INTERVIEW: Chef Anthony Bourdain
Interview conducted in 1997.
Three years ago the veteran New York chef sold an article to The New Yorker in which he revealed some of the darker secrets of the culinary world. Then, in May, he came out with "Kitchen Confidential", a book that is part autobiography and part, a restaurant goers survival manual. It instantly became a best seller.
If I may quote right from the book as the good chef describes himself during his post high school days..."I was a spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructive and thoughtless young lout, and badly in need of a good ass-kicking". And then it started to go downhill from there (my words).
Born in New York in 1956, Anthony Bourdain began his journey as a dishwasher (he needed the money) and was so moved by the events at a wedding reception that took place at his first restaurant that he decided to become a chef (see chapter 2, titled "Food is Sex".) He enrolled at the CIA, and graduated to a career that can only be described as amazing. He is now executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City.
Chef Bourdain is also the author of two novels, "Gone Bamboo" and "Bone in the Throat" (Canongate). His first non-fiction work, "Kitchen Confidential" (Bloomsbury) caught the attention of the public, and is must reading for members of the hospitality industry (for all kinds of reasons), This is a book that will make you laugh; make you wonder; and will possibly scare the hell out of you. Please be advised that "Kitchen Confidential" is not for everyone.
RR: I have to believe that your book was upsetting to some people in our business. I make the analogy to Jim Bouton and his infamous book entitled "Ball Four" where he publicly discussed the behind-the-scenes life of the New York Yankees. He was ostracized by so many in the game who took the position that he violated some kind of trust. Can there be a comparison of Jim Bouton and Anthony Bourdain in this regard?
AB: I know what you are talking about, but no, there is very little comparison. Certainly, the times are different, and the reaction to my book as it relates to industry people has been almost 100% positive. The book has taken me all over, and all I have experienced is an outpouring of support from people in the business whom I truly respect. I think they understood what I was saying. It was not an attempt to bash an industry that has been very good to me, but rather a very honest appraisal of what the industry is really like, and I would say most chefs agree with most of what I wrote. If I had any problems, it was with a few food writers who resented my decision to write this kind of book.
RR: You happen to be a very good writer, and your talent in this regard certainly helped you. I would suggest that the most people would be unable to tell this story even if they wanted to, but it brings up a serious question. Does your success as a writer, and perhaps at this point, a celebrity chef, suggest a change of direction in terms of your career?
AB: Sadly, I must say it does. I do enjoy writing books, and I must tell you that I now spend less time in the kitchen. I say sadly, because my first love has always been behind the stoves and all of a sudden I find myself being pulled in another direction. For right now, the writing and everything that goes with it has become important to me, but my first love will always be in the kitchen.
RR: What about the restaurant? Is it possible that the fact that you are less visible in the kitchen could eventually become a quality issue at Les Halles?
AB: Absolutely not. I would never permit that to happen, and more to the point, the owners would never permit it. It's true that my chef de cuisine is doing more of the actual cooking, but I can assure you that his talent and the systems in general will more than maintain the quality of this restaurant.
RR: I referred to you as a celebrity chef, and I'm not always so sure that this is a compliment. I do hear from many chefs that the whole celebrity thing is somewhat of a disaster for our business. Perhaps the word disaster is too strong, but there is a feeling that the Emeril Lagasse syndrome is not a totally good thing for the real picture of food in America.
AB: I disagree that the Celebrity thing has been bad. I see it as annoying, and I might suggest that chefs are some of the least suited people to function as celebrities and so-called media stars, but this whole movement has helped turn people onto good food. All the celebrity chef business in my view is an educational process, and it has helped people become more educated and adventurous when it comes to food, and I believe that it has been very positive for the restaurant business.
RR: Give me an example of what you mean by more adventurous.
AB: The first thing that comes to my mind is sushi. Twenty years ago, the latest interest in sushi would have been unthinkable. All of a sudden, there are sushi bars all over the place.
RR: One of the things that you hear is that the young culinary students have totally altered their expectations of the business, and have gone from food to celebrity, and by definition have become less effective as employees.
AB: First let me say that I would hire an experienced Mexican dishwasher over a culinary school graduate, and I don't say this disrespectfully. I was a culinary student myself, and I had to find out the hard way what this business is really about. The schools are great, but you have to experience the real world before you have any shot of becoming successful in this business. I always recommend to anyone interested in the restaurant industry to spend six months as a dishwasher. It will tell you all you need to know.
RR: You just introduced the subject of labor, and maybe the answer is to entice the culinary students to spend some important time doing things like washing dishes.
AB: The truth is that there is no such thing as an American dishwasher. You want to solve the labor crisis, just relax some of the immigration laws. The American mentality is such that most of the critical restaurant jobs are beneath them.
RR: On another subject, talk to me about the conflicts in terms of the back of the house vs. the front of the house. How serious is this problem as you see it?
AB: This conflict that you call it is very much overblown. I'm not suggesting that are no problems, because there are. This business can get crazy, and during the heat of battle people are screaming at each other, and the chaos of the kitchen can result in conflicts. The back of the house sees the front of the house making too much money, and all too often, working conditions in the kitchen make them all the more resentful. I can see it when the cooks hold the power over the waitstaff, yet I still see the cooks and the waiters leaving work and getting drunk together, and I believe that a restaurant is really a team concept and everyone has to work together to make it successful. For the most part, they do work together surprisingly well.
RR: You mention getting drunk together, and your book certainly goes into great detail of alcohol and drug abuse in our restaurants. How big of a problem are we talking about?
AB: From my viewpoint, I see less of a problem with drugs today. The problem with alcohol has been consistent, and this just goes with the territory. However, this is an unforgiving business, and if a person is having a problem with, let's say alcohol to the extent that they are not doing their job, then they are through. They can't survive. But it has always been a business where there is a lot of drinking, and there will always be a percentage of people who can't handle it, and sooner or later it will catch up with them. Overall, it's a problem, but hopefully less of a major problem.
RR: Another human issue has to be the ability to work in this industry and have a successful marriage or home life. I see many instances where a husband and wife work together in the business, and it almost seems like that's the only way it can really work.
AB: In my mind, that is a way that would not work. I could never spend sixteen hours with someone on the job, and maintain a relationship outside the workplace. That would drive me completely insane. I have been happily married for a long time, and my wife has learned to accept the hours and the basic commitment to the restaurant. I can totally appreciate the problems of being married and working in a restaurant, and let's just say that it's not impossible, but maybe someplace next to impossible.
RR: We just returned from a major conference of a new independent restaurant group called CIRA, and certainly one of the main concerns of this group is the threat of the chains in terms to their overall survival. I would be curious to know if you have any thoughts or perhaps even fears of the growth of the chain segment in America?
AB: I see the chains as the enemy. They are what is wrong with our business. The sameness is positively frightening. I would suggest that if you have a restaurant in New York City that is identical in every respect to a restaurant in let's say Tulsa, there is a major problem with your food culture. And that's exactly what is happening. Say what you will about the French, but they have developed a food culture that has been totally absent in the United States. They revolt against a concept such as McDonald's, but the people in this country embrace it.
RR: Does a Les Halles on Park Avenue in downtown Manhattan really care or worry about the incursion of chain restaurants in New York City, or any other place for that matter?
AB: The answer is that we don't worry about it, and I see the threat of chains much more serious in the small towns of America. It's not the worry in a business sense that someone might go to a Wendy's instead of my restaurant. It's a major cultural concern - a dumbing down process if you will that really becomes the problem. I worry about what the success of a restaurant such as the Olive Garden does to the integrity of Italian food. And it bothers me that there are more KFC's in Tokyo than in New York. And it drives me nuts to think that people go to a Hard Rock Cafe to buy tee shirts and could care less about the food. Something is very wrong, and it goes back to our lack of a legitimate food culture.
RR: Let me ask you about the growth of something like the steakhouses. Given all the advantages that the chains enjoy, and examining the field as it relates to steakhouses, can the independents compete at this level?
AB: They can do more than compete... they can be better. The best steakhouses in New York are Peter Luger's and Spark's. What more can I say?
RR: Of course, you can't blame the chains for trying to run successful concepts. If anything, you have to admire their marketing and their ability to capture the hearts and minds of the American marketplace.
AB: You are correct about the marketing, and in that regard, the independents can't compete. However, I see it as something totally different, and it has to do with the breakdown of the American family. I just returned from Vietnam, and what you see there in the independent restaurants are families. Tables of eight, ten, and twelve people dining together. They take their time, they enjoy the food, and they talk to each other. In America, the family never sits down together, and the meals for the kids are from McDonalds or Burger King. It's something that we should all worry about.
RR: Having read your book, I hardly expected you to be concerned with the breakdown of the American Family. Let's just say that you have had some interesting years.
AB: I've had my share of fun if you wish to call it that, and we all go through our periods. I have my opinions on things, and I tell the truth. Maybe I told more of the truth than some people were expecting, but that takes me back to your first question about the reaction of my peers. They didn't get angry with me because they knew I was telling the truth, and I suspect that is why my book has been so successful.
RR: What is next for Chef Bourdain?
AB: I intend to keep writing and keep cooking. It's that simple.
Editor's Note: Anthony Bourdain passed away on 6/8/18. His presence in the industry will be greatly missed.