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Anthony Bourdain: A Starter Course

Anthony Bourdain discusses his new book, his opinions on the Food Network, dirty water dogs, and the future of No Reservations before his lecture show at the Fox Theatre on Friday, Oct. 1.

Week in and week out, Anthony Bourdain can be seen on his Travel Channel show No Reservations, exploring various cultures and customs around the world, and importantly, finding out what people like to eat. While he may spend more time than you do dining in some of the world’s finest restaurants, he can also be found doing some things you might not be so quick to try—sharing a freshly killed warthog, say, with some generous African tribesman.

This week, you can see him in person at the Fox Theatre, doing his traveling lecture/Q&A show, “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain.”

In addition to his television work, Bourdain is the author of a number of bestselling books, including “Kitchen Confidential,” a no-holds-barred look at what goes on behind the scenes at restaurants that, 10 years later, still has people wary of ordering fish on Monday.  

His latest offering is Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. In a recent Q&A session with Bourdain, we asked him about the book, his show, and what kind of music he’s been blasting in the kitchen. 

STLmag: You make your living traveling to amazing places all over the world. I’m guessing a book/lecture tour is a little further down the food chain in terms of fun and adventure. Are there culinary surprises along the way, or do you wind up eating a lot of room service?

Anthony Bourdain: Truth is that when on speaking tours, I eat a tragic number of meals at generic hotel bars, out of mini-bars, airport nachos and other easily available crap. I’m usually too rushed from the airport or too beat after the gig to even order room service. It’s particularly frustrating when I find myself in a place that actually has good food and interesting eateries or nice locals urging their favorites on me. Fact is, I have to be up at four and off to the next town. I do notice if there’s a good vibe or a lot of enthusiasm and file that away for future reference. Maybe for a show someday, or a future book tour or a visit.

What is “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain” all about?

It’s morphed over time into part conversation, part rant, part stand-up routine. I have come to understand why comedians kill themselves with regularity. I hate repeating myself—but of course, I do. I have to. And that feels somehow shameful and dirty. But hopefully, it’s funny and fun.

No Reservations recently aired its 100th episode. What were one or two of your favorites as well as one where you thought, “Hmm…we didn’t quite capture what we were after there?”

I’m very proud of the risks we took—and the resulting footage—on the Rome show. I’m very proud of Sardinia, Venice, New Orleans, Cleveland, Hong Kong, Laos, the Food Porn and Techniques shows, Provence—to name a few. I’m even proud of some of our failures – like Tuscany, because we reached for the weird and creative. Maybe too far. I’d rather do that than just repeat ourselves. There have been some clunkers.

Romania was a very funny failure. We could have done better in Sicily, Madrid, Ecuador. The Marquesas. But I think our successes outweigh our failures. We keep trying. And we keep taking big risks. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Some of the shows are a bit more conceptual—doing the La Dolce Vita thing for the Rome show, for example. Are those shows more fun to do, or kind of a pain in the ass?

Far and away more fun.

In your travels, you’ve met people from pretty much every social strata and circumstance. Are there any grand life lessons you’ve drawn from all that? Besides “eat the warthog anus when it’s offered,” I mean…

That pretty much covers it. But also that bad things happen to good people. And that sometimes, good people do very bad things.

What are your plans for the next series of shows?

The challenge is always to not repeat. To move on. To do something different than last week, last season—even if, especially if—that worked. So we’re working on a bunch of shows that are really out of our comfort zone. Difficult locations—or places where you might not think to do a travel and food show. Like the Congo, Haiti, maybe Yemen or Kurdistan. The Boston suburbs...Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua. The Mojave Desert.

The Food Network, for whom you used to work, seems to have degenerated over the years. The purpose used to be – I think – teaching people some basic cooking skills and how to be a little more adventurous in their diet. Now it’s largely playing to the lowest common denominator. What the hell happened?

They have simply—and quite successfully—given the people what they apparently want. That has never been a priority for us. I’m amazed we get away with it. To my eternal displeasure, what FN does, works.

There’s no arguing with success. I just won’t emulate it. I honestly don’t know how Guy Fieri gets out of bed in the morning and faces what he has to do for a living. Better him than me.

Overall, is it a good thing that celebrity chefs walk the earth?

Yes. Anything that raises the profile of working chefs is a good thing. Anything—no matter how stupid that empowers ordinary cooks, makes what they do a little more appreciated, is a good thing.

The fact that people actually care what the chef thinks these days is surely good for the world and worth a hundred Tyler Florences.

You’ve taken shots at some of them—Emeril,  Rachel Ray, and others. But in recent years, it seems like you’ve made peace with most of them. Have you mellowed in some regards?

Yeah. Maybe.

You’re still capable of making enemies, though. In your new book, Medium Raw, you go after Alice Waters, Alain Ducasse, Sandra Lee and Alan Richman, among others. Clearly you’re still up for a fight when you deem it necessary.

Some things just need to be said. To do otherwise would be the same as lying. When there’s an elephant in the room – especially when he’s taking a dump on your profession—or the profession you love, it’s worth mentioning.

Do you get recognized a lot? Is it possible to get a dirty water dog on the street without someone wondering why you’re not snarfing liquid pea ravioli at El Bulli instead?

Yes. And yes. Because New Yorkers are not easy to impress. And anybody who knows me would understand immediately that of course I’d love dirty water hot dogs.

You used to be a smoker, but managed to quit. Did that unlock a few taste buds you didn’t know you had?

I’m still waiting.

Beyond the world of food, you’re a devoted punk rock fan. Who is your favorite band?

I love Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, old Stones, the Dead Boys, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, surf instrumentals, Queens of the Stone Age. But maybe I love Johnny Thunders best. This week.

I understand you’re working on a graphic novel. What can you tell us about it?

It’s called Get Jiro! And I’m writing it with author (and legendary founder of the lit mag Between C and D), Joel Rose. The incredible Langdon Foss is doing the art and Vertigo is publishing it.

All I can say is that it’s violent – that the details regarding food will be impeccable—and that the hero is a sushi chef.

An Evening with Anthony Bourdain
Friday, October 1, 8 p.m.
Fox Theater, 527 N. Grand Blvd.

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