The shape of food to come
TV star Anthony Bourdain chats food porn, America’s culinary soul—and Sacramento’s street-eats crackdown
In nine short years, Anthony Bourdain’s gone from self-described “journeyman chef” to honored guest of El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, considered one of the world’s masters of cuisine. He counts Top Chef judge Eric Ripert among close friends. And Napa Valley restaurateur Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry, invented a course of “Coffee and Cigarettes” just for him.
Bourdain, best-selling author and host of the wildly popular Travel Channel series No Reservations, is at the top of his game, indisputably a true foodie icon. He’ll be in Sacramento this month in support of his new book, Medium Raw.
I had had the pleasure of interviewing Bourdain to get his thoughts on the limits of the English language’s ability to describe how things taste, the state of mainstream food culture and some choice words regarding our city council’s existing food-truck ban.
This book seems a little lighter on the “food porn” than any of the ones you’ve written in the past. You even preface a speed run through a back catalog of great meals with “some experiences you feel bad telling people about.”
Describing food, year in year out, I think, is a death sentence. I think I’m wrestling with a lot of things in the book.
One of them is the realization that, because of my incredibly fortunate position at my job, I’m getting pretty jaded. I’ve been eating a lot of great meals for the last 10 years, all over the world. I don’t want to be one of those food writers struggling to find new adjectives. I don’t want it to be a job. I don’t want it to be a chore. When I’m rapturously describing food, I want to mean every word and I want it to be fresh. I don’t want it to sound like some poor, unhappy guy in an office cranking out Penthouse letters for the 10th year in a row.
On the program as well. Maybe three seasons ago, I would have stopped there and looked at the camera and tried to describe a taste as “minerally” or “kidneyish” or “unctuous.” If we’ve shown it to you well, and in context, hopefully you’ll get the idea without me babbling like an idiot. So it was a conscious decision to dial back. I don’t want it to get old for me, and I certainly don’t want it to get old for readers.
One of my favorite chapters of the book is “The Fear,” where you touch a variety of topics: anxiety about the recession. Street hawkers, street-food vendors. How a DIY indie sensibility has bled into youth food culture with crossover interest in the “authenticity.” You write that you hope, as a result of the recession, that “people will continue to pay for quality, but they will be less inclined to pay for bullshit.” Could you give a few examples of what you see as “the bullshit”?
I think the first example is attitude. Meaning that you’re essentially paying more money to be treated badly in a restaurant. Like you’re trash or not good enough to eat there. This was something that, in the old way of thinking, a fine-dining restaurant was expected to do. To make you, or most people, feel uncomfortable. So that stiffness—expensive linens, expensive glassware, silver, really elaborate table service, huge floral arrangements, overly lavish interior design—I think people like David Chang or Joël Robuchon have proven that that’s just not necessary.
And particularly now with these financial pressures, people will increasingly, on one hand, be willing to pay more for food. … A thousand dollars for a bottle of vodka, like bottle service, that’s crap. But paying $1,000 for the highest [quality] sushi in the world … chances are they’re not making much money off you. But the bottle service, the “douche economy” as I call it, hopefully that will go. … That said, I think there’s still room for a high-end, relatively formal dining experience. It just better be damn good.
The city of Sacramento is phasing out taco trucks and cracking down on street-food vendors. I wanted to ask you, as somewhat of an authority on street food, if you had to inform the average city councilman about what’s so great about street food, what would you say?
Who will that leave you with? Chili’s and Wendy’s? Is that preferable? This nasty, generic, unhealthy, characterless food that makes Sacramento look like every other place in the country? A vibrant street-food culture is one of the first indicators of a great culture. Even Singapore has figured out how to do street food and have independent one-dish, one-cook vendors. The most charitable way I can put it is, I would suggest there’s a way to do this and accommodate everybody. On the other hand, I just think it’s shortsighted and stupid and comes from the same kind of mentality that wants to solve all problems in a city by paving over a few streets and creating some hideous pedestrian mall with a bunch of fake-ass T.G.I. Friday’s knockoffs.
There’s a lot of those here. And a lot of chicken Caesar salad, which you describe in Medium Raw as “the chef equivalent of sucking Ron Jeremy’s cock.”
Having good taco trucks and good ethnic eats available quickly and cheaply on the streets puts pressure on the other guys to actually serve something good.
One of my favorite moments from the show recently was your visit to chef Doug Flicker’s restaurant Piccolo in Minneapolis. What, if anything, did your visit there tell you about the willingness of the dining public outside of New York, Chicago or San Francisco to allow a chef to cook really smart food that conventional wisdom might say Minneapolis—or Sacramento, for that matter—isn’t ready for?
I’m constantly, pleasantly surprised how receptive places all over the country are to welcome warmly someone like Doug Flicker. It’s an indicator, again, that this is increasingly becoming a chef-led revolution.
You also wrote that you worry that you’re helping to “kill the thing you love.”
Obviously there’s a good and a bad that comes with “mainstreaming.” Can you elaborate on what you think is bad about the mainstreaming of food culture? You cover some of it in the book: Rachael Ray, overly entitled food critics, “fetishizing” of high-end ingredients without actually knowing what they are or how to use them.
Yeah, or at least an appropriate sense of how lucky we are to have access to them or to afford them. This stuff is expensive. The more we fetishize these ingredients, very likely the more they’re going to cost. But that’s the way the market works. No farmer is going to say, “Gee, everybody wants my peaches now, I guess I can charge less for them.” You know, that’s not going to happen. As far as general trends, I think things are going pretty well. I think we’re seeing a number of really positive developments. There’s always going to be nonsense. But there’s never been a better time to eat in America, and there’s certainly never been a better time to cook.
So the “battle for the soul of America” is going well?
Not as fast as many of us would like, but, you know, baby steps. I am concerned, and I know a number of chef friends are a little concerned, that this democratization of food, this more casual style, that this independent spirit, as great as it is, that a lot of these big, old French fine-dining restaurants—and I’m not upset to see a lot of those fade away—but those were the training grounds for the people who would then go on to do their own thing. So if we lose these, we’re essentially closing down our universities, which are creating the great chefs of the future.
Another great chapter in the book is the one where you discuss your recent experiences at Alinea and Per Se. The section on Per Se reads with an almost existential dread, like you’ve seen the mountaintop many times over and maybe the thrill is gone. What is it that does get you excited right now if it’s not the 20-course tasting menu?
What gets me ecstatic is really, really, really good sushi. It’s a very rare and beautiful thing. On the high end. On the other end, what gets me excited is a really good, like, casual working-class Japanese izakaya. Good street food. But more than anything else these days, a low- to moderate-end Italian agriturismo. Some local joint with a decent bowl of pasta, a regional recipe, relatively cheap bottle of local wine, some good runny cheese and I’m a ridiculously happy man.