By David Sheff
It may be unprecedented for one of the hippest shows on TV to be devoted to food and travel, but Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, the Travel Channel’s megahit, has a devoted following obsessed with the host’s “food and travel porn,” as he’s described it. Whether Bourdain is reporting from Cuba, Thailand, Japan or the Ozarks, he’s irreverent, irrepressible and irresistible. His travels take him from New York, where he ate cowboy rib eye with Bill Murray, to a private dinner in Nicaragua, where the menu included bull testicles. Bourdain is proudly anti–politically correct and opinionated. The New York Times called him an “acerbically funny raconteur and takedown artist who generates clouds of web traffic each time he eviscerates a bloated personality or calls out a restaurant for bogus tactics.” Acknowledging the colorful language that’s often bleeped on his show, The Boston Phoenix has said, “The things that come out of Anthony Bourdain’s mouth are frequently as bold as the things that go in.”
Bourdain, who was born in New York and raised in New Jersey, attended the Culinary Institute of America before running the kitchen at such Manhattan restaurants as One Fifth Avenue, Sullivan’s and Brasserie Les Halles, where he became known for his rustic French cooking. His life took a detour into what he describes as a harrowing cocaine and heroin addiction before he kicked drugs and began his career as a writer of best-selling books, including Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, about his exploits as a chef, which led, in 2005, to No Reservations. These days the Travel Channel sometimes seems it could be renamed the Anthony Bourdain Channel—he’s a ubiquitous presence, with his shows often airing more than 20 hours a week. On certain days it’s possible to sit in front of the television and watch Bourdain from breakfast to dinner. The latest: a new Travel Channel series called The Layover, which he describes as “faster, more democratic and more caffeinated than No Rez. But just as obnoxious.”
Besides producing, hosting and writing his shows, Bourdain is also an occasional judge on Top Chef. He has written novels—he’s at work on a new crime novel—has co-written a soon-to-be-published graphic novel and is a regular writer for the HBO series Treme. Bourdain, who is 55, is married to Ottavia Busia, whom he met on a blind date. Although he once said he’d be a “shit parent,” he dotes on his four-year-old daughter.
To interview Bourdain, we sent Contributing Editor David Sheff, who recently interviewed Congressman Barney Frank and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell for us, to New York City. “Bourdain lives up to his reputation,” Sheff reports. “He’s charming and amusing and never shy about sharing his opinions of famous chefs, aphrodisiacs, politics or the nation’s best barbecue. It’s the first interview I’ve done that caused me to laugh, inspired wanderlust and made me hungry.”
PLAYBOY: You’re just back from Cuba and Hong Kong for a few days, and then you head to Naples and the Congo, which is a typical schedule for you lately. How often are you away from home?
BOURDAIN: I travel about 220 days a year.
PLAYBOY: Are you perpetually jet-lagged and burned out?
BOURDAIN: I don’t get jet-lagged, and I look at long flights as an opportunity to sleep. I smell jet fuel, I pass out. It’s a Pavlovian response.
PLAYBOY: You’ve done shows from places such as Japan, Beirut and Egypt that have been in the news after natural disasters and upheavals. What has been your reaction?
BOURDAIN: For me these places become about the people I meet. My first thoughts go to them. Japan is overwhelming. What can you say about it? I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck is going on in the Middle East. I don’t know that I’m smart enough to say anything intelligent about what’s going on over there, but listen, if Thomas Friedman can disappear up his own ass and not see daylight, what hope is there for me to understand it? Who knows who’s going to end up in power in Egypt or Libya or any of those places? We don’t know if the next asshole is going to be any better than the previous asshole, but at least it’s a new asshole. In Egypt we saw that most people’s diet was bread and some lentils, nothing else. We wanted to film that, and our government handlers suddenly got very upset. What were they so frightened of? They wanted us to show the wealthy two percent who live spectacularly.
PLAYBOY: Do foreign governments often try to control what you film?
BOURDAIN: In some countries it becomes clear that our driver’s or translator’s day job is working for the secret police. It’s not a problem, because at the end of the day I can come back to America and say whatever the fuck I want. I can say, “Look at these assholes.” I come home from Romania and I’m free to say, “Look at the dog-and-pony show they put on for us.” So yeah, sometimes the government shows us what they want us to see, but sometimes they take a chance; they trust us not to screw them. They go against their instincts and let a Western crew in. It can be harder when they let us do whatever we want. There’s a responsibility. We’ll go to a country that doesn’t have the kind of freedom of speech that we enjoy, where there are consequences for what you say, particularly about certain issues. A lot of nice people are open with us, are frank with us, both on camera and off. Afterward it’s easy for me to go back home and say what I think about Chinese policy on Tibet, but I have to think about all the people who were nice to me, who let me into their homes, who were openhearted and kind and helped us—people who may have hard questions to answer if we do a show critical of their country. I try to find a way to balance that. It’s a constraint, but I’m not fucking Dan Rather. Presumably this is a food and travel show, but sometimes the elephant in the room is unavoidable. If you’re in Laos and your host is missing two limbs, it’s worth mentioning. “Hey, fella, how’d you lose those limbs?”
PLAYBOY: Your host was missing two limbs? What happened?
BOURDAIN: Thank you, America. So you state the fact that we dumped a hell of a lot of cluster bomblets into Laos on the way back to Saigon many years ago. One week I’ll get a lot of angry mail from couch Rambos on the right, and the next my brethren on the left are screaming bloody murder because I’m taking a sustained piss on Danny Ortega.
PLAYBOY: What exactly happened when you tried to feed starving kids who’d gathered around your film shoot in Haiti?
BOURDAIN: It turned to shit.
PLAYBOY: It was reported that there was a mini riot—hungry children totally out of control.
BOURDAIN: What happened was something I would never in a million years have considered. You make a feel-good gesture, like I’m going to feed these kids, and then it all turns to shit.
PLAYBOY: Why did you decide to air it?
BOURDAIN: What am I supposed to do, make myself all noble because I’m feeding these kids and then cut away before the shit happens? I feel I have a contract with people who watch the show, so if a scene turns to shit like that and I pretend it didn’t happen, it’s grotesquely dishonest and a betrayal of everybody concerned. I don’t mind looking like an asshole on television or looking like an idiot if that was the reality of the situation. I’m not looking to make Jackass, but by the same token, if things don’t work out for me or are uncomfortable, or what I thought was reality turns out to be the opposite, well, there it is. I mean, I’m vain—I’m just not that vain.
PLAYBOY: If you found yourself in a situation like that again, how would you handle it?
BOURDAIN: I’d probably make the same mistake again. I’d try to do it better, though. At the end of the day, I’m trying to find a way to feed the kids. Who wouldn’t?
PLAYBOY: You went to see Sean Penn in Haiti. You tweeted, “Don’t know what he’s like in L.A. In Haiti? Not a dick.” How did you end up with him on your show?
BOURDAIN: I called him. [Penn has been doing relief work in Haiti since the earthquake.] I said, “I’m going to be in Haiti. I want to come by.” We’re in a position now that we can do that, call up whoever we want, and some of them want to come on the show. We’re getting a little cocky over it. It started with the Bill Murray thing.
PLAYBOY: How did he wind up on your show?
BOURDAIN: My sidekick for a lunch dropped out, and the chef at the restaurant we were going to said, “Well, how about Bill Murray? Do you want him?” and I’m like, “Yeah, right.” The next day, Bill Murray’s there, and for the whole scene I’m sitting there thinking, I can’t believe Bill Murray’s on my show. Why is Bill Murray on my show? How is this happening? We reached a point where we suddenly realized the shockingly high number of people we worship and revere who actually like the show and might actually come on if we ask.
PLAYBOY: Like Ted Nugent, who, given your liberal politics, seems like an odd choice.
BOURDAIN: I like mixing it up, even with politics. What do I share with Ted Nugent? Barbecue and rock and roll, but I want different kinds of people on. I don’t have a lot of respect for people who preach to the converted. You know, it’s too fucking easy sitting up there with your smug-ass face and your fancy suit, saying, “Look at these idiot Tea Party people. They’re so stupid.” I don’t know about Bill Maher or Glenn Beck. I don’t think either of those assholes are coming out of their trailers, frankly. Why the fuck can’t I get along with Ted Nugent, eat some barbecue on a person-to-person basis? I’m not saying it’s the answer to world peace, but why not? I know he has a lot of views that I loathe, but I also know he’s a hardworking fucking rock-and-roller. We have things in common. He’s an ultraconservationist. Rock and roll. He’s a hard worker. But he does have an insane loathing of the Obamas that I consider ugly. We were on a radio show together talking about the Michelle Obama school lunch initiative. I said, “This is a matter of military readiness and patriotism, Ted.”
PLAYBOY: How is her campaign against childhood obesity patriotic?
BOURDAIN: We might need to draft these kids to fight off terrorists and invaders. Sarah Palin and all these others, are they arguing that one out of seven or two out of seven kids having type 2 diabetes within the next few years is a good thing? I fully support your right as an adult to eat yourself to death. I would greatly prefer that if you’re going to eat yourself to death, you enjoy yourself while doing it. But a morbidly obese kid? No, that is wrong. What happens when all those evil Canadians and Mexicans and Al Qaeda come pouring across the border and rape our families on our shag carpets right in front of us, and we’re too fat and unhealthy to do anything about it?
PLAYBOY: How would you convert kids to eat healthier when McDonald’s is a normal dinner for many families?
BOURDAIN: I’d scare the living shit out of a kid.
PLAYBOY: How would you scare them?
BOURDAIN: Come on, Ronald McDonald’s a clown! He’s already scary. You don’t tell your kids to read Michael Pollan. They won’t. Instead you lie. I’m not suggesting that one do this, because that could cause liability problems, but what if, hypothetically speaking, one were to suggest that Ronald was implicated in the disappearance and dismemberment of a number of small children?
PLAYBOY: Do you acknowledge that many people like McDonald’s?
BOURDAIN: I understand why people eat at McDonald’s. It’s convenient, it’s fast and it’s relatively cheap. Snobbery is not the way to convince people to stay away. It’s the food you need right now when you want it. You may hate yourself afterward, but you feel that way about crack, too.
PLAYBOY: Will you ever eat a quick burger on the run?
BOURDAIN: I’ll go to In-N-Out. They’re much better. Eric Schlosser writes about it in Fast Food Nation. I’m all for cheap burgers but not so cheap that you use outer parts of the carcass that have potentially been exposed to feces and other contaminants. No extremities.
PLAYBOY: But you’re famous for eating extremities—testicles and tails, for example.
BOURDAIN: Not these. The New York Times said that some of these big meat producers use ammonia. I don’t want ammonia in my burgers. They use it because they are now using outer-exposed areas of the carcass that used to go to make cat food.
PLAYBOY: And yet you’ll eat sheep testicles?
BOURDAIN: Sheep testicles are good, though I don’t like beef testicles that much.
PLAYBOY: Apparently you have also eaten seal eyeballs.
BOURDAIN: Yeah, who wouldn’t?
PLAYBOY: Many of us. It sounds creepy, even the texture.
BOURDAIN: Compared to what, cottage cheese? What do you think cottage cheese looks like to a Thai?
PLAYBOY: How’s iguana? You’ve said that when it isn’t skinned it’s like “gnawing on foreskin.”
BOURDAIN: I’ve had really bad iguana, and I’ve had really pretty good iguana.
PLAYBOY: Where do you the draw the line? What won’t you eat?
BOURDAIN: The only thing I won’t eat is something that’s rotten. But sometimes you’ve got to take one for the chief. If someone’s serving you something and they’re proud and they’ve worked to prepare it, to decline would be a worse offense.
PLAYBOY: Do you get sick sometimes—versions of turista?
BOURDAIN: Two times on this show. That’s seven years.
PLAYBOY: What made you ill?
BOURDAIN: I was eating rotten, unhygienic food with people for whom sanitation was not a priority, or even something imaginable, but they were nice. Both times it was a tribal situation. I’m not going to disrespect my host. It happened in Liberia and Namibia.
PLAYBOY: On the other extreme, the upper classes in the Western world are eating finer and finer food—organic, local, sustainable. Do you support these trends?
BOURDAIN: Those who can afford to make those decisions, great, but I’m definitely not going to get down on anybody who’s taking their family to the Colonel. A lot of neighborhoods don’t have good food. But sure, it’s great. The food can taste better. If something I didn’t care much about before, like a carrot, tastes particularly good, I tend to notice that and appreciate it, but it’s not giving me a boner.
PLAYBOY: What do you remember as the best meals you’ve ever had—high end on one hand and street food on the other?
BOURDAIN: The sushi dinner I had at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo was breathtaking. Sushi at Masa in New York. The difference between high-end sushi—really good sushi—and just good sushi is interplanetary. For street food, pho in Saigon.
PLAYBOY: Are you appalled by the trend toward packaged premade sushi in grocery stores?
BOURDAIN: I’m not against it. When I grew up, a grilled slice of canned ham with a pineapple ring and a maraschino cherry was state of the art, so all this new stuff is good. The more people who eat sushi, even utility sushi, the better.
PLAYBOY: Let’s go back to hamburgers. What’s the best way to make them?
BOURDAIN: I’d go to a butcher and tell him to grind up the shit I want.
PLAYBOY: What cuts?
BOURDAIN: A mix of maybe short rib, neck and maybe some aged rib. Then salt, pepper, that’s it. Grill it rare to medium rare, pull it off and let it rest a little bit, throw it on a damn bun, ketchup—done.
PLAYBOY: Does grass-fed beef taste better than traditional corn fed?
BOURDAIN: No. I’m glad we have the option, though. It’s a positive thing that you’re seeing these people raising free-range, hormone-free, entirely grass-fed beef. I’m glad they’re out there, but I prefer an animal that is free-range, grass-fed and then finished with some healthy feed without drugs. I like a fatty fucking animal.
PLAYBOY: Do you have any barbecuing secrets?
BOURDAIN: I wouldn’t make you barbecue. Or sushi. Those are disciplines in which I would never presume to be an expert. It took me my whole life to get French bistro food right, and I enjoy making Italian food. I’m not so arrogant as to ever do barbecue, sushi or pho.
PLAYBOY: What’s the best barbeque you’ve ever had?
BOURDAIN: If I was looking for brisket, ribs, the burnt ends, I’d go to Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City. If I wanted a whole hog, I’d go to Mitchell’s in North Carolina.
PLAYBOY: What advice can you give to a man who wants to impress a woman with his cooking?
BOURDAIN: Learn how to cook a fucking omelet. I mean, what nicer thing can you do for somebody than make them breakfast? You look good doing it, and it’s a nice thing to do for somebody you just had sex with. I think it’s good for the world. It’s a good thing all around. It’s easy. If you’re a screaming, fucking asshole a woman would regret sleeping with, then you will probably never be able to make an omelet. The way you make an omelet reveals your character.
PLAYBOY: In your travels have you encountered aphrodisiacal foods?
BOURDAIN: No such thing exists. In Asia I can’t tell you how many times in my life they’ve said, “We have something very special for you,” accompanied by various embarrassing boner-signifying hand motions. No such thing exists.
PLAYBOY: What things have been passed off to you as aphrodisiacs?
BOURDAIN: Anything wriggling, anything with a dick or balls, parts of endangered species, animals still alive. Like you’re supposed to get some towering hard-on right away, go home and impregnate whoever falls into your path. But it’s all a myth.
PLAYBOY: What do you have against vegetarians?
BOURDAIN: They make for bad travelers and bad guests. The notion that before you even set out to go to Thailand, you say, “I’m not interested,” or you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you.
PLAYBOY: Apparently you have a special loathing for vegans.
BOURDAIN: I don’t have any understanding of it. Being a vegan is a first-world phenomenon, completely self-indulgent.
PLAYBOY: In restaurants, if you don’t like a dish, do you send it back?
BOURDAIN: Never. I’ll still tip 20 percent and I’ll be polite, but I won’t come back.
PLAYBOY: There’s a controversy about foie gras, which is often made with livers of geese that have been force-fed. Should it be banned?
BOURDAIN: I’ll say this on foie gras: I don’t know any chef who would buy the kind of foie gras that is produced the way they show in those PETA films. No restaurant I know of would buy the product of a stressed-out, terrified, abused goose or duck. That equals bad foie gras. But it’s a straw-man issue to start with, because every duck and goose raised for foie gras in this country, at least that I know of, lives a far more luxurious, happier, better life than any chicken ever killed for the Colonel or Popeye’s, as the PETA people well know. They’re picking on foie gras because it’s French, it’s expensive, most people haven’t had it and it looks ugly in the scary films they show. It’s a French thing, and you know those French.…
PLAYBOY: Do you eat shark fin or fish that are endangered?
BOURDAIN: I won’t eat shark fin. Well, if I find myself at a Chinese banquet where I’m the guest of honor, and it is served to me by a proud Chinese host, okay, I’ll soldier along and I’ll eat. But it’s incredibly cruel. It’s wasteful. They cut the fins off and throw the shark back in. And yeah, I respect those chef friends of mine who have decided they’re going to serve only sustainable fish. There are only so many fish in the sea.
PLAYBOY: What wines do you drink?
BOURDAIN: I don’t care about big and expensive wines anymore. I like rough trade when it comes to wine—whatever the local wine is.
PLAYBOY: What if you’re in a high-end restaurant in New York? What do you order?
BOURDAIN: I like Côtes du Rhône. But generally the wines that give me the most pleasure these days are young, inexpensive and local. I don’t care if you’re talking Paris, I’m not a wine snob. I don’t care if it’s $2 or $2,000. I’m happy.
BOURDAIN: The same with beer. I mean, major American beers taste like piss. Usually I’m not a craft-beer guy. I get a lot of shit from viewers who are like, “I saw you drinking a Heineken.” It’s perfectly good beer. It’s not the best beer in the world by a fucking long shot, but there are better things to do in this world than be a beer nerd. There are some craft brewers I really, really admire, though. I think the Dogfish Head guys are doing God’s work. But even if I usually don’t drink it, I admire somebody who drinks shitty beer. If you can sit there drinking a pitcher of Bud Light all day and be happy, you know what? I’m happy for you.
PLAYBOY: What do you think about the highly caffeinated and alcoholic drinks like Four Loko that have landed some kids in the hospital?
BOURDAIN: Caffeine and liquor together? What’s the fucking problem here? Unless you put teddy bears on the front and say it’s for kids, what’s the problem? Kids shouldn’t be drinking this shit in the first place. I’ll drink my Red Bull and my vodka in separate glasses. Is that the problem? It’s not an issue I care about, honestly, but it’s an indicator of how politically incorrect and how stupid we are that idiots drink this shit in the first place.
PLAYBOY: Do you like Red Bull?
BOURDAIN: It tastes like warm urine, but I drink it regularly. If I’m doing a public speaking gig and I’ve been going from city to city and I’m exhausted and I want to get fucked up enough to sort of feel a little casual and comfortable, back in my dressing room I’ll alternate between Red Bulls and beer, trying to find that perfect zone.
PLAYBOY: Is that combination your buzz of choice these days?
BOURDAIN: Yeah. Well, I’ll smoke weed when I’m on the road.
PLAYBOY: Why only on the road?
BOURDAIN: When I’m in New York, I’m a dad. I’m with my daughter, or I have to be available for her, and I want to keep an active brain. If somebody suddenly calls up and says, “Your daughter needs you,” and I’m in a position to do something about it, I’m not going to be, like, “Oh, dude, wow, what do I do?” If I’m sitting in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, though, and it’s two in the morning, we’ve finished shooting with a tribe of bedouins and my crew and I want to stagger up a dune and smoke some hash and look at the moon, that’s a nice thing. Who is it hurting?
PLAYBOY: Do you use any other drugs?
BOURDAIN: I’ve kind of burned all my bridges there. I can’t do heroin. I like it, but I can’t do it. I’m an addict and there’s no fucking way.
PLAYBOY: According to many experts on addiction, addicts can’t smoke pot or drink, but you do.
BOURDAIN: Yeah, well, they say you can’t.
PLAYBOY: But you can? What makes you different?
BOURDAIN: Vanity. Vanity and self-regard.
PLAYBOY: But vanity and self-regard won’t do it for most addicts. If they drink or smoke, they’re likely to relapse.
BOURDAIN: I had a long and extraordinarily painful relationship with heroin and, following that, methadone. Having physically kicked it, I would greatly prefer not to have to go through that again. When I remember the good times and the good feelings on heroin, sure, but when I think about the bad, it hurts and I don’t ever want to go through that again. I’m clear about it. Same with cocaine. Honestly, it’s not a day-to-day struggle. No. It’s fucking bad. I don’t want to do it again. It was humiliating; it brought me low. Some people make personal decisions; others don’t think they deserve to get well. Just about everybody I know who got out of dope went into 12-step programs and now don’t do anything. That is the way it works for most people, just about everybody.
PLAYBOY: How bad did it get for you?
BOURDAIN: I had a lifelong relationship with cocaine starting when I was like 13, 14 years old. My whole life was about, Let’s get some coke. Who’s got the coke? Do I have enough coke? When I was fucking done with it, I was done with it. Same with heroin.
PLAYBOY: Did you stop using because you were arrested or were taken to an emergency room?
BOURDAIN: Oh, I’ve been arrested.
PLAYBOY: Did that stop you from using?
BOURDAIN: I finally stopped because it’s fucking embarrassing. Like I said, self-regard. It’s fucking humiliating. And I didn’t have any money. I was whining and whining and begging and lying to people. I look at some people who are still doing it, who have been smoking base for 30 years. I don’t know how they still do it. I reached a point where I thought, This is horrible. I’m not saying it’s any particular strength of character or anything like that. I’m definitely not saying that. This notion that I’m so fucking tough and such a badass that I can kick dope without a 12-step program—that’s not what I’m saying. I don’t hold myself up as an example or an advocate or as anybody, okay? I made my choices. I’ve made fucking mistakes. I made it through whatever confluence of weird, unique-to-me circumstances—I’m not going to tell anybody how to live, how to get well or any of that shit.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned that you want to stay sober for your daughter. A while back, before you had a child, you said you’d make a shitty parent. What changed?
BOURDAIN: I remember the precise moment it changed. I was living in a crummy walk-up apartment in New York, above Manganaro’s Hero Boy, and I’d met this woman who’s now my wife—a woman like me, who came out of the restaurant business. We were lying in bed spooning, as I recall, and for the first time in my life I thought, Not only would I like to make a baby with this woman, but I’m up to the job. I could actually be a good father. I thought, I’m at that point in my life for the first time, and I think it would be a beautiful thing to have a baby with this woman. I’ve finally grown up enough to be a good dad. And I’ve loved everything about it. I loved living with a pregnant woman. This was something I never would have understood before, not having done it; it just didn’t sound good. I loved it. I miss it. I loved the entire process, loved every minute of fatherhood, all of it, every fucking second. It’s very hard leaving, hard being away.
PLAYBOY: Where did you meet your wife?
BOURDAIN: It was my first and only blind date. She was general manager of a restaurant and was insanely busy. I was traveling all the time. We’re both type-A personalities. The last thing on our minds was getting involved in a serious relationship, but six months later we were already talking about having a child.
PLAYBOY: Do you cook for your daughter? What do you make for her?
BOURDAIN: My wife does most of the cooking for our daughter. She eats organic food for the most part, to whatever extent we can provide it, because we can afford it. She likes pasta and butter and grilled cheese and hot dogs and mashed potatoes, but she’ll eat out of her zone. She’s an ordinary kid who every once in a while surprises us by eating a raw oyster. She also spends a lot of time in Italy. Mom’s Italian, so what we have on our table is often very different from what ordinary families have. She eats anchovies, capers, olives and pecorino, and she knows prosciutto cotto and prosciutto crudo.
PLAYBOY: How about when you were a child? What did your parents make for you?
BOURDAIN: It was not just 1950s food—you know, mac and cheese and frozen dinners. My mom also had a small repertoire of dishes, mostly out of Craig Claiborne or Julia Child, that she did very, very well. For company she had a tight repertoire of credible French dishes.
PLAYBOY: Was it a special occasion for your family to go to a restaurant?
BOURDAIN: No, fairly common. Or we’d order in. First I was in New York, but I grew up in New Jersey. What was New York–New Jersey food? It was Chinese, Italian or deli, and every few weeks to go into New York City to try something, like a Chinese place, a smorgasbord.
PLAYBOY: How would you characterize your childhood?
BOURDAIN: I was born in Columbia-Presbyterian in New York, then whisked off immediately to a little bedroom community in Leonia, New Jersey. For the first couple of years we lived in an unimpressive house, then moved across the street to a much nicer one. I was something of a reading prodigy. I grew up in a house full of music and books. I was a shy, awkward, terribly insecure kid who overcompensated. I learned early on that the baddest, most dangerous, reckless kid who seemed sure of himself got the good things in life. I suddenly portrayed myself as the baddest, most reckless and most sure of himself. Clearly not giving a fuck or pretending to not give a fuck was a successful strategy to gain popularity and girls, and that was my act, honestly.
PLAYBOY: Did it work?
BOURDAIN: Yeah. You get the things you think you want.
PLAYBOY: What was your first restaurant job?
BOURDAIN: It was a dishwashing job in a crappy vacation, seasonal fish house on Cape Cod. It was okay to get fucked up in the kitchen. We all did. In restaurants from when I started, we were all working for cocaine, essentially through the 1970s, 1980s and well into the 1990s. It was the way the restaurant business worked. In the 1990s things changed.
PLAYBOY: What caused the change?
BOURDAIN: I think it was when working in restaurants got a prestige about it, when chefs started to be noticed, when people in the restaurant business started to get wind of the fact that, Wow, I might actually have a fucking future in this. I might make some money. I might have health insurance someday. I might get some respect. So it changed.
PLAYBOY: And the era of celebrity chefs began. What has been the impact?
BOURDAIN: The better chefs feel about themselves, the more hopeful they are about their future, the better they do, the better we all eat, the better we all live. It’s all good. I say that for selfish reasons, and I say that because I believe it.
PLAYBOY: Is the elevation of chefs to movie-star status a passing phase?
BOURDAIN: I hope not. Actually we’re just catching up to the French. Over there people know who’s cooking for them, and they pay attention. In America we haven’t done it, but we are now. We should. Who better than chefs? Food is important in our lives, even at its silliest.
PLAYBOY: What’s an example of silly?
BOURDAIN: At some point you saw a lot of excessive behavior, like a giant plate with a tiny little fan of poached chicken breast in the middle of a slice of kiwi.
PLAYBOY: Are there recent food trends that have gone bad?
BOURDAIN: Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef is talented, but he kind of lost the plot. I think molecular gastronomy—I hate to use the term because nobody who does it will call it that—has gone over the top. Not all the people who admire Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz or Wylie Dufresne—people who were impressed by them, blown away by them or are trying to emulate them—are as talented as those guys, and they’re going to make silly food.
PLAYBOY: What’s it like being a judge on Top Chef?
BOURDAIN: It’s fun. I love hanging around with Tom Colicchio. He’s a serious guy, so I view it as a challenge to crack him up on camera, to see his Mount Rushmore composure crumple. Unlike similar shows, the level of competition on Top Chef is high. The judges take their jobs seriously. I sure don’t do it for the money, because they’re cheap as fuck.
PLAYBOY: How difficult is the competition for the contestants?
BOURDAIN: What’s asked of these guys is really hard. It’s emotionally difficult. You’re cut off from friends and family for weeks. You’re asked to do things that chefs would never do. I don’t know if I could do it if I was asked to make a 10-course meal out of a fucking vending machine. Also, the competition itself is brutal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great chef or not; whoever’s food sucked the most that week goes home.
PLAYBOY: What about other celebrity chefs? What do you think of Emeril Lagasse?
BOURDAIN: As I’ve said to him many times, “I hated your show, dude.” I made my career making fun of the poor bastard. I miss him now. He has good restaurants and is a good chef, but the stuff he made on TV was ridiculous.
PLAYBOY: Do you like Bobby Flay?
BOURDAIN: Again, an accomplished restaurateur. But I don’t understand why these guys would make this candy-colored sort of crowd-pleasing television. Why would they compromise themselves so much?
PLAYBOY: Some people might accuse you of that.
BOURDAIN: Fine, you know.
PLAYBOY: What do you think of Wolfgang Puck?
BOURDAIN: Listen, I’m not eating in his shitty pizza restaurants. I think it’s bullshit, and it breaks my heart to see him on QVC or whatever, but the fact is he paid his dues. He’s an important guy. It’s an Orson Welles thing: He made Citizen Kane, so it doesn’t matter what he does after that. If Wolfgang Puck wants to open crappy pizzerias in airports all over America, that’s fucking fine. Wolfgang was a guy who changed things for chefs. You don’t have to be on TV—everybody knew who Wolfgang was. It was about the chef now. Marco Pierre White in England was another one. It was the first time you opened a cookbook and the chef looked like you did—long scraggly hair, sunken cheeks, prison camp rings under the eyes, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. Chefs and cooks saw that and said, “Wow, I don’t have to be a fat Frenchman to be a great chef. There’s room for me in this world.”
PLAYBOY: Is Mario Batali a good chef?
BOURDAIN: He’s a monster of rock and roll. He’s done everything right from the beginning. Mario’s managed to balance making a lot of money, opening a lot of restaurants, world domination and his personal happiness and quality of life in a remarkable way. He’s the smartest chef there is. There is no chef smarter or funnier or faster.
PLAYBOY: What do you have to say to food critics?
BOURDAIN: Some do a good job or at least try hard to do a good job. I appreciate that one administration after another at The New York Times has continued to have critics who are serious and who write well, whether I agree with them or not. I think there is a certain integrity to a Timesrestaurant review.
PLAYBOY: Apparently you feel differently about GQ’s reviewer, Alan Richman.
BOURDAIN: For Richman and me it’s personal. He wrote an article about New Orleans that I found offensive, and I nominated him, jokingly, for a ridiculous fake award, Douche Bag of the Year. He took offense and reviewed my former restaurant without mentioning our previous history. He called it, like, the worst restaurant in the history of the world. So my problem with him is personal. He’s a good writer, and to the best of my knowledge, to his credit, he’s not bent. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever suggested he is corrupt. But I don’t like the son of a bitch.
PLAYBOY: Do other reviewers use their positions for personal gain?
BOURDAIN: I would just ask John Mariani, the reviewer at Esquire, a simple question: Have you ever received a free meal, services, vacations or other things of value from the subjects of your reviews? If so, please list them. That’s all I fucking ask, just an honest question.
PLAYBOY: You’re suggesting that you know the answer.
BOURDAIN: I’m asking the question because I’ve lived in this world a long time. I have a lot of friends. I have reason to believe that the answer would not portray him in a positive way. I’m not suggesting or asking anything that everybody I know in the restaurant business and everybody I know in the food-writing community doesn’t fucking know.
PLAYBOY: Now, because of the internet, everybody is a critic. You go online—on Yelp, for example—and people praise or rip into chefs or restaurants, and they’re anonymous. Does it bother you?
BOURDAIN: What are you going to do?
PLAYBOY: Could it be a good thing, because it keeps restaurants on their toes?
BOURDAIN: It doesn’t matter what I think, because it’s there. The barbarians are over the gates. They’re in the house. We’re overrun. Embrace it. To do otherwise is like complaining about cable television, saying, “It’ll never last.” Or the electric guitar: “This’ll never catch on.” We read differently now. You’re looking at a big bathroom wall with a lot of stuff written on it, and people are smart enough and fast enough and reading and speaking a new language that allows them to pull from that wall and all those opinions—many of them valid, some not—a consensus.
PLAYBOY: Overall, how have Americans’ tastes changed?
BOURDAIN: Everything continues to change. The sea change began with sushi. It was a real high watermark when Americans started eating sushi. It was a river crossing, because we were eating something that was traditionally loathsome to Americans—I mean, eating raw fish. Sushi was a leap of faith, a real tectonic shift in what your customers were willing to do. Only a few years earlier, if you cooked a piece of tuna medium rare, people would have fucking freaked on you. If you tried to serve them octopus, no way. Since then, food’s gotten to be a bigger deal, and there are more and more choices, at least if you have money.
PLAYBOY: What accounts for the change?
BOURDAIN: Maybe a decline in filmmaking and other forms of entertainment. When I grew up, in the Mad Men period, you’d go to a movie, then you’d go out to dinner and talk about the movie you just saw and the movie you were about to see. Now you just go to dinner. You talk about the dinner you had last week and the dinner you’re going to have next week while you’re eating this dinner. You’re sure as hell not talking about the movie, because it sucks.
PLAYBOY: Does TV suck? We’re asking someone who now writes for the HBO show Treme.
BOURDAIN: I think some of the best writing out there right now is on television. Justified,Episodes, Californication, Treme. It’s fucking awesome.
PLAYBOY: How did you get involved as a writer on Treme?
BOURDAIN: The show’s creator, David Simon, called me up. Thank you, Jesus. It’s been the most satisfying professional experience of my life. Dude, I’m working with David Simon! It’s the greatest. It’s fun. I’ve never done anything like it before. I’m honored to be at the same writers’ table as David Simon and the people he works with. It is the greatest honor of my professional career. It was the greatest joy. It is the most fun I’ve ever had writing.
PLAYBOY: How about other writing? Are you writing new books?
BOURDAIN: Next is a crime novel. It’s going to take place on a Caribbean island where displaced, exiled New Yorkers do bad things to one another. It’s a love story with peripheral violence, probably extravagant violence.
PLAYBOY: With No Reservations and The Layover, traveling and writing for those shows, writing graphic and crime novels, and being a father, are you sometimes overwhelmed?
BOURDAIN: I’m at the point in my life where I’m doing only those things that are fun and interesting. If it isn’t fun and interesting, I’m walking away from it. I’ve found myself in a position where I’m able to do cool things with cool people and make enough money. Unlike heroin, which feels good now and feels bad later, this feels good now, and when I wake up tomorrow and look in the mirror I’m going to say, “Dude, I’m working with interesting people, making things, however long they last, and feeling pretty good about it.” It’s fucking fun.