Anthony Bourdain on Hipsters, Food Critics, Tasting Menus, the Death of Fine Dining and a Religious Experience with Texas Barbecue
The biggest problem with interviewing Anthony Bourdain is not the crackly phone connection between Houston and New York City, nor is it the general trepidation that comes with talking to someone who's notoriously, forcefully honest.
We'll let you decide who is who in this equation.
The problem is that Bourdain is so interesting -- has traveled so extensively and has such thought-provoking opinions on everything from Gulf oysters and Texas barbecue to the dangers of boredom -- that it's far too easy to get off-track. Six tangents into discussing hipsters' impact on fine dining, and your 30-minute interview window is gone.
The celebrity chef, author and television personality is coming to Houston for a one-night-only show with Eric Ripert, the French chef who often plays the angel to Bourdain's devil on television and in real life -- the two have been friends for years. Appropriately enough, Bourdain and Ripert's show on November 10 at Jones Hall is called "Good vs. Evil." It's also only one of four Good vs. Evil shows that Bourdain and Ripert will be doing across the United States.
No surprise, as Bourdain is currently one of the busiest men in chow-business. He's working on three television shows at the moment, creating a publishing empire, writing scenes for Treme and embarking on national tours aside from Good vs. Evil. The other leg of his tour, Guts & Glory, will be hitting two more Texas locations. But as soon as he's done here in Houston, Bourdain will -- as usual -- be flying directly out to his next speaking engagement...in Midwest City, Oklahoma.
Hopefully he'll have something good to eat here before that stop, although it's unlikely. As with his previous visits to Houston, Bourdain says this one will be short. But while he didn't have much to say on the topic of the Bayou City, he had plenty to discuss about other topics close to Texans' hearts.
On his erroneous dismissal of Texas barbecue prior to eating at Franklin Barbecue and J. Mueller BBQ in Austin during a recent taping of No Reservations, which marks the final season of his long-running series on the Travel Channel:
Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel Bourdain with Texas barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn at Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
I'd previously taken sort of a dim view of Texas barbecue, but Franklin and J. Mueller showed me how good it really was. I had a religious experience there. The brisket at Franklin and the short ribs at J. Mueller were amazing. The brisket at Franklin is just salt and pepper and nothing else, and that's exactly what I love. My previous exposure to Texas barbecue was very sauce-centric, and I don't care for sauce.
It's like a lot of my epiphanies on the show and one of the things I'm doing to remedy my previous oversight is publishing Daniel Vaughn's book [the upcoming Prophets of Smoked Meat]. It's a deep, thorough and expert look at Texas barbecue.
On hooking up with Texas barbecue blogger (and soon-to-be author) Daniel Vaughn, whom Bourdain credits as an intensely committed researcher and reporter of all things Texas barbecue:
I was aware of the Leslie Brenner incident [in which Brenner was accused of sourcing places for a best-of-barbecue list from Vaughn's blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, without giving Vaughn any credit]. I'm not a fan of Leslie Brenner, and I thought it was sort of symptomatic of all the ills of food writing today. It was a particularly ignoble moment in food writing.
Here's a case of even if you don't agree with [Vaughn's] choices, I think very few people would say, "Oh, you don't know what you're talking about."
On moving into the publishing industry with Ecco, his own imprint under HarperCollins, which plans to publish books by Vaughn as well as Los Angeles-based chef Roy Choi and kickboxer Mark Miller:
Publishing is a private passion of mine. You get to be an advocate for people you believe in.
On his Austin-based episode of No Reservations and what keeps him coming back to the Texas capital:
I love Austin. We picked Austin to do a show because I've been so many times on book tours and speaking tours. I love the town. It's just so quirky and has always been a welcoming place to be. There are good bars, good music, a good food truck culture -- and the best kind of food truck culture. There's a lot of good, authentic Mexican food, a dining public at every income level who are open to and interested in new, different, authentic and tasty -- it's a good environment for people who like to cook and eat -- and I always get a good pair of boots there.
On what makes a good food truck culture:
Really creative people who can't afford to start up restaurants. Food trucks are a hospitable and cost-effective way to get your foot in the door. The menus are getting quirkier and more creative.
On how having a dining public at every income level has enhanced America's culinary scene in general:
Young people in their twenties are out there spending their hard-earned money on food, which was an unthinkable scenario 25 years ago. As Jonathan Gold has suggested, dining out has become a counter-cultural activity. Even restaurants like Le Bernadin in New York are changing themselves to be more friendly and more inviting to people who aren't middle-aged oligarchs.
On the so-called "death" of fine dining, with maitre d's and jacketed guests in every dining room:
I think that the only legitimate argument for that stuff other than sentiment is that those types of restaurants were the traditional sort of finishing schools to build a group of people who are trained in service at those kinds of levels. For cooks, those places are valuable; they're training academies of fine dining. I don't want to lose those places entirely but when I hear some snowy-haired, long-time food critic for a men's magazine whining about the decline of service, I just don't care. Those guys are just a bunch of old, entitled farts who'll die soon anyway.
I think it's nonsense. The young sommeliers, for instance, out there who actually know something about wine, beer and food is probably at a higher point than at any other point in history. We're catching up with France, Italy -- cultures that see good food as a birthright.
Hipster? Foodie? A terrifying hybrid of both?
On foodies versus hipsters (the latter of which Bourdain believes are responsible for helping raise the culinary bar in America right now):
Who makes fun of hipsters? Other hipsters. I love making fun of hipsters. They're easily mockable, no question about it. But who would you prefer run a restaurant: hipsters or foodies? Multiply the regular posters on Chowhound by a million -- no thanks. But as this current generation of hipsters gets older, they might want the volume turned down. No one's going to want to hear Gang of Four records turned all the way up forever.
On Pete Wells's recent indictment of tasting menus in the New York Times as "spreading like an epidemic":
I think it was a shot across the bow. I read it as a warning and as a statement of future policy. If I was a chef or a restaurant doing a 22-course tasting menu, I'd take notice.
On dishes he's sick of seeing in restaurants:
I agreed with everything [on Besha Rodell's recent list of five things restaurants should never serve again]. I'd add chicken caesar. And tuna tartare. I'm just bored; think of something else to do. I'm hardly that socially conscious, but can't we do something else? There's such a limited blue fin supply.
Read part two of our interview with Bourdain, in which he discusses his new TV show with CNN, the reasons he loves Twitter and why the second season of The Layover was also his last. (Spoiler alert: It's because layovers suck.)
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