Anthony Bourdain: "There Has Never Been a Better Time to Eat in America"

Categories: Chef Chat

EOW: That leads me to ask, then, about the whole foodie culture that's become prevalent lately. I depend on it, of course, for my livelihood -- as do you.

Bourdain: Sure.

EOW: I wrote a piece on the "impending foodie backlash" a few weeks back and got plenty of angry comments on that topic, as well as -- randomly -- a couple of emails from Alton Brown.

Bourdain: Oh yeah? Really?

EOW: Yeah. Don't know him, never met him, was really surprised. And a few lines in his email rang true for me. I'd like to get your opinion on it.

Bourdain: Sure!

EOW: He said, "I think you tapped into an important issue here, which is that 'foodies' tend to idolize food and use it not only as a point of social departure (you know, to separate them from us) but as a status symbol. I've shocked more than a few interviewers by telling them I'm not a foodie."

Bourdain: I don't call myself a foodie, but that's sheer snobbery on my part. I mean, I'd love to find a better word. I would like it if there was another one. But I am one of those weird, vaguely privileged crowd of people who has the luxury of spending a lot of time and money and attention on taking pleasure from food. I guess... It's weird.

The biggest problem I have with this "foodie"-ism is the lack of a sense of humor. You know? Those foodies who don't have a sense of humor and who are angry or proprietary about their choices. That's less fun. People who collect dining experiences like butterfly collectors rather than enthusiasts. But I think anyone who's genuinely taking pleasure in food -- and not just food in a vacuum -- is something that a lot of foodies miss. If you're using food to fill up an empty spot in your soul or your social life [laughs] and you're collecting these experiences so you can bludgeon people with them online, then clearly there's something distorted there.

But anyone who genuinely enjoys food or cooking or even just likes eating as part of a larger picture -- because they like people and like drinking and like talking and communicating -- that's why the meal's so great, presumably. Most of the time it's because it's fun. It's pleasurable. It's part of a larger social contract. Great meals, more often than not, can't exist in a vacuum. No one knows this better than chefs. That's what I'd hope for the world. That's the antidote to this problem. They get this in Europe, in Asia -- I don't know they'd understand this weirdness... You know, we went from one dysfunctional relationship with food -- we didn't value it at all, didn't understand it, didn't know or care about where it came from, we devalued it -- to the point where we're overvaluing it. The point where we're distorting it.

For an Italian person in Italy, food -- and, more significantly, wine -- are both part of a healthy, larger picture. You don't see many Italians getting embarrassingly drunk at meals. They drink with every meal, but you never see them staggering, drooling, stupid drunk or binge drinking. Because it's just no big deal! To them, great food, great ingredients are just a birthright. It's just part of your life, and an important one. But just a part. It's not the focus of everything. Chef's know this; I think some of the chefs' biggest fans don't.

EOW: Then here's a question for you. Do you get frustrated with all the adoration that's poured on chefs -- especially the ones who function more as figureheads and don't do any of the actual cooking -- while the people behind the scenes, the line cooks and -- especially in Houston, the Mexicans back in the kitchen -- get no recognition?

Bourdain: I think even before chefs get famous, they're used to being loved for their lesser efforts. I think few people are loved for what they're actually good at or what they want to be loved for. I don't have a problem with it. I think it's a good thing that chefs get famous. I think it's a good thing that they open up lots of restaurants and become rock stars and that their prestige has risen. It's good for the world -- there's never been a better time to eat in America. And that's very much a part of it: the fact that there's never been a better time to cook. It's all good.

What frustrates me, of course, is that I would like -- whatever the opinion, there's plenty of room for honest disagreement on immigration -- I would like to see very much the people who are cooking and have been cooking in America and doing the large majority of the work in the service industry...let's at least acknowledge that work. It's an integral, invaluable part of that profession and of that industry. That would make me happy. If they got a James Beard Award, you know, if the James Beard people acknowledged that Mexicans exist, that would be nice! [chuckles]

EOW: What would we call that category? [laughing]

Bourdain: Well, you'll notice if you go to the James Beard Awards, you've never seen so many white people in one room since the Republican National Convention. It begs the question: Who's cooking? I think along with this, I don't appreciate the snobbery of this expectation that I should be able to go to a Bobby Flay restaurant and he should be in the kitchen. That's ludicrous. They're not working the lines themselves. That's perfectly okay and that's what the system was designed to do.

EOW: Going back to your previous statement on "it's never been a better time to eat in America" and considering that the whole locavore movement is just a given in the rest of the world, do you ever feel like Americans' "rediscovery" of it is a bit like reinventing the wheel?

Bourdain: I think it's like people who are wearing bacon T-shirts. You know, bacon's good. The fact that a bunch of silly people are wearing bacon shirts and congratulating themselves for eating bacon doesn't make it any less good. I like local, I think it's a good thing that people are more aware of it and looking to eat local, to value local. They're looking around at what's actually produced in their areas whereas they probably weren't before. Unfortunately, it's like everything else in this relatively new world we're living in. People get very sanctimonious and self-congratulatory about "local" and generally, those people live in Berkeley.

Check out from yesterday. Wylie Dufresne had a really good piece about local, about farm-to-table. He said, "I buy my food from a farm and I serve it on a table." [chuckles] He doesn't make a big fucking deal about it. I'm a good restaurant, presumably I'm using the best stuff I can get. And the best, freshest, most seasonal stuff -- more often than not -- comes from the local area. But, you know, I'm not gonna blow myself in public and repeatedly hammer people over the head with it, make them feel bad about themselves if they can't afford to get that stuff or don't have it in their own neighborhoods. That sort of nonsense comes along with the good. And on the balance, local food and organics have been good for the world.

EOW: I agree. But what I worry about is that it might be just another trend, and that people will drop it when the next hot food trend comes along, and completely forget about local food.

Bourdain: I don't know. I don't think there's an unringing of the bell in this case. I think once people know what a good tomato tastes like, there's not going back. Once you've had really good sushi, there's no going back to "utility" sushi. Once you've had a real egg, that tastes like an egg, or you taste your first really good tomato in season, it really tends to change a person.

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