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Foundation Archive
March 21, 2016

Foundation Archive: Anthony Bourdain

Jenni Matz
  • CNN
  • Food Network
  • Travel Channel
  • David Scott Holloway/CNN

For the past two decades, chef, author, and television host Anthony Bourdain has traveled to the far corners of the globe and, along the way, has eaten the kinds of local cuisine - guinea pig, raw seal eyeballs, warthog - of which dreams, or nightmares, are made.

"I like telling stories, and I tell stories that interest me," he once said. "It would be boring to have to go to nothing but the best restaurants. That would be a misery to me."

Bourdain's early years were hardly misery. Born in New York — to a French father, a classical-music executive who introduced his son to snails and oysters at age 10, and a mother who was an editor at the New York Times — he had a well-adjusted childhood in the New Jersey suburbs. It wouldn't stop him from rebelling.

"I was bitter that I wasn't old enough to be in San Francisco, dropping acid and having sex with hippie chicks," he says with typical candor. "Most of my friends had rich absentee parents or came from broken homes, so they were free to do whatever they wanted. I deeply resented the relative stability at my house. I started taking drugs as soon as I encountered them."

Bourdain would eventually attend culinary school and run kitchens in some of New York's finest eateries, but he would also struggle for many years with drug addiction, to heroin and then cocaine. He finally got clean in the early 1990s. "I simply looked in the mirror and decided I did not like what I saw," he said in one interview. "I was ashamed of myself — and there were still things I wanted to do with my life."

Bourdain was interviewed in August 2015 by Jenni Matz for the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television; the following is an edited excerpt of that discussion.

The entire interview can be viewed at Archive.

Q: How did you enter the food profession?

A: I never intended to get into food. I had no desire to get into the restaurant business. I fell into it later because it would have me. I was the deadbeat in a summer rental. Everybody else in the house worked in the restaurant business, and a dishwashing job opened up. They said, "Hey, deadbeat, you're washing dishes now so you can contribute to the rent."

Q: Did that job open your eyes to the world of food?

A: It was the first time in my life that I went home respecting myself — and the first time that I respected anyone else, or cared what anyone else thought about what I did. Suddenly I found myself with people whose approval I wanted. That meant working hard and showing up on time and not letting the others in this organization down.

That was something of a revelation to me, to be part of a thing, a cog in a machine. A dishwasher was an important cog. I liked that, but then I wanted to cook. Cooks were living better than the dishwashers. They were cooler. They got better girls. They got free stuff. They could afford cocaine.

Q: So that's why you became a cook?

A: I fell into the business because I fell in love with the lifestyle. Any pride in creating artistry — or delusions of artistry — snuck up on me later.

I ended up going to culinary school, largely because I was not very good as a cook. It was an opportunity to be good at something. It was a profession that, if nothing else, offered a lot of fun in a world where I liked the people. They were like me; they were misfits and dreamers and refugees and upright criminals. That's what I wanted to be.

Q: Of course, you went on to run several restaurants in New York City. And during your time as executive chef at Les Halles you penned an article, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which wound up in The New Yorker.

A: I'd never really written much. I'd been in the restaurant business long enough to know that there's nothing more foolish than a person who thinks they can make a living writing — or acting, for that matter.

I was in my 40s, so I had pretty minimal expectations when I wrote this article. I intended to submit it to a free paper called the New York Press. I figured their standards were low enough that I had a good crack at it. I sent it in and the editor said, "Yeah, we'll run it. We'll give you a hundred bucks." I was thrilled,

Q: Why did you write it?

A: I'd written it hoping that some people in the restaurant business would read it and find it entertaining, and to goose the non-professionals with scary revelations about stuff we all knew — like, your unmolested bread is probably going to go out again [to another table], I wanted my fry cook and a few other cooks in New York to read it and say, "This is not bogus. I recognize this and it's funny."

Well, week after week the story kept getting bumped. So in a moment of drunken hubris I called them up and said, "Screw this, I'm taking the article back." And I sent it to The New Yorker unsolicited.

Weeks later I got a call from the editor, David Remnick. He says, "I'm going to print the article." Two days after it came out, it was a news story. There were reporters chasing me for comment on these horrible revelations. It changed my life immediately.

Q: It led to a book deal to write Kitchen Confidential....

A: I was quite sure no one was going to read it. My highest expectation was that it would enjoy some cult success in the New York tri-state area. It never occurred to me that anyone outside the area would read this thing. But that was very freeing, being liberated from any image of who might read it and their expectations.

The entertainment industry is filled with frightened people. And what are they frightened of? They're frightened of not being on TV anymore, or not being in the industry. Not giving a shit is really great. It's a good negotiating position, especially if you mean it.

Q: How did your Food Network show, A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, come about?

A: Kitchen Confidential was on the bestseller list, but I figured I better keep my day job. But I was aware that my publisher was making money — the book was actually selling. What would I do next? I've only got one life and I'd already written about that. So I pitched a book where essentially somebody else pays for me to travel around the world, going to all the cool places. And they actually bought the book!

Q: And the TV show launched from that proposal?

A: Some goofs walked into the restaurant saying, "We want to make TV with you, something with Kitchen Confidential." At this point I'd already optioned that. I said, "That's gone, but I'm about to travel around the world — go to all the cool places I've always dreamed of — and write about eating my way around the world. I guess you could come along and shoot that."

Q: How did you decide to start paying homage to film genres and directors on the show?

A: Halfway through this seven-week shoot in three countries, I was in a hotel room with Chris [Collins, a production partner], I'm lying on the bed, I look up and there's a fan going around in slow motion. I looked at him and he looked at me and we're going, "Yep, we're seeing Apocalypse Now."

We started doing all of these self-indulgent film references, and I suddenly realized, "Wait a minute! This filmmaking thing can be fun. We can rip off all of the greats."

We started having fun from that point on. I think that's our real purpose in life: challenge ourselves, have fun and make people who are employing us extremely uncomfortable. If you're not causing fear and confusion at the network, you are not doing good work.

Q: In 2005 you launched No Reservations and insisted on complete creative control. How was that series different from A Cook's Tour?

A: I had left Food Network. We reached a crossroads when I'd been on a book tour. I bumped into [Spanish chef] Ferran Adria. He had reached out to me and incredibly — this is 2003 — offered to let us have total access to his restaurant, the most creative in the world at the time.

We were very excited about this. Chris Collins, Lydia Tenaglia and I put up our own money and went out and shot it with Ferran, There were no customers — we had nobody in mind to pay for the postproduction. We just felt we had the opportunity to get this thing on tape. And we used that as a calling card with Travel Channel,

Q: Any favorite episodes of No Reservations?

A: Rome is probably the show I'm proudest of, We went absolutely against the grain. There were people who said, "You're going to the most colorful city on earth — with fantastic food in almost every scene — and you're going to put that in black and white? It's a really bad idea."

We knew that we could lose half our audience. Add a lot of subtitles to that, we could lose another 25 percent. We did both. It was the most stupid thing we could have done, for a variety of reasons, but it was beautiful. It came out exactly the way I'd hoped it would. Even better,

Q: The show had a balance of the tender moments you have with families and people having fun with the food, and then something really serious happens. I'm thinking of the Haiti episode, which was shot just after the earthquake.

A: We were well aware that we were often shooting in countries that were very poor, where there were a lot of people who hadn't worked in many years — and who, in fact, were really hungry. Our cameras alone represented a year's income, more money than they could ever imagine.

I'm there talking about local cuisine; I'm shoveling food into my face in front of people. How do you deal with that? What do you do? The person feeding you, obviously you remunerate them for their food, for their labor; we took care of them. But what about the people who are standing there, who are hungry?

The immediate human inclination when you see hungry kids is, "I will feed those kids." So I finished my soup and said, "Let's buy out the place. Let's feed all of these kids," which is what we did in Haiti.

Q: What happened?

A: Things began to spin immediately out of control. The bigger kids shoved the smaller kids out of the way. The grownups, who were just as hungry, shoved the big kids out of the way. Pretty soon there was a riot. Then there was someone stepping in to try to maintain order, which meant they were beating kids with a stick.

This simple, maybe foolhardy, naive desire to take care of an immediate problem — hungry kids — led to unintended and very ugly consequences. We try very hard to slip through places, to do no harm, to leave as light or nonexistent a footprint as we can. But there are all these unintended consequences.

Q: Did the Beirut episode in 2006 change how you handle safety for yourself and your crew?

A: The first trip to Beirut changed everything, It was a very embittering experience. I really didn't know how to process it. My immediate feeling when I came out of it was, "We are not making a show out of this."

We had gone to make a show about food and culture in swinging Beirut, and by day two or three my crew and I were sitting there emptying the mini-bar.

We looked out the window, and the airport is blown up. [Hezbollah terrorists had attacked Israel, which responded with airstrikes.] There was a blockade and we, along with a lot of other people, were trapped there for a little over a week.

Q: How did it end?

A: The most immediate effect — beyond the way I looked at the world in general — was, it gave us license to wander away from food a bit. It's sort of obscene to try to shoehorn food into every scene. It's the way we get people to say things to us, that willingness to accept food and drink from strangers, food and drink that people are often very proud of. That gets us a lot.

Q: How so?

A: People open up and their defenses drop, but it's not everything. I didn't come away from that thinking, "Well, we're important now. We're going to start tackling some really serious issues."

It wasn't that. There was a sense of discomfort with relentlessly returning to food when that's not the most important thing in the room. It gave us license to wander a little further.

Of course, CNN later gave us license to wander away completely whenever we wanted, We realized that we're in the storytelling business — we're not in the food business, necessarily. It got us thinking about a lot of things. What's important in life? I went home and made a baby with my wife, my then-girlfriend.

Q: Is food itself political?

A: Nothing is more political than food. Fez, Morocco is a walled city. People grow things within their high-walled homes. They eat a lot of preserved food, dry food, an entire cuisine based on very hard realities of the past. The necessity of walling yourself into your home, where you're sitting for extended periods and waiting for your enemies to die of starvation or typhus — a lot of the things people eat reflect those difficult times.

Q: How did No Reservations end and Parts Unknown come about?

A: It was becoming more difficult to make the kind of shows that we wanted. There was a change of personnel [at Travel Channel]. Then CNN called. I was like, "Really? CNN? Are you fully aware of who we are and what we do?"

We sent them some of the most disturbing, off-brand, offensive shows we could think of: Rome, in black and white. A Christmas special in which Samantha Brown shoots me in the kneecap, Christopher Walken with an octopus, Norah Jones singing songs about poop in Catalonia. It was the show Travel Channel hated the most. They desperately tried to bury it.

Q: What was the reaction at CNN?

A: They said, "We know what you do, and we'd like you to come here and do that.

"We'd like to help you make the best television of your life. And we can help you. If you want to shoot in Yemen, we have contacts and experience and archival footage and journalists who have worked there for years — and Middle East historians and access to information and assistance and logistical help. And we have the muscle that helps you get into a place like Iran" — which is a place where I've been trying to shoot for five years.

It was an attractive offer. And they have lived up to their word.

Q: In 2011 you became involved with dramatic writing, for HBO's Tréme.

A: I got a call from [writer-producer] David Simon. I was already a huge David Simon geek and fanboy. I've often compared it to this: imagine you were a kid in the 60s, obsessed with the Yankees, and suddenly the phone rings and Mickey Mantle is saying, "Why don't you come down to the stadium and throw the ball around?"

It was exactly like that. I immediately called my agent and said, "Look, David Simon is calling and whatever he wants, just say yes!" It was in a lot of ways the most fun I've ever had at work.

Q: What was the assignment?

A: I was part of a team of writers, all of whom were far more experienced. I was given a character arc to write, and it was so much fun. I'd like to say it was hard, but it wasn't. I'd fly down to New Orleans, hang out with George Pelecanos and David Simon, talk about where the characters are going, then go out to dinner,.

That didn't suck,

Then they would send me story beats by email and I would imagine a room, put these characters in it, maybe make up another minor character, maybe not, and put words in their mouths. Then a few weeks later, I turn on the TV and there's the room that I imagined and these great actors whom I admire, and mouths are moving and my words are coming out.

Q: At this point, what's your dream project?

A: I'd like to make shepherd's pie with Keith Richards.

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