The always intriguing chef dishes on fame, food and his latest documentary.
It’s hard to imagine that Anthony Bourdain, arguably the food world’s biggest star, was once a relatively unknown chef cooking at New York City’s Les Halles in the ’90s. After all, he’s now a household name with several New York Times best-selling books, has a massive international food hall set to rival Eataly on the way and has a globally-watched TV show, Parts Unknown, thanks to CNN. So, what’s not to love about Bourdain? We caught up with the food personality to talk about the ups and downs of fame and the best thing he ate all year.
You’re such a contrarian. Is there anything you dislike about your fame?
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Look, even the things that can be annoying. Say I have a full bladder and I’m running off a plane looking for a bathroom, and somebody wants to stop me for a selfie. OK, that’s annoying, but the fact that people want to do that in the first place has allowed me incredible freedom, money, the privilege to go wherever I want and do what I want. On balance, even the worst thing about being well-known beats working for a living. Brunchship is still a recent and fresh memory—and it’s not something I care to go back to at my age, so no, there isn’t any worse thing about it. I guess the same complaint that all famous people have that no sensible person would respond to systematically. There are times where you really do want your privacy. You don’t want to be seen. You don’t want to be noticed. But that’s a small trade-off for these advantages for sure.
I do want to ask you about the Chelsea Market you’re going to be opening, and what your expectations for that are?
My expectations are I insist that it have no unifying design theory. It will not be a food court or a food center or a food hall. It will be a public market that will capture the spirit, and in fact, the original practitioners of cherished Singaporean and Southeast Asian, African, and Latin American individually owned and operated hawkers and food stalls. If a Korean grandmother and her hipster grandson don’t love the place on day one and consider it authentic, then I have failed utterly in my hopes.
Since you shot a portion of your latest documentary, The Last Magnificent, following legendary chef Jeremiah Tower at New York City’s iconic Tavern on the Green, I have to ask you what you thought of the place and their hiring of Tower?
I thought it was mission impossible because Tavern has always been a famous chef killer. I’ve seen it crush the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a few friends of mine and a few chefs of great ability who’d done great work previously. I know what it’s like to work at a high-volume establishment. As a New Yorker, I know the kind of people who go to Tavern and the kind of people who don’t. I just didn’t think it was a good fit for someone who is as great an innovator and artist as Jeremiah—somebody who I think aspires to fabulousness.
Tavern on the Green is not the first place I think of. I’m going to guess. He’s sitting down at the table for me at this moment actually. I’m going to guess he responded powerfully to the building, to the structure, and to the art, and what it once was. Of course, he says the slim chance appeals to him. He’s a romantic at root. I think he looked at the structure and looked at the history, and thought how great it could be. Men and women of vision are all too rare, and to find men and women of vision all working together in the same company is perhaps too much to hope for.
In your opinion, is there a still a future for Tavern?
The future for that spot? I think they’re negotiating the contract. I think the union gave them a free pass for a period of time. I think that time period has run out. They’re going to be dealing with local six now, in an adversarial way no doubt. I used to be in local six so all I can say is good luck!
Because you eat so many different types of food and so much food, what was the best thing you ate all year?
Best thing? Wow… I don’t even… I don’t even know. It would be a completely emotional thing. It was probably based entirely on who I was eating with and where, the timing. I’d probably say in Rome. Some fettuccine at this non-fashionable place with somebody I really cared about. A couple who’d been cooking the same dishes for the last 50 years. There isn’t even a menu! Basically, the same dishes for the last 50 years. Very simple, straightforward, rustic and unpretentious Italian.
That gives you the greatest satisfaction—simple dishes?
I do not want to experience food. I think this is true of just about every chef I know. In fact, the higher up they are, the better they are, the more sophisticated their food, the truer this statement is. None of us want to experience food in an analytical way or a critical way. We don’t want to think about what’s in it, how many people were required, where it came from. We don’t want to hear about any of those things. We want to experience it in an emotional way entirely, ideally, like children. The same sense of comfort, reassurance and general sense that someone loves us, and that’s good for the soul.
Is there anything that you don’t have right now that you want to go out and get?
No, I have no master plan. I’m groping towards happiness like everybody else.