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Anthony Bourdain: The Upsell Interview

An exclusive interview with the globe-trotting culinary maverick

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Don't ask Anthony Bourdain to limit himself to other people's assumptions. It's been sixteen years since Kitchen Confidential blew up the food world; in the time since, he's built a career as a full-time expectation-upending maverick. Bourdain's books, television shows — and his not insignificant renegade charisma — have catapulted him into the kind of badass cross-genre celebrity that results in bros geeking out over him (though he doesn’t love that) and fans accosting him in the bathroom (he doesn’t totally love that either). Bourdain swung by the Eater Upsell studios to talk about his brand new cookbook, Instagram FOMO, and the life-altering magic of fatherhood.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater. Read an edited transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 11: Anthony Bourdain, below.

Anthony: The book was definitely designed to be an object that you could hold. We wanted it to look strange and awesome. And two major chains — I will not mention them — objected so ferociously to the cover that we have a special edition that has just a plain white wrapper.

Helen: Really?

Anthony: Yeah. They found the [Ralph] Steadman cover off-putting. Felt they couldn’t sell it in their stores and required us to wrap it in a plain white wrapper.

Helen: There are no — dicks? — on this cover. Are there? Are there secret dicks?

Anthony: No. No. It’s just the violent splatter of Ralph Steadman that upset their worldview.

Helen: It’s a really striking cover for a cookbook.

Anthony: I’m really proud of it, and the whole point was we didn’t want this to look like a cookbook.

Helen: But it is a cookbook.

Anthony: Yup.

Helen: Which is interesting. This is your fourth cookbook?

Anthony: Just second.

Helen: After the Les Halles book, right?

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: But you’ve written many other books, including probably most famously, Kitchen Confidential. But you’ve also written fiction.

Anthony: Three crime novels. A biography of Typhoid Mary. Couple of comic books. A bunch of stuff.

Helen: But this book, Appetites, is a cookbook.

Anthony: Yeah. And I should point out, I did this with Laurie Woolever. Who — I don’t want to say she was essential to the book, it goes way beyond that. She was the co-writer from the very, very beginning. I wouldn’t have even thought about doing it if Laurie wasn’t all-in.

Helen: Having a good collaborator is the most important thing.

Anthony: Yeah. We’ve worked together a lot. She’s had a long and glorious career, most of it uncredited, writing and editing cookbooks and working with me.

Helen: How did you two hook up?

"I don’t feel qualified to be a journalist. I don’t feel interested. I don’t want to feel restrained by that title."

Anthony: From the first cookbook I was working on, I needed help. And I needed an assistant. And a director of special operations. And we’ve had a very happy working relationship since.

Helen: That’s great. Well, congratulations on the book. The Steadman cover is — what is this a picture of? It’s like a lot of angry faces.

Anthony: I never asked. I was very grateful. Initially when I asked him to do the cover, he said, "No. I just don’t have time. And I don’t really have the inspiration. I don’t know what I’d do." And the next day, I get an email of one splatter. And a day after that, the splatter has grown into something else. And everyday, I watched the thing come together as he slowly became inspired. And then I started to get other work. He started sending me not just unrelated works of art but actual physical prints in the mail! Tube after tube of these gorgeous, limited-edition Steadman prints and originals. So my whole office is filled with them now, which heaven for me.

Helen: That’s incredible.

Anthony: He’s a hero of mine. So it was really an adventure.

Helen: It makes sense to me that he’s working with you, that you guys are connected through this book. Because he is so incredibly famous for his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: And the genesis of the idea of gonzo journalism, where you just throw yourself in and you see what the fuck happens.

Anthony: A very important book for me — I think I read [Thompson's] Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — I must’ve been 12, 13, when it first started being serialized in Rolling Stone magazine. Which was a very different magazine back then. And it was a cataclysmic event for me. No one had written like that before, and the illustrations were such an important part of it. It expressed all my anger and rage and frustration, as well as the humor of these really awful times — both in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and then later, [Fear and Loathing] on the Campaign Trail. I think it’s obvious, if you read my stuff, how besotted I was with Thompson, maybe overly so. But those books are really important and Ralph’s art was very important to me.

Helen: Do you see a through-line between that style of gonzo journalism and the work that you do now?

Anthony: I think I would be flattering myself if I said that. I would say it was certainly an inspiration. It was liberating. It made me fall in love with the power of hyperbole and the potential beauty of hyperbole — that’s what I try to echo.

Helen: I feel like now we have to say really hyperbolic things. We’ve set ourselves up to. And now of course I can’t think of any.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: I literally have a print hanging on a wall in my bedroom that says "H is for hyperbole," because I am prone to being somewhat extreme in my statements. And now that we have talked about hyperbole, I can’t think of a goddamn thing.

Anthony: It will come to us in an inappropriate moment, I’m sure.

Helen: We’ll be having a really sober moment, and one of us will say something insultingly extreme.

Now that we’re talking about gonzo journalism — one of the things that is interesting about it as a style is the question of whether it’s journalism. Its critics have said that there is too much of the writer, and there’s too much subjectivity, that there is a certain purity of truth that true journalism has to contain, that gonzo journalism couldn’t. Do you think of yourself as a journalist?

Anthony: No. I do not.

Helen: Why not?

Anthony: I don’t feel qualified, I don’t feel interested. I don’t want to feel restrained by that title. I see myself as an essayist, maybe.

Helen: Even in television? Like, visual essays?

Anthony: Yeah. I’m a storyteller-essayist, I’m always speaking from my point of view. My point of view always comes first, it’s always subjective. And I think that’s the only way I can write and the only way I should write, probably.

Helen: How does your writing connect to your on-camera work?

Anthony: You know, it’s the same thing. You’re telling a story. When you write a story on paper, you’re trying to get the reader to feel a certain way. You want them to feel how you felt at the time, if you’re telling something that you experienced. Or you want to drive them to a certain opinion or way of looking at things.

It’s the same as when I go someplace with a camera crew, and I come back with a bunch of footage. While I’m there, I’m working with my producers to think about what shots, what style, what music — how do we use all of these additional tools? Because the strange and terrible powers of television are really exciting to me. You can much more easily make someone feel sentimental or angry or frightened. I’m not gonna say it’s child’s play, but when you have the additional tools of an editing room, the cutaway shot, music — these are so powerful and helpful in getting to make people feel a certain way. There’s a great, classic Eisenstein example of  —  I think it’s a crying baby. They cut to people making different facial expressions, just however they might’ve been filmed in isolation. The fact that they seem to be reacting to a crying baby, you think they’re either monstrous or really nice. It completely depends on what image you saw before. I take full advantage of those things, and I enjoy using them.

Helen: It is all about that context.

Anthony: Yeah, it’s very manipulative. Writing is manipulative, speaking is manipulative, it’s sort of the whole point. Television and film are very, very manipulative. I think it’s useful to acknowledge that regardless of whether it’s journalism or not. I don’t want to think about what journalism might require, because I’m really enjoying that manipulative aspect. I embrace it and I think about exactly that all the time.

Helen: I think that journalism is just as manipulative as anything else, it just often wraps itself in the fiction that it isn’t.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: It pretends to be telling the truth, but there’s no such thing as truth. We can get very existential.

Anthony: Yeah. The classic example is the cutaway to the charred teddy bear. Anything terrible. That’s a cutaway.

Helen: Yeah.

Anthony: I’ve done interviews  —  many interviews with reputable news magazines  —  where at the end of the interview they shoot all the cutaway of the host sitting there nodding with a variety of facial expressions. "Oh, that’s so interesting." Nod, solemn face, happy face, laughter, tearing up. It really takes the air out of the whole enterprise.

Helen: I was in the studio audience of a cooking show once, many, years ago. A show that totally failed to get any traction. And they had us do that at the end of filming the episode.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: "Pretend that you can like see what’s in the pot!" "All of you should be horrified now!"

Anthony: Right. They shoot all the laughing cutaways at the Emmys ahead of time. They get the entire audience like trained seals, clapping and howling and laughing and ooh-ing and ahh-ing. They get all that out of the way first. Because by the end of the Emmys, no one is actually in the audience. They’re all seat-fillers.

Helen: Everyone is backstage or in the lobby?

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: Like any good party.

Anthony: Or they’re gone, they’re back at the hotel. By the time they get to Best Single Camera Prosthetics in a Non-Dramatic Series, believe me, they’re either at the bar or at home.

Helen: It’s all those secrets! You can’t trust the media, I guess.

Anthony: But who else is there?

Helen: I know, it’s the great tragedy of our lives. We’re all part of the horrible cycle of — I don’t even know.

Anthony: I admire your dark worldview.

Helen: We’re gonna just turn this into therapy session about my self-doubt, it’s gonna be terrific.

Anthony: Works for me.

But let’s get back to the cookbook.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: Which is an interesting addition to — and you can throw your coffee in my face for saying the phrase that I’m about to say — your personal brand. Because I think for many of your fans, of whom there is an extraordinary number, you’re not really thought of as a home cook.

Anthony: Right.

Helen: And suddenly here is this book where you are making a powerful case for the pleasures of cooking for your family, and cooking for yourself, and being at home. And not — eating a taco at a taco stand under a hail of bullet fire from a Mexican drug cartel, or whatever it is that your legion of bros think that you do all day.

Anthony: It’s a perverse instinct, on one hand, but it's something I’ve tried to do throughout my career: Whatever people expect me to do, I’m always looking to do the other thing. If they expect me to be running around in a leather jacket with a thumb ring forever, I’m not gonna do that. And I thought this was the most unexpected thing I could do.

But at the same time, it’s also an honest expression of my life for the last nine years. When I’m home, I’m not going out to dinner. I’m not going to a club or hanging out of bars or seeing live music. I don’t know what people might think or expect me to be doing back in New York, but probably that’s not what I’m doing. I’m going to bed at 9, 9:30, when my nine-year-old is tired enough to sleep. I wake up super early in the morning and I make her breakfast. I pack a little lunch for her. I pick her up at school, if my schedule permits. And I cook dinner for her. And most of the major food choice decisions are made by my nine-year-old daughter. One with a fairly daring palate, I have to say, as it turned out. She likes variety. I don’t know if you’ve seen Eat Drink Man Woman?

Helen: Yeah.

Anthony: In much the same way, that’s a story of a dysfunctional family where the grandfather — the only way he can really express love is by cooking. And the only way that the others can receive love is by eating. But one of my favorite scenes is when he just can’t bear what the — I guess one his nephews, perhaps — is eating at school, and starts preparing these incredible, elaborate meals, first for him, but then for his entire class. I’m not doing that, but my daughter has challenged me to not repeat. Every day something different. So I’m pretty sure at her school she’s the only student to ever go to school with spam musubi one day, and pasta carbonara the next day, and cotoletta milanese or polpette. A lot of Italian, obviously, but also curries, she likes octopus, things like that. And that goes really well at school. She shows up with a little lunch box filled with the tentacles.

Helen: Yeah.

Anthony: She’s a star in her class.

Helen: I bet that’s really cool. When I was a kid that probably would’ve gotten me shoved into a locker, but kids are really cool now.

Anthony: Well, she goes to a school with a lot of Italian kids. The teachers are gonna be okay with it, because they’re Italian as well. I’m just grateful that she likes that stuff. I certainly never try to convince her, "Oh, try it, it’s good." That’s not what I do. If she wants to eat pasta with butter every day, I’m happy to do that. But she’s a weird kid.

Helen: Did you expect that parenthood would involve so much cooking?

"I’m fucking 60, and I’m not a fully formed adult yet. I’m still learning. I’m groping towards some kind of something."

Anthony: I’d hoped so. I like it. Believe it or not, I have a nurturing aspect of my personality — there’s an element of insane yenta to me. Because I was a professional for so long, I over-organized. The poor kid and her best friend — her nanny’s son is her best friend in the world. And essentially, in every respect, her brother. They’ve grown up together since infancy, they’re seldom apart. The entire extended Filipino family are basically part of our family. In and out of the house, with us on vacation, on all of the holidays — Christmas is depicted in the book. It’s an odd admixture. I will do a cycle menu for them. I plan the menu like a professional. I’ve got a purchase order list, a cycle menu, what I’m going to do to merchandise possible leftovers from dinner. And there is a part of me that wants to chase her around and say, "Eat it, eat it! Why don’t you love me? Don’t you like your food?"

Helen: The recipes in the book are written in a very casual, voicey, conversational way.

Anthony: As they should be. I think the thing that I really hate most about food television and travel television is thinking, Who is this person talking to me? I happen to know them personally and they’re very intelligent and articulate and likable. Why are they talking to me in that TV voice? Why are they reviewing what we just saw? I just saw it! And then teasing out what we’re about to see: "We just saw a burger with avocado, next up a burger with bacon." You don’t talk like that!

And cookbooks also have this tendency to first depict the food in an unrealistic way with the photograph, and then assume you’re gonna get it right the first time. Even something as simple as eggs Benedict. It’s like, "Place poached egg on top of Canadian bacon and muffin. Now plate with hollandaise. For hollandaise recipe, see page 126." And then it’s just a list of ingredients with the instruction: "Whisk together to emulsify." Most professionals screw up hollandaise the first few times! And I think you should be told that, the way a chef would tell you. Maybe you don’t want to make eggs Benedict for the first brunch you ever host at your house. You’re probably gonna screw it up. Or we should at least warn you that maybe you should practice your hollandaise four or five times until you’re comfortable with it before you have the guests come over and stand there enraged when you break one batch after another.

I try to give people reasonable expectations. And alternate plans, meaning: Do you want to make it so well that you would win a cooking competition among professionals, which is how the cookbook probably tells you to do it? Or do you want to make it the way most restaurants make it? Risotto being a perfect example. It’s great to cook risotto to order, if you’ve got 45 minutes that you can spend in the kitchen of constant vigilance slowly stirring. But most restaurants cook it half-way, spread it out in a half sheet pan, and chill it. And when you place your order, they throw a handful into a pot, add some hot stock, and slowly bring it up. It’s quite good and no one ever notices. Restaurants make these kinds of compromises all the time. Probably if you’re cooking for eight people at your house, that’s a compromise you might want to do, too.

Helen: Yeah. It’s a good tip. And I think that people tend to use cookbooks for dinner parties.

Anthony: Right.

Helen: Even if you tell someone this is a cookbook for everyday.

Anthony: I’m super stressed doing dinner parties. Tell me I’m gonna do 500 chicken or salmon, I’ll do that literally — not literally — but I will do that pretty much standing on my head.

Helen: Yeah. Because that’s going to war.

Anthony: No stress. I’ve done it a million times. Tell me eight people are coming for dinner who are friends? And who are gonna look me in the face as they eat? I’m really nervous and I plan for that shit. I make lists, and I decide what’s going to work, what’s the right choice so that I actually get to spend some time with my guests instead of sweating it out in the kitchen praying it doesn’t fuck up.

Helen: And also so you can love them properly through the food. Right?

Anthony: Yes. It’s true. I want them to be happy, and I want to enjoy the meal a little bit, instead of being this frantic person hopping up and down every few minutes.

Helen: Who are you hoping is going to read the book?

Anthony: I never think about that.

Helen: No?

Anthony: I hope a bunch of people, and that they’re happy, obviously. But I don’t picture a viewer or a reader. That’s the road to madness. I never would’ve been able to write anything if I ever tried to think about what people might like or what they might expect. I would’ve choked.

Helen: It can be terrifying.

Anthony: Parents would be nice, maybe?

Helen: Yeah.

Anthony: What I don’t want to be — I’m uncomfortable if too many bros like me. If I’m accused of cooking "dude food," I find that hurtful. I don’t identify with that. I don’t like it. The target audience here is a nine-year-old.

Helen: Yeah.

Anthony: I mean, that’s who’s gonna be eating this food.

Helen: Your connection to that bro culture — maybe "bro" is the wrong word. Maybe we should just say "masculinity," or "a hyper-masculine perspective."

Anthony: I’m uncomfortable with all of it. Kitchen Confidential was written looking back at an environment that was largely male. The level of discourse was overly testosteroned, to say the least. Even women within that society  —  it was the way one spoke. It was always hyperbolic, it was always self-mocking. No one actually brags about their masculinity in the kitchen, because we all know otherwise, because we’re standing next to you and we know how pathetic and unmanly you are. So I was always uncomfortable with that, and I’m still uncomfortable with it. I think about it like, am I really gonna put a ribs recipe [in the book]? People will be like, "Oh, dude, that’s awesome." And I don’t want to hear that.

Helen: In your follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, Medium Raw, it felt like you did little bit of intentional dismantling of that.

"I'm uncomfortable if too many bros like me. If I’m accused of cooking ‘dude food,’ I find that hurtful. I don’t identify with that. I don’t like it."

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: There was a lot of talking about the dangers of hubris, and the dangers of pushing yourself too far past the normal limitations of —

Anthony: I think at the lot of people read Kitchen Confidential and took all of the wrong —  in spite of what was in plain sight — they took away all of the stuff that affirmed their own bad choices, rather than the big picture. People would hand me drugs during the book tour. Drugs clearly didn’t work out well for me, if you’ve read Kitchen Confidential. But people would be like, "Oh, dude, that’s awesome! I want to get high, snort coke through uncooked penne, and do all of that shit." It’s like, what chapters did you not read? Medium Raw was not to correct the record, but to remind people that I wasn’t even that guy when I wrote Kitchen Confidential. I was writing about a period of time when I might’ve been.

Helen: It became such a touchstone for that whole early-2000's edifice of chef-as-rockstar. And that seems to be changing now, in the culture. Do you see that? That the rockstar era is maybe not coming to an end, but shifting?

Anthony: We were never rockstars. I think anyone who ever took that seriously is really in peril. I’ve jokingly said before, but I mean it: If any of us really thought we could’ve been rockstars, or if anyone of us could play guitar, we sure as shit wouldn’t have cooked. We cook because there was nothing else for us, more often than not.

That’s changed. Now people cook in order to become rockstars, and that’s delusional behavior. That ignores the very nature of the business, which is grinding repetition. And if you cannot submit to a life where the first requirement is consistency in grinding repetition, then you’re gonna be a shitty chef.

The true rockstars of cooking were the people who were first, who changed the whole perception of what a chef should look like and behave like. And they did it unintentionally, they couldn’t help it. Jeremiah Tower, Marco Pierre White — they were rockstars. Because there were none like them before. There were no chefs that anyone wanted to fuck before Jeremiah and Marco. Our image of the chef was this servile, dumpy, Italian probably, twirling their mustache, who would appear obsequiously at the table with a popping gesture. "What would you like, signore? Signore, I will do anything for you. Your speecy-spicy meatballs." And the last person whose opinion you wanted was the chef’s. They were the backstage help. "I’ll tell you what I want, my good man." They at least changed that.

Helen: That’s true. And you’ve been, I think, thrillingly critical of some of the metastasizations of food culture as a result of that. The way that this has moved into the era of the TV chef — the Paula Deens and Guy Fieris of the world — but also restaurant cooks who, maybe, make their hunger for fame little bit too transparent.

Anthony: I think the most obvious one is on Top Chef, you see everyone has a signature haircut, a signature look. Mario [Batali] was the first, and was totally cool. Because he was breaking the mold in the "I don’t give a fuck" department. That look at the beginning, anyway, was an expression of, "Truly, I don’t give a fuck. You’re gonna listen to my music." I remember going to Babbo and you’re listening to The Clash at ear-splitting volume and the whole dining room is full of miserable people. The floor staff was begging Mario to turn it down. He’s like, "No." But now everybody’s got their look, and their skateboard, and signature pants. It’s some sad shit. Put in twenty years before you get a signature look. I don’t know, maybe I’m being a curmudgeon about this. But when you’re 22 years old, you shouldn’t have a signature anything. Get off my lawn.

Helen: I think there is something to this idea of the identity that grows organically over a many-many-year career and life.

Anthony: Yes!

Helen: And you wake up one morning and you’re like, "Oh, this is who I became."

Anthony: Yeah, I’m fucking 60, and I’m not a fully formed adult yet. I’m still learning. I’m groping towards some kind of something. So at 22, it’s like, "I’m a ready-made product, ready for multiple units"? I’m a little dubious.

Helen: Like, "a fully-owned subsidiary of Bravo Media."

Anthony: There’s some really extreme examples of this that I’ve worked with and seen. Chefs with their own hair and makeup people. Something is wrong here.

Helen: That shit melts over a stove.

Anthony: Like they’re anywhere near a stove, please.

Helen: It’s a weird world, the chef moving to the forefront of the culinary conversation. Now it’s old hat, it’s been 15 or 20 years.

Anthony: Yeah, and generally it’s been good.

Helen: Yeah. But it’s changed the way that the dining public relates to restaurants. I say the "dining public" as if that’s not us. It’s changed the way everybody relates to restaurants.

Anthony: And largely in a good way, because you go to restaurant now not because, I feel like a steak. But you want to see what this particular chef is offering, you're interested in their opinion. You can picture someone being in the kitchen as an individual with a voice and something to say. You know more about food, chances are, than you did. You have higher expectations than you did. Those are all surely good things. But also: If you call around to most of the Michelin-quality restaurants in this country, and you ask them, "How are things?" They’re all gonna tell you the same thing: "I can’t find cooks. I cannot find qualified cooks." It is a crisis. We’re cranking chefs out of these predatory cooking schools that have popped up all over America like nobody’s business, we’re not exactly doing so fantastically well economically, and yet nobody wants entry-level cooking jobs. No one.

Helen: It’s really hard. Do you think this is something that's going to be solved through wages, or through culture shifts? There are so many different camps about how we’re going to fix this crisis.

Anthony: I don’t know. At the end of the day, in my thirty years of cooking professionally — I would say twenty of those were as an employer-manager — I never had an American kid ever walk into any restaurant I ever worked and say "I’d like a dishwasher job, or a prep-cook job." Ever. I don’t know whether we can reasonably expect people to do that even if wages go up. The positions have always been underpaid, bad benefits if any, hard. But I don’t think that’s it, I think expectations of these cooks who are rolling out of these schools are, "I want to start at the top and transition quickly to my own food show."

Helen: Yeah. I don’t think it’s just cooking, too. Now I’m saying, "Get off my lawn." But I feel like every industry  —  we see it with people who apply for senior-level jobs and they are straight out of college. There is an exciting senses of I-can-do-it personal motivation that is coming out of this era, but it winds up manifesting itself in a difficult way.

Anthony: Yeah. Become a celebrity the time-tested way: Make a porn, have your mom leak it. Hire a publicist. Get in some car wrecks.

Helen: So what’s it like being famous?

Anthony: It’s weird. I can hardly complain about it, but it’s a weird and unnatural thing.

Helen: You seem to stay really real.

Anthony: I think because I’m old. Because it happened for me in my mid-40s.

Helen: Your mom released your porn.

Anthony: Yes. So everybody had seen everything already. No, it’s just I think I knew what wasn’t going to make my life better already. I had already made a lot of the really big, major mistakes. It’s like, Well, I’m famous, I could do cocaine now. I already had enough of that. I don’t know. It didn’t and it doesn’t thrill me. I’m not angry about it or resentful, because it allows me this tremendous freedom to do these extraordinary things that few people are able to do. I can travel anyplace I want, eat all this great food, and meet all these people I look up to and hero-worship. The worst thing about it is running across an airport and I really gotta piss, and some really nice person stops me and wants a selfie when I’m hopping up and down. Saying, I’m dying.

Helen: Just bring them with you in the bathroom.

Anthony: Look, it’s happened. I’m mid-stream and the guy next to me starts to have a conversation. I’m like, "Dude. Now is not the perfect moment."

Helen: You've got to admire his complete lack of boundaries.

Anthony: Alcohol will do that, yeah.

Helen: I guess that makes it a little bit less admirable. It’s not bravery then, it’s just booze. Let’s talk a little bit about the show, which is in its eighth season?

Anthony: I think so.

Helen: Some very high number.

Anthony: We shoot from September through to the end of June, sometimes July, every year in basically one go. We shoot 16 shows, split into two chunks, that are released as independent seasons. So how the network sees it and bills it is different than how we make it. I think it’s our fourth year.

Helen: Over the life of the show, it’s evolved in a really fascinating way. We can track it by  —  we do recaps of the show on Eater —  and you can see our Facebook commenters over the years have started saying, with increased frequency, "I liked this better when it had less politics."

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: Was this a choice, or is it something that grew organically?

Anthony: No, I just think it’s a matter of I’m free to notice the elephant in the room. If I’m eating in Laos, and the guy that I’m eating with is missing an arm and a leg, it’s worth mentioning or at least asking, "Hey fella, what happened?" And if he tells you, "Well, I was born during the Vietnam War. As a little kid, I was wandering around doing my farming with my dad, and I stepped on one of the three million tons of munitions left in our country as unexploded ordnance." That’s not necessarily a political statement, it’s a reality.If you travel long enough, to enough places, and you have enough conversations with people, you will notice those kinds of things. Who’s eating, who’s not eating. Why are you eating ful every single day — a big stack of bread and some watery beans? I’m not an activist. I don’t have an agenda. But if I see something, I’m gonna talk about it.

And there are some exceptions. Obviously I have a bug up my ass about Mexican immigration. Because I take that personally. That is an issue for me. I’m very aware of and supportive of people who had been living and working in this country as essential, fundamental contributors to our economy and our workforce. Many who I’ve come to know personally. That’s something that’s personal. But generally I go into a country and I don’t have a fully-formed opinion or agenda. I tend to notice things, and I’ve been given the freedom to notice and to wander away from the meal. I don’t have to shove food in my face. People will say, "Stick to food, man." Because I’m not what, a professional pundit, my opinion is worthless? I’ve been traveling the world for 16 years now. I’ve seen a lot of shit. I’m a citizen of the United States of America and a parent. I am by far not the most educated man in the world, but I have an opinion. I’m not gonna tell you who to vote for, but I do notice things and I do have opinions. And if the guy I ate with in Russia who says, "No, I’m not worried about Putin killing me," is shot to death on the front lawn of the Kremlin a few months later, I might mention that. I think it’s worth bringing up.

Helen: Yeah. And food is politics, too. And politics is food. You were saying, about eating ful and bread — there’s a reason that people eat the way that they eat, even if they don’t know what the lines are.

Anthony: If the army controls the entire flour supply and the bakeries, that’s already a political thing.

Helen: Even in the US, that is certainly the case. With the Farm Bill: Why are we eating white flour all the time, or why is there corn everywhere? There’s politics behind every single food decision we make, because politics is just survival and victory.

Anthony: I’m not out there looking to make a case for or against genetic modification. But if I’m having dinner with somebody for whom that seems to be an impactful issue, I’ll let them talk about it.

Helen: And even though you say you’re not an activist, there have been some pretty extraordinary results. You mentioned Laos  —  was that the episode where a senior Obama official said that they hadn’t really been thinking seriously about the land mine crisis there, and they saw your episode, and they’re just like, "Shit"?

Anthony: They committed $90 million to bomb-cleanup in that area.

Helen: Which is extraordinary.

Anthony: They told me that in Vietnam, when we were shooting with the president. And actually, the guy came up to me from the White House staff, told me that story, and I completely went to pieces. I completely lost it. Because he said, "We really hadn’t been thinking about that," or "We weren’t aware of it," I don’t know what his words were. I think he just sort of casually said, "So I guess you have done some good after all." I completely lost it. I was fucking mess afterwards. I was in no way prepared to have to be accused of anything like that, it messed me up. So I’m gonna become Bono now. And wander from disaster to disaster doing good. No, I’m not actually.

Helen: That doesn’t sound insufferable at all.

Anthony: I’d like you to join my charity, We Are The Cooks, or something like that.

Helen: Exactly. Spatulas for Peace.

Anthony: CookAid. Oh, Jesus. Never. I don’t do that stuff.

Helen: Your show has also done a huge amount of service in terms of opening the eyes of the viewers here in the US to the humanity of human experience. I think there’s such an us-versus-them perspective that is often taken with regards to the rest of the world.

Anthony: I think it’s useful for Americans who don’t have passports and who haven’t traveled much to at least get a picture of what people are like in these countries that we read bad news about all the time. So that when news happens, you have some clue of who we’re talking about. That they’re not just stacks of brown bodies. That the people —  you saw them with their kids, you saw them cooking dinner for someone you know, maybe me. If you remember the Westmorland remark years ago, in the Vietnam War, where William Westmorland said this whole thing about trying to explain why we were not doing well in Vietnam. He said, "Well those Asiatics, they just don’t value human life the same way we do in the west." It was a notorious and grotesque thing to say. It explains a lot about his success in the field. But I think a lot of people assume that. There’s so much awfulness happening in the continent of Africa and other parts of the world, the Middle East and elsewhere, that we think, "They can’t possibly value —" Maybe take a look, spend a little time. That’s valuable. On the other hand, there are plenty of dick jokes in my show, and I’d like to talk about that.

Helen: Let’s talk about dick jokes. I love to talk about dick jokes.

Anthony: Yeah. I’m just gonna say, I’m a little uncomfortable with —  I’m not out there looking to do good. I’m looking to tell stories and I’m looking to let people talk about their lives. To the extent that it’s not just me talking in the show, I am happier and happier. We have a game going on with the producers and the shooters. We used to do a tidy sum-up at the end of every show where it’d have voice-over where I would be like, "I think we’ve learned something today. Maybe we can all reach out and be together in the end." Now we try to always end the show with somebody else saying something that drops the truth bomb, or better yet, leaves us hanging. There's a great end to a film I like called Killing Them Softly, that Brad Pitt-produced film. It ends in a really inconclusive way with a casual comment that resonates. I like that.

We also push ourselves to see how long we can go in total silence, no dialogue, no one talking, and certainly no me in voice-over. TV hates that. They’re terrified of it, they don’t like it. Someone should always be yammering and reminding you to stay tuned all the time. I think we’re up to around three-and-half-minute-long sequences with the cameras just drifting around looking at life and maybe music playing. There’s a competition among producers and editors to see how long they can go before we can’t possibly go on anymore.

Helen: Those are some serious storytelling techniques. Ending on the dramatic kicker quote that throws everything that came before a little bit into doubt —

Anthony: Yes.

Helen: Pushing the reader or the viewer or the audience out of their comfort zone.

Anthony: I don’t want one that settles matters. When we did the Jerusalem and Palestine episode, the first edit ended with a cutaway to flowers growing on a hill. I went fucking berserk. I became a monster. I was just like, "This show is not going to end with fucking flowers growing on the hill, okay?" Oh my god. What show did you just watch? I don’t see a lot of flowers growing.

Helen: It’s a symbol of a hope, Tony.

Anthony: A hope for a new day. Maybe we could all just frolic in the fields together.

Helen: We’ll blossom together like the flowers.

Anthony: Not in this lifetime.

"I’m not an activist. I don’t have an agenda. But if I see something, I’m gonna talk about it."

Helen: How does your experience choosing who to feature, finding your fixers, and finding your stories connect to authenticity? It's such a buzzy word right now in the world of food. American diners are starting to be so excited and opened to the cuisine of other cultures, but it often comes with this burden of only wanting something that is "authentic."

Anthony: You said it perfectly. On one hand you want authentic Korean, meanwhile the second generation of Koreans are all doing these wonderfully creative hybrids. And if you’re talking about authentic Korean, you’re talking about dishes like budae jjigae anyway, which are these beloved mutation dishes that came out of the Korean War. So while it’s an increasingly meaningless term, it’s an instinct I admire. I could be insufferably snobbish about an authentic cacio e pepe, for instance. Just because I feel personal about it. I don’t want to see chicken chunks in my cacio e pepe, right?

Helen: Right.

Anthony: Or truffle oil. I’m a snob about certain things that shouldn’t be ever improved, or can’t be improved, by men or God, in my view.

Helen: Maybe that’s integrity, not authenticity.

Anthony: I’m uncomfortable with the words "authenticity," "integrity." "Integrity" means not giving a fuck, basically, in my view. It’s like, I believe this is the way, and I’m gonna stick with it. I think to go beyond that, you get complicated. We do crave what we perceive to be authentic, but there’s an aspect of I-know-and-you-don’t. I know that’s not authentic. I found this place all the way out the edge of Queens that they served the authentic version. Didn’t you see my Instagram?

Helen: Right, right.

Anthony: And I’m part of the problem. I will acknowledge my guilt and my role in this phenomenon. Because I am happy in the authentically dirty Southeast Asian noodle shops on the other side of the world. So that’s automatically authentic, in that way.

Helen: Maybe it’s easier to define it by what it’s not. There’s probably also a noodle shop that’s within a mile of that one that has been scrubbed and sanitized and is constructed entirely for white tourists from America.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: And it’s not what that is.

Anthony: Yeah. As we all move around the earth, it’s probably becoming an increasingly meaningless distinction.

Helen: I think is so fascinating, the increasing porosity of our borders, and open immigration, and people just flowing from one place to another. It used to be that if you move from one country to another, you move your entire family there and your family now lived there forever.

Anthony: Right.

Helen: And now there seems to be a lot of fluidity and — I don’t know how to say it without saying "authentic." These things that we have defined as "cuisine." There’s Korean cuisine and there’s Lebanese cuisine, whatever it is. But you can get sushi in Istanbul, and what does that mean?

Anthony: Right.

Helen: Would you ever put a Turkish sushi restaurant on the show?

Anthony: Never say never. Because the most extreme is: Is pasta with tomatoes authentic? It’s not an Italian ingredient. How far back do you have to go to be authentic? I know how I feel in my heart. There’s obviously a line that when you cross it, I get cranky, but I’m an old folk.

Helen: What’s the line?

Anthony: There are certain hybrids where I’m really super dubious. Pastas, I’m very protective of the pastas that make really happy. I don’t want to see pho dicked around with, it makes me unhappy. I have seen some Japanese-Italian hybrids that have been really awesome, but generally speaking — if it’s done cynically, I guess. If it’s done as a marketing scheme, of course I’m gonna react negatively.

Helen: Yeah.

Anthony: If it’s a half-Italian, half-Japanese kid who grew up eating those things, or someone like Dave Chang, I’m interested. I’m intrigued, I’m hopeful.

Helen: This seems like the same exact thing as what frustrates you or doesn’t frustrate you about a chef achieving fame, right? You come by it organically, you give it the time, it grows, it doesn’t have a focus group.

Anthony: Or you’re just gifted and you’re expressing what you want to do. I think Mission Chinese is probably the purest example of that. Danny is Korean by birth but in no other way Korean. Cooking kind of Chinese food with a Filipina chef, with pizza and roast beef on the menu, and all of it is awesome and fun and actually a perfect expression — if there’s any restaurant that’s a perfect expression — of New York, and the New York experience.

Helen: And it’s from San Francisco!

Anthony: Yes. Yes.

Helen: And it’s perfect.

Anthony: And it’s super fun. I’m happy there. So there are no rules.

Helen: All we can hope for is that you’re happy there.

Anthony: Yeah. And I am happy there, reliably.

Helen: Well, Tony, on that note, it is time for the lightning round.

Anthony: Oh good, I love a lightning round.

Helen: And today the lightning round questions will be asked by my co-host, Greg Morabito, who couldn’t be here today to actually talk to you in person. But he pre-recorded some questions, so we’re gonna play those for you.

Anthony: Excellent.

Greg: Hey Tony! It’s Greg Morabito, the other host of the Eater Upsell. Long time listener, first time caller. I have a few lightning round questions for you. Lightning round question number one —

Anthony: Yes.

Greg: If you had to repeat one kitchen job over again, which one would be?

Anthony: One kitchen job over again? My last one at Les Halles. I was happy doing the work. The kind of food I probably should’ve been doing my whole career.

Greg: What’s the skill you wish you’d learned as a young man but never did?

Anthony: I wish I could play funk bass. If I could play funk bass, I never would’ve done the rest of this shit.

Helen: Can you play non-funk bass?

Anthony: I cannot play bass at all, I’m completely inept with all musical instruments. But in another life, I would be Flea or Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham. And I would play awesome funk bass in a not-particularly-successful funk band some time in the late 60s, early 70s. I’d be the bass player in Sly & the Family Stone, and I would die happy. Early, but happy.

"Become a celebrity the time-tested way: Make a porn, have your mom leak it. Hire a publicist. Get in some car wrecks."

Helen: I could totally see you doing that. You’d fit right in. It makes a lot of sense. Okay, next question.

Greg: Which person in the food world do you wish you knew better than you do?

Helen: That’s a very warm-hearted question.

Anthony: I wish me and Jiro Ono were real buds. Hanging out, hammering back drinks.

Helen: Does he have buds who he hammer back drinks with?

Anthony: He does. But they’re Japanese. Or Joël Robuchon, who I think is the only Westerner who he really admires and respects. He thinks well of me, I think, but we’re not hanging out.

Helen: Text at 3 AM: "You up?"

Anthony: "What’s up, bro?"

Helen: You should start to Snapchat him. Do a dog filter.

Anthony: It’s funny, because I had a tough experience with him. He was very unhappy with the show. And I thought, I guess I don’t know what’s up. And then every time I look at Questlove’s Instagram, he’s there hanging out with Jiro. They’re high-fiving behind the bar. And I’m like, whoa.

Helen: Do you feel jealous?

Anthony: I am jealous, yeah.

Helen: Total FOMO, right?

Anthony: Yes, yes, yes, I’m totally jealous.

Helen: You’re human, you’re so real. I feel jealous all the time. I can’t even look at Instagram.

Anthony: I get choked with envy all, all the time.

Helen: The constant bile in my throat. How are these people having an amazing life, why am I not there?

Anthony: Welcome to my world.

Helen: It’s great, so good, I love it, I’m so happy. All right, tell me what’s next.

Greg: What’s one thing the people don’t understand about you?

Anthony: Gee, I don’t know. I’m a pretty good dad. It means a lot to me that I’m no longer the star of this movie or any movie. It’s all about the girl.

Helen: What does it mean to be a good dad?

Anthony: Look, I don’t know how other parents feel, but how I felt the second I saw my daughter corkscrew out was, "I’m really no longer the star of this picture." And that was both a shocking realization and a huge relief. To realize it’s really always going to be her first. To give yourself over to somebody like that. To have every decision you make in your life through that prism. To be the father of a young girl in particular is a really glorious thing.

Helen: That’s lovely. Now I’m getting emotional. Anyway, I think we have one more question, which will probably radically change the mood in the room. So hit us with it.

Greg: Would you rather cook brunch hungover every day for the rest of your life, or live at LaGuardia for the rest of eternity like that guy in The Terminal?

Anthony: I think I’m gonna go with LaGuardia.

Helen: They’ve got better food there than they used to.

Anthony: The food has improved somewhat. They’re making some renovations. And you would have a constant influx of people. Whereas if I was making brunch, the smell alone, I couldn’t take it. I can’t go back to that. It’s the smell of the worst, most desperate times of my life. I’m a very good brunch cook, but that would be worse than a death sentence to me. That would be real purgatory. No, I think I would be more hopeful, with more possibilities for something, anything, stuck at LaGuardia. As awful as that might sound for me, really the lowest, most shameful, painful, hopeless times of my life were when I was working under an alias as a brunch cook. My alias by the way was Napoleon Bourdain. Because I needed the letter N on the check.

Helen: Why?

Anthony: There’s some statute of limitations questions here. So I don’t really want to go into that.

Helen: We can go into this off-record.

Anthony: Yeah.

Helen: So LaGuardia rather than brunch.

Anthony: No contest, oh my god, just the smell of spilled omelet eggs souffléing on the top of the stove. Dank steam table water, home fries, the sickly sweet smell of french toast cooking, your fingers turning red from those horrifying little strawberry fans and orange twists. Even the bus pans coming back with half-filled mimosas. That’s just hell. The 19th circle of hell.

Helen: Okay, we won’t make you do it.

Anthony: Please.

Helen: On that note, Tony, it’s been so great having you by the Eater Upsell.

Anthony: It was fun, thank you.

Helen: Thank you so much for coming by. People can read your book everywhere: Appetites: A Cookbook, by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever. Thank you.

Anthony: Thank you so much.

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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor:
Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer:
Kendra Vaculin

This story originally ran with the headline, “Anthony Bourdain Is Living the Dream.”

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