As part of the Cayman Cookout 2014, Eater interviewed chefs poolside at the Ritz-Carlton. Up first: chef Parts Unknown host and general food world rabble-rouser Anthony Bourdain.
[Photo: Raphael Brion / Eater.com]
Anthony Bourdain is a busy guy. He's currently working on an upcoming New York City food market based on Singapore's famous hawker stalls, the upcoming season of his CNN travel show Parts Unknown (which will feature a luscious-looking Punjab episode and an epic look at the history of Lyonnaise cuisine featuring Paul Bocuse and Daniel Boulud), and his ongoing line of books with Ecco. He spoke with Eater on an uncharacteristically rainy day on Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach about the giant Vegas meat palace he turned down and how the media (including Parts Unknown) fails women chefs. Bourdain also announced that he signed musician/celebrity chef talent manager Shep Gordon to a book deal with the Ecco imprint.
You're in the early stages of producing a massive New York City food market. What made you decide to get into this project?
It wasn't something I ever planned. Someone came along with the means to make it happen, and I pitched the idea to them right away. The only scenario in which I could see myself interested in anything like this is if there is a strong Singaporean Hawker center component. It's a personal thing. I always felt sort of a pissed as a New Yorker — living in the greatest city on earth — that we don't have this. Why can't we have it? Even during our most nanny state, Bloombergian moments, Singapore has been even more concerned about things like zoning and sanitation. They solved the problem brilliantly.
[It's] both a rebuke to fast food and the notion of the food court as a terrible place with the usual suspects. I need to be able to curate a space and reach out to people all over the world who I've encountered and bring them to New York, that appeals to me as an eater. I'm a person who if I read a book that I really like, I would like to go to everybody's home — if I had the time — and force them to read it. In much the same way, I would like to force the idea that everyone should, in a perfect world, know what a good chicken rice is and have a good bowl of laksa in their life and be able to eat some good noodles. Enjoy these one-chef, one-dish stalls where there are three generations of cooks doing one item well.
It's fast food. It's cheap food and it's great food. I think we should have that as New Yorkers and it's just something I want to be involved in. It allows me to reach out to a lot of people I like and know and believe in around the world and hopefully get some of them to come to New York. There are a lot of really, really interesting people who I never would have expected calling up and saying, "I'd like to be a part of this." Some countries are calling too, like tourism boards or the trade boards from really great countries. How could we help? We like to have a representative doing something there.
I don't want it to be the world's fair.
The risk is that it's going to be the world's fair. I don't want that. To me ideally it would be a dirty place with signs that no one can understand. I understand that's not going to happen. But the idea of New Yorkers on their lunch break or after work can sit down and eat Iberico ham or a bowl of laksa... It appeals to, I don't know whether it's my ego or my desire for a righteous universe, or I'm doing it because I can and it seems like we could do something that's really cool and fun. You can imagine over the years, I've been offered every kind of airport restaurant, giant Las Vegas steakhouses, chain restaurants, branded and whatever. But I said no to all of them.
Were you really offered a steakhouse in Vegas?
Huge. Monster. I mean, a monster. This project was so huge and big. It wasn't just steak, it was like world of meat. Rotating pigs in the window and every variety, Argentinean and Brazilian and Parisian steaks. It was a massive and no doubt wildly enriching project, but I just thought what if it sucks? Somebody would go in and tweet, I was just at your restaurant in Vegas and it was very disappointing. That would kill me. I'm a control freak. If I were ever going to do a restaurant, I'm going to do it or not going to do it. In this case, I was never going to do it. Here [with the food market], I'm putting together a bunch of people who do things better that I could ever ever do them, and I'm just the broker, so that they are all in one place, trying to do what's right.
The idea of getting this lady who makes tostadas in Baja, these amazing seafood tostadas, I can get her to New York. That's something I can look back and say, wow, whatever else I may have done in my life I did that. I was a part of that.
You're one of the few people in that position, where you have an idea globally what's going on and can choose the places that interest you.
It's really a great place where I have a lot of friends around the world and I get to work with them in a lot of different combinations. It makes me happy. I like making things, whether it's a plate of food or anything. I was a chef for 30 years. That business appeals to me for reasons beyond the lifestyle and reasons beyond any desire to create great works of original earth changing recipes. I was never that chef, it just wasn't me. But you enjoy the technical satisfaction of properly made blanquette de veau or even a steak frites. That feels good. You make something that you think, I did that right.
Do you have a space lined up for the market?
No, I don't. What's weird is we're getting a lot of calls from people who like us and want to come in, and we're also getting calls from other cities. It's happening a lot. I don't know that it was intended. There was not an official press release or anything.
I'm talking to people about shellfish, like a little shellfish bar space where somebody is cracking oysters and serving wine. For me, the mission is there could be a funky bowl of laksa, some char kway teow, some chicken rice. I want that same kind of excitement you feel when I first walked in Golden Mall and I hit those lamb noodles at Xi'an. It was like, "Wow, this is a great city we live in and have this."
The great thing about that whole culture is, you know, the roast goose guy: that's what he does. What his daddy did. The bamboo noodle guy. I'm looking at all these things: pulled tea, bamboo noodles, ais kacang, all of these. How much can we get away with? Will New York accept ais kacang with a squiggly seaweed jello thing? I don't know.
Will New York accept ais kacang with a squiggly seaweed jello thing?
I think there will be a rotating component, we certainly have been talking about some spaces where we'll have transient visitors. Okay, it's Spain Month. We'll have this area where we'll get invaded by food from a particular nation and they'll send in a bunch of people and they'll do that for a while. I think the heart and soul for me is what Singapore has, as what Hong Kong has in their Dai Pai Dong. That kind of feeling of you may want noodles, I want roast goose, we can all sit at the same table and we'll all get out beverages from the fruit guy over there.
I'm going to give everything I have. If I wanted to just sign up for the place to pick up a check, you would have seen my places at the airport years ago. Bourdain To Go. Look, it's ego. I see these places not as a potential profit center. I see them much more likely as a potential generator of ill will. You miss your flight and every place is closed except for the Bourdain To Go and the sandwich is crappy. I hate that guy now. Fucking deeply.
Tell us about the upcoming season of Parts Unknown.
The India show we're editing now is going to be amazing looking. It's in Punjab and it's what's called the "shot rich environment," meaning my camera guys are just walking around with permanent stiffies, going "Oh, this is awesome." When you get an early edit on a show like that, you have to dial back because they go over to the Malick-zone big time.
That's going to be a really great show, but the one that I really think has the possibility of being the greatest food centric show I've ever done, I went to Lyon with Daniel [Boulud]. It tells a story of basically where Daniel came from and we went to his home, his farm, with his parents, his family. It's not just a farm, it used to be a little roadside routier, a little cafe. It hasn't been for many years but the structure is there. It's where Daniel came from. The environment that he came from, starting with the farm and the food that his family would make at the farm, it's very rustic stuff. It's tracking the history of Lyonnaise cuisine back to a very interesting place. Importantly, we kept going in these kitchens and a lot of them were all men. And yet everything in Lyon goes back to la Mère Brazier.
We found Paul Bocuse the next morning at 9:00 on the dot sitting on his John Deere, ready to flush ducks.
We ate with Bocuse and it was the most extraordinary afternoon. He did all of the greatest hits of his career for us. Sat with us at the table. Then the next day we're supposed to do a duck hunting scene, and Monsieur Paul said, "You should come to my place, my lodge, we'll go together." He's 80 something years old and not in good health, but the Paul Bocuse we found the next morning at 9:00 on the dot sitting on his John Deere ready to flush ducks for us, it was just an extraordinary adventure. He took us out duck hunting all day. He can't walk around with a rifle but he flushed the ducks. We shot a number. We went back to his little lodge and roasted wild birds over an open fire. Never in a million years back in the 70's, looking at that book La Cuisine du Marché, did I ever think I would meet Paul Bocuse, much less spend a day eating all of those old school dishes on platters, much less spend the whole day hunting and eating in his lodge and drinking wines.
At one point I asked Monsieur Paul at the table. I said, "Look, every chef I know, if you ask them all these years later, what figure in your life do you wake up screaming in the middle of the night thinking you disappointed them?" You know, Eric [Ripert] still wakes up, Robuchon is angry with me. I left something in the oven at Robuchon. Everybody has someone like that. I asked Paul Bocuse, and he said la Mère Brazier, he said she was the toughest. She was ferocious and terrifying and inspiring and I think that's something that most people are completely unaware of. In fact, I saw this huge mural of her and I wanted to take a picture of it and send it off, Dear Time magazine, fuck you.
Speaking of the Time Gods of Food issue — which infamously didn't feature any women chefs — what did you think of all that?
A steaming load of shit. As we all know they dug themselves deeper and deeper, but by any criteria what they said is: well, there are great women chefs out there, but not ones who came out of the system and not ones who have a presence outside of one area. Which is crap. April Bloomfield is a beloved institution in New York with extensions in San Francisco. Elena Arzak. Angela Hartnett. What system are you talking about? Hartnett came up in the same system that everybody else came up, but out of the Gordon Ramsay system.
It was just lazy. And I think the thing that makes me angry is that, you know, Chang and Atala and Redzepi, these are great guys and they are "food gods." But because women were excluded, it was a shaming and embarrassing list to be a part of. It was so corrupted. It was transparently bullshit. I hate it when I'm asked about it, because I'm the last person you should talk to about it. And I think a lot of people just roll our eyes, "Fuck, this question again." I love to pass the ball to Gabrielle Hamilton anytime this question comes up because she really answers it pretty quickly.
I hate the whole idea of best female chef. I just think we are so way beyond that in a lot of ways. Best female chef leads to this sort of stupidity. In what way is Elena Arzak the "best female chef"? She's the best chef. Fucking period. Played on the same field, came out of the same system, and is creating food more excellent than most of her peers. In what way does she need a special award? I don't get it. But that's a discussion that women should have and not me.
Is that something you're conscious of when you're planning Parts Unknown, how many women you're featuring?
It's something we fail at a lot. Women are underrepresented on the show and that does not represent an inclination or a policy. It's an indication of failure. We didn't succeed in getting somebody, a women, to tell a compelling story. I mean, sometimes I think it's more forgivable than not. I mean, Libya is tough. In the Muslim world, that's tough. You're putting people at risk. Even in Saudi Arabia, we had a really heroic women who stood up and was my sidekick for the whole show. She got a lot of shit for that. It's difficult in some of these cultures.
Women are underrepresented on the show and that does not represent an inclination or a policy. It's an indication of failure.
But other times we just fail. Not for lack of desire. Or perhaps? I don't know. Like I said, it's not a policy or inclination, but an indication that we just didn't do as good a job as we should have, and probably could have. But it is something we're aware of and that we think about and an area in which we're trying. Sometimes it's hard enough to find anybody who can speak English on camera.
To switch gears a little, let's talk about your books with Ecco. What upcoming projects do you have working?
Really looking forward to the Mission Chinese book. Whatever Danny [Bowien] and Chris [Ying] do is going to be amazing. That was the deal, it was like I don't care what you guys do, just whatever.
I'm looking for a lot of great food-related books to come my way, but I'm really waiting for a novelist or a memoirist or essayist. I'm interested in reprinting works that are out of print that I'd love to see back in print. I'd love to reprint W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, which one of the great spy novels of all time. There are a lot of things on my list that I would love to force people to read or convince people to read.
We have Mike Ruffino's rock and roll memoir which was previously published. We've had it updated and added some new material and we're republishing that, it's called Adios, Motherfucker. It's about a great power pop band's progress through touring. I think it's the best rock and roll memoir ever. At least as funny as Spinal Tap, but all true. He's a brilliant writer. He does much of the music for the show for Parts Unknown and for previous shows. If you hear a French pop song or like mid-60's Quincy Jones action film music. He does everything and wrote a really great book for us. What else haveI got, I got a book about a kickboxer, Mark Miller coming out soon.
I think we just signed with Shep Gordon. I saw Supermensch, fucking amazing. Three seconds before that movie was over I was like, "Dan [Halpern], we got to get this." Actually, I met [Gordon] first through Alice Cooper. He's incredibly loyal, when we shot with Alice in Arizona, he flew in for it. He is a supermensch and he is the world's most interesting man. The whole story of how he get started with Alice and Jimmy Hendrix and all of that. It's amazing.
Chefs were not allowed to eat in the dining room. Because he's the help. This is the world Shep [Gordon] walked into.
And what he did for the world of chefs. Why aren't we getting paid? None of you guys get paid?! [Roger] Vergé is called out to this big conference to do a meal. They're getting hundreds of thousands of dollars, taking it in. He's not getting paid. They put him in a shit room and he's not allowed to eat in the dining room. Because he's the help. This is the world Shep walked into when he started his celebrity chef concept, way too early because he's too far ahead of his time in that regard, but it's really interesting. He is the nicest man in the world and I am really excited about that book. That's new.
I pick the books. I reach out and in a lot of cases to people who haven't even thought of writing a book to write a book. A number of them are sort of happen over Twitter. I mean, blogs. The guy who did Noodlepie, Graham Holiday, he did the blog Noodlepie that we used to rely on a lot every time we go to Vietnam. This guy obsessively documented his experience and lovingly photographed every single street vendor in Saigon. We found some really great places through that blog and he's a really interesting guy.
So how does it work? You go to Ecco and say, I want to publish this book, and then what?
For years I've been doing it in an unofficial way. It took me a couple years, but I convinced them to publish Nose to Tail Eating. It didn't sound like such a good idea when I brought it to him. He's a British chef and it's all about hoofs and snouts and whatnot, but the book ended up doing really well for him. I got them to publish Ferran Adrià, the big black book which they thought was going to be horrifying disaster, everyone thought it was going to be a horrifying disaster. I mean it was like, "You have to charge 200 bucks for this." That worked out well. So we just sort of made it official. and I'm trying to think. There have been a few books where we just say, "Well, I don't know" but generally speaking they have seen the wisdom of my enthusiasms.
It's fun as a guy who, like I said, I want to force you to read stuff I believe in or know about people that I'm really into. You know, it's a nice bully pulpit to be in and it makes me feel good. I'm always on a look out. I mean, I'm looking now, but I'd love like ... I love to do a young adult novel. Something completely off the wall, whatever the last in the world you would expect from my imprint, that's really kind of what's missing, what I'm looking for. I was reading this young woman's young adult novel. A dark, edgy, social component would be helpful.