zero Point Zero and all the people I work with there. As was the case at the beginning of No Reservations, none of us knew what we were doing when we started, and we sort of figured it out.
I had a lot of doubt in my mind about that project and they were resolute. I was not a true believer. But they were right that it ended up a big success. I can only do what I can do. I can do one more year.
You say you're hoping to transition someone else into the show, but don't you think people tune in largely because they want to see you?
I don't particularly care, frankly. I can do what I can do. I have a five-year-old who I would like to see more of.
And No Reservations?
The day will come. There's a great moment in Nick Tosches' biography of Dean Martin. It opens with him sitting on the set of like his 19th western, and by that point he owed all the different agents he had hired around 150 percent of what he had made. He's sitting there in his little folding chair and suddenly looks out and says, "Fuck it. This isn't fun anymore. I want to play golf."
Well, I don't play golf and I don't feel that way about the show yet. I'm really excited about it and there are a whole hell of a lot of shows I want to do that I haven't been able to do yet. But I know that someday I will have had enough and I will pull the plug. But I don't know when that will be.
Let's talk about the new season. I'm interested in the Baja episode, since that area seems like such undiscovered wealth; after shooting, you said it was like Tuscany. How'd you decide on doing that show?
I like border towns. I'm fascinated by the sort of tortured relationship between Mexico and the States and I'm always looking to stick my thumb at someone in the eye on that. I have a lot of agendas, but immigration and illegal restaurant workers and our hypocritical relationship with that country is of interest to me. I had heard of the families who moved to San Diego to wait out the drug wars. I was thinking about Breaking Bad and narcocorridos. We commissioned a corrida band to tell the story. I wrote the stories and then they adapted them to Spanish. I'd also never been to that area, and it's basically a different country.
How was it?
It's amazing. It's a hipster-driven thing — Mexican middle class hipsters. The tourists stopped going, because the narcos were killing people left and right. The crimes were so lurid. I didn't see a single American in Tijuana, Ensenada, or Baja the entire time I was there. I saw Mexican-Americans who were going back and forth to visit their families, but no gringos. Zero.
I think the music scene and the food scene started to grow up around the same time there. There were collectives of electronica music who were rediscovering narcocorridos and other traditional forms of music. They also started doing the best food that they could for middle class customers and tourists from Mexico City. The wine there is pretty decent and the place looks like Napa. The chefs are mainly second generation Mexican chefs, in the sense that they learned from chefs who had cooked at Robuchon and places like that around the world. But instead of they themselves going abroad, they stayed in Mexico and hopped around out of sheer pride.
The ingredients are incredible, and the traditional food is different than any I've tried in Mexico. The young chefs are influenced by Mediterranean cuisine, the modernists, and locavorism, but they're doing Mexican food. The wine that's available at all these fine dining places is only Mexican. It was inspiring.
It was different than the rest of Mexico. It was really exciting. There were traditional Mexican food reinterpreted in a way that preserved all the things you love about them but really dispensed with the omnipresent onion/cilantro that can blow out subtler flavors. The cooking was technically very good and self-reflexive. It didn't knock off anyone.
Is that the one you're most excited for?
No, but you asked about Baja! It's been a really good year.
What are some others?
Penang. Everyone says it's the food capital of the China straits, and they are right. It's a good looking show. I get a stiffy for a particular show whenever the cinematography looks great and it's a good edit. That makes me happiest. When how I felt about a place matches up with lush shots and a super slick edit with good music, that's a good day at the office. It's looking really good.
We had an especially high percentage of shows this year when my crew and I were having a really good time. When the scenes end, the action continues, except that the crew joins us at the table and we'll order more of what we just had. Burgundy with Ludo Lefebvre was one of those. There was drinking during the scenes, after the scenes — just a Michel Legrand soundtrack, basically. And we knew we were getting good television in the process.
We're doing Emilia-Romagna with Michael White in a couple of weeks. That's not going to suck. It's going to be a good season. Finland was actually great. I'm having fun.
What do you want to do after the TV dies down a bit?
I want to putter around. I want to play with my daughter, watch her grow up. I want to spend more time writing. I want to develop projects for other people that I like and believe in. I want to stop moving a little bit. You know, I don't do any normal shit. I don't collect wine or make sausage, so I really don't know. I'm one of these guys, every time I finish a big project I enter this moment of panic where I have to commit to five or six things at the same time. I know that free time is bad for me. If I have a lot of time to stare at the ceiling and think about the mysteries of the universe, it can be self-destructive. So who knows?
What kind of book are you hoping to write?
Like a Peter Mayle kind of book, but living in Vietnam. A year in Vietnam would be nice. Go to a rice growing community, get to know the neighbors, drive around a scooter or bicycle, go down to the market for some pho, see my daughter play with the local kids. Maybe I'm being overly romantic about this, but that would be nice. I could do the same book in Italy, for that matter.
You know, I like the feeling of waking up in the morning in an unfamiliar place. Over time, you get to know the butcher and you master the art of ordering breakfast for yourself. That's always a deeply satisfying thing, even if it's only two weeks. I don't know. I've never known what it is like to live a normal life. I worked as a chef for all that time and overnight transitioned into whatever it is I'm doing now.
But you do want to give "normal" a shot?
To the extent that I even understand what that is, sure [laughs]. I don't know. I travel more than 250 days out of the year, and that's got to change.
I'll give you a pathetic example: my in-laws are in town. They are from the north of Italy and for them, there are two types of food: food — properly cooked Italian food — and Chinese food. Everything else is suspect. My wife is on an all-protein diet, which means grilled and seared meats, so I never get to cook the things that give me pleasure cooking. I ferociously look forward to the in-laws coming because that changes. I get so excited. I run off to the market, buy tons of meat, get stinky cheeses, shop for wines. I squeeze the vegetables, buy a shitload of them. I'm like a provincial French housewife. It's deeply satisfying for me, waking up and making eggs for my daughter and cooking for a family.
Again, it's about puttering around the house. It's awesome. I like cooking for the crew, as well, which doesn't happen too often. The Tuscany show this season is basically us checking into a villa to make a show about us checking into a villa. Provence was the same thing. I like that.
In the run-up to new seasons, I have to go out there, but it's not that much. You're a perfect example. I got back Tuesday night. I did things Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I'm seeing you now on Saturday, and on Monday I think I'll have a bit more. Then I'm back on the road. I'm not out there on junkets and shit. I try to avoid the network PR people like cancer. It hurts my brain to listen to them.
My question is, you're inevitably going to be asked the same questions over and over again. It's part of the game, but do you ever feel dishonest or odd about that process?
The book tour is where this comes in. It's such a rare gift, such a show of confidence, for a publisher to send you out there for a fifteen-city tour. You should be fucking grateful when that happens. And when you're on tour, you do five to six interviews a day for twenty days. That's when you really plumb the depths of self-loathing.
It's hard to take issue with people asking the same questions, because they can hardly not. On the morning shows, they get the briefing page and say, "Our next guest is the man who told us not to eat fish on Monday!" [cringes]. It's when you find yourself answering the questions the same way that you hate yourself. You understand why stand-up comics kill themselves either quickly or slowly. There's something destructive about getting good at that. Instead of groaning and saying, "Oh, that question again," you pause a bit and look up at the ceiling and make it look like you're answering this question for the first fucking time. You really feel like you just prostituted — that you gave up a little piece of yourself. But it's only polite to do it.
You see actors do it at junkets, sitting in front of that little screen for hours and talking about how awesome it was to work with Megan Fox for the fiftieth fucking time and they're goofy now. That's rude to me. It doesn't suck, because it means that someone is interested, but it gets silly.
How old are you?
55. I'll be 56 in June.
Do you ever feel pressure to live up to the perception that you're a badass or whatever you want to call it?
No, I'm clearly not. For fuck's sake, look at me! I'm a snowy-haired, middle-aged motherfucker with a daughter.
But many people do think that. Come on.
Fine, that's great. I'm grateful. I really am. But I feel zero obligation. I was forty-four when Kitchen Confidential dropped, and it was already too late then [laughs].
The comments that I love are the ones that say I'm trying to stay relevant, especially when it comes to the music I put in the shows. What the fuck does that even mean? If I'm listening to good music or doing a Queens of the Stone Age show, does that make me relevant? It certainly doesn't. It might demonstrate that I have very good taste in music, but it does not make me relevant or cooler. Fuck it, man. It's way too late for that shit.
Tomorrow, in part two, Bourdain talks about the end of progressive cuisine, the state of restaurant criticism, food and cool, and shares some thoughts on New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.