Anthony Bourdain: 'Dishwashing saved my life'

Why is it that some people pull off outrageous so adroitly that we're smitten rather than repelled? Anthony Bourdain's specialty is pulling back the curtain of the food establishment. He is the author of Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook


Lynne Rossetto Kasper: At the beginning of the book, you're at a dinner with a bunch of very, very famous chefs. You observe that not one of those people would hire you. Then you ask the question: What are you doing there? How do you see yourself at this point in the world of food?
Anthony Bourdain: For better or worse, I see myself as yet another over-privileged foodie with all the bad that implies. I found myself at a table with all of these great chefs taking part in the grand slam of rare meals on the basis of something other than cooking. There was a certain amount of discomfort with that, and also a sense of how absurd and yet wonderful it is that I would be so lucky as to find myself sitting there at a table with my heroes.
LRK: Do you see yourself as the person whose job it is to point out all the emperors are not wearing clothes?
AB: No, absolutely not. I don't see it as my responsibility. I don't think I should be trusted to be any kind of advocate, spokesperson or anything like that. I'm a guy who's fortunate enough to not have a reputation to protect or a business to protect. I don't see myself as an ombudsman or anything like that. I think I'm too morally compromised.
LRK: You have a whole section in the book on heroes and villains -- who can resist reading this kind of opinion? I'm going to name some names, and I'd love to know your thoughts about these people. Alice Waters.
AB: It's a continuing argument in my head with Alice. I like what she's saying, I just hate how she says it when she says it. She just seems unable to say the right thing without putting her foot in her mouth right afterward. 
But who could disagree with much of what she says? She's an enormously important figure in the world of food. The cradle of the revolution of American dining did happen at Chez Panisse. But man, one thing after another just seems really tone-deaf.
LRK: For instance?
AB: Her inability to understand that this food, this organic, sustainable food, is often much more expensive, and her disconnect with the concerns of real working people. Somebody asked her why should people spend $6 for a bunch of organic grapes when it's $2 more than non-organic? She said something like, "Well, maybe the poor should cut back on their cell phone minutes or that second pair of Nikes." I just think that was so dismissive, contemptuous and out of touch. This is an argument that has to be won in the streets on a grassroots level. To see someone as privileged as Alice and as out of touch saying those things again and again I think does the cause no good.
LRK: I think I know what's coming, but I'm going to take a shot at this anyway: the Food Network?
AB: Obviously you know I'm not a big fan, but then again ...
LRK: But you were on the Food Network, right?
AB: Yes, and it ended badly. Honestly, as much as I despise much of their programming, I think ultimately their influence has been good for the world and for me personally. They've helped empower chefs, make chefs stars, make chefs important, and make it more likely that the customers walking into a restaurant trust and are interested in the chef. 15 years ago, 20 years ago, they didn't care. Chefs were seen as service personnel. The celebrity chef scam, as annoying as it is, I think it's on balance good for the world. Obviously I have mixed emotions, particularly as I become part of the problem.
LRK: How about Jamie Oliver?
AB: I think he's good for the world. I really admire what he has done with his fight against childhood obesity. He has chosen to take the probably less-successful career path of annoying us, telling us things we don't want to hear, and what is probably going to be -- in his lifetime at least -- a losing cause. I admire that. I admire that he's doing the difficult thing, that he's an advocate for the world's health. Better him than me. 
LRK: Gordon Ramsay?
AB: I like Gordon. I admire him as a chef. I hate that show Hell's Kitchen. I despise it. 
LRK: Why?
AB: Because unlike Top Chef, which has a very high level of contestant, on Hell's Kitchen these are the lame and the delusional. It's an angry British guy yelling at these poor, sad, deluded, out-of-shape, largely incompetent people. It's like a carnival. That's just cruel, even for me.
LRK: But don't you think the anger thing does work in terms of the popularity?
AB: It's a huge success. I completely understand why Gordon is doing it -- he's doing it for $250,000 an episode as I understand it. But there's no suspense as to who will be the executive chef of the next Gordon Ramsay restaurant because I don't think any of them are up to the job. The only question is will the morbidly obese guy who had a heart attack last season pass out before he dunks the french fries?
LRK: We have a question for you from Jennifer, who follows Splendid Table on Facebook.
Jennifer: I feel very, very fortunate to be a part of this. Tony, what do you think you might have done with your life had you not become a chef?

AB: I could tell you what I would like to have done, I mean if I could live my life over again. I would have preferred to have been Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic, their bass player. I would like to be a bass player in a funk band. But that wasn't going to happen. What was likely had I not become a dishwasher and then a cook, to be perfectly honest, I'm sure I would have slipped into a life of petty criminality, imprisonment and death. 

Dishwashing saved my life. It was the first time that I went home respecting myself, respecting others, with anything to feel proud of. Even now the business attracts certain personality types who sense in themselves a need for immediate gratification, quantifiable success or failure and a general discomfort with the regular 9-to-5 job. 
LRK: Jennifer, have you worked in restaurants?
J: No I have not. I always liked in Kitchen Confidential, I think it was when Tony was describing that moment, almost that epiphany he had when he was in France with his parents. I wonder if that had not happened, if he still would have gone along that culinary bend that he went onto? But it sounds like in fact you would have.
AB: Yes, I think for sure I would have. I got into the restaurant business for reasons completely other than food. I found a tribe that would have me and that I felt comfortable with. That early oyster experience certainly resonated later when I started to get serious about cooking. It came as a surprise to me that I was a proud dishwasher, that it mattered to me what my coworkers thought of my performance -- that was suddenly a very, very important thing.

Featured recipe

Top Recipes

Featured recipe