Within the last decade, the idea of the "celebrity chef" has shifted away from the Paul Prudhommes and Julia Childs of the world. Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart aside, foodie culture these days is more or less ruled by a group of no-nonsense "bad boys" with attitude to match their considerable skill. The popularity of tough-talking, proudly egomaniacal iconoclasts like Rocco DiSpirito and Gordon Ramsay has as much to do with their refusal to mince words as their ability to mince garlic. Some of the credit (or blame) for that seismic shift must be laid at the feet of Anthony Bourdain, the former renowned executive chef of Manhattan's Brasserie Les Halles. He became a cult celebrity nearly overnight after publishing his hilarious, scathing autobiography, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly. Since then, Bourdain has become one of the most visible chefs in the world, thanks to appearances on shows like Top Chef, as well as his own Travel Channel series, No Reservations, on which he seeks out unique experiences, culinary and otherwise, on the darkest corners of the map. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Bourdain during some increasingly rare downtime to talk about his whirlwind career, his heroin-addled days serving fine cuisine to New York's finest punk-rock bands, and whether he thinks the rise of the "celebrity chef" has had any real impact on the way people eat.
The A.V. Club: You're in Arkansas, right?
Anthony Bourdain: Yep.
AVC: So which is a scarier place to be, the jungles of Cambodia, or Arkansas?
AB: [Laughs.] I certainly feel like the jungles of Cambodia are a little more familiar.
AVC: Where have you been recently?
AB: Oh, let's see. Zakynthos and Crete, in the Greek Islands, rural England, London, Scotland, Singapore, Tuscany. I'm headed to Papua New Guinea soon. Next week I'm going to Romania. It never stops.
AVC: Do you ever get temporal displacement, not knowing where you are or what day it is?
AB: Not so much when I travel internationally. But when I'm doing a book tour in the States, I'll wake up in the room sometimes in an anonymous chain hotel, and I don't know where I am right away. I'll go to the window, and it doesn't help there either, especially if you're in an anonymous strip and it's the usual Victoria's Secret, Gap, Chili's, Applebee's. That freaks me out. What I do find is that I've lost complete sense of the seasons. I'm back home for such a brief period of time, and I move around time zones and climates so much that I don't really pay attention to the weather in my ordinary life. I dress for the shoot. If I get a little memo saying it's going to be cold where I'm going, I bring cold-weather clothes. When I'm back in New York, I'm always kind of surprised. "Wow, it's winter already?"
AVC: You recently became a father for the first time. How much time have you been able to spend with your daughter?
AB: I took a fairly significant amount of time off just before the birth, and for a few months after. Then I took her along to the Italy shoot and to the London shoot. I'm learning as I go about how to do a lot of schedule-squashing. What I'm trying to do is bring the family along to the less demanding, more low-impact shoots.
AVC: Do you have any plans to take time off from traveling to be with her?
AB: I don't know. I guess my feeling is that I'm so lucky to be able to do what I am doing. I decide where we go, and I'm enjoying a level of creative control that I haven't heard of any other person on television ever having. So there's definitely a sense that I should keep doing this as long as I can get away with it, because how long can it last?
AVC: With all of your traveling, do you ever find the time to cook any more?
AB: Professionally? No. It's been some time.
AVC: But for yourself?
AB: For myself? Not much. If I'm back in New York for over a week, yeah. It's tough. I'm married to an Italian woman, and I used to love cooking Italian at home, because it's one-pot cooking. But my wife does not approve of my Italian cooking.
AVC: You're mostly schooled in French cuisine, right?
AB: Well yeah, but I've run what were considered very respectable Italian restaurants. I had a pretty high opinion of my Italian cooking. [Laughs.] Oh well.
AVC: What's her problem with it?
AB: She's a very tough critic. You know, the only thing worse than an American to an Italian is an Italian from the next village. That thinking carries over to the kitchen at home.
AVC: Do you think that the old "use it or lose it" axiom holds true for cooking?
AB: Professionally, it does. It's such a physically demanding thing. I know that as far as my movement, the choreography, timing, things like that, I'm sure that I'm rusty. But as far as being able to do basic functions—cook, recreate dishes you've done all of your life—you don't forget any of that. I guess we're going to find out both for sure. We're about to do a show where I go back to Les Halles and try to work my old Tuesday shift, which is to be in at 7:30 a.m. and work a double and get out at midnight. And it's been some time, so it will be a challenge. I know it's going to be really physically demanding. I'm just wondering if my mind is going to be sharp enough to handle all of the tickets coming, or if I can get my timing back.
AVC: Is there a certain degree of getting your humility back as well?
AB: If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it's the restaurant business. [Laughs.] So I don't think I'm going to have a hard time being told I'm useless or an idiot.
AVC: Have you eaten anything particularly disgusting in the last few episodes you've shot for No Reservations? Anything that's more disgusting than the still-beating heart of a cobra, say?
AB: Well, last season, the Namibian warthog experience was as bad as it's ever been.
AVC: Was that the anus that you ate?
AB: You know, pick a part. It was all equally full of sand and crap in every mouthful. And it just had this permeating odor of burning reflux.
AVC: You once said that the most disgusting thing you've ever eaten was a Chicken McNugget. Do you think the warthog asshole was worse than that?
AB: Given the choice between reliving the warthog experience and eating a McNugget, I'm surely eating the McNugget. But at least I knew what the warthog was. Whereas with the McNugget, I think that's still an open question. Scientists are still wondering.
AVC: Do you ever eat normal things? Do you ever just have a tuna sandwich?
AB: Oh, yeah, I love a good tuna sandwich! When I'm back in New York—and this is a terrible thing to complain about—I eat a lot more really, really good food than perhaps I'd like to. So many of my friends are really good chefs. It's kind of like being in the Mafia. Having been a chef for so long and having written Kitchen Confidential, I get invited to eat at the local hotshot wherever I go. So when I'm in New York, and I have a few days to eat whatever I want, sure, I'll eat a tuna sandwich, grilled cheese with bacon, even utility pizza. Those are a great joy to return to.
AVC: How much of your diet is made up of things you've never tried before?
AB: Less and less every year. The show is really popular in Southeast Asia, so every time I go out there, they see me eating crazy shit, and people will always say, "Oh, you've tried durian? Have you tried this? It's even stinkier." So I've pretty much covered the waterfront in that regard. And it's not a focus of the show, but when you're a guest of honor in certain parts of the world—and with a track record like mine—people want to give you stuff that will make you throw up.
AVC: Legend has it your love of food was kindled by your first oyster in France. Before that, what was your attitude toward eating?
AB: I think I was unconscious of the fact that I grew up in a home where food was slightly more important than in other kids' homes. My parents were pretty cool, and they made a real effort to bring me and my brother to New York every once in a while to try Japanese or Scandinavian or something different on a regular basis. I took that for granted at the time and didn't really pay much attention, but it was very unusual among kids I grew up with. But I was not consciously aware of food really being something I wanted to work with in the future. I discovered with that oyster that I liked it, that it had some inherent power. And I guess I put aside that information for later.
AVC: What if that oyster had given you food poisoning? What do you think your life would have been about?
AB: Yeah, who knows? That's a really good question. I'm not sure how fundamentally that would have changed me, whether it would have turned me away from food later. I don't know. I fell into the restaurant business, and fell in love with the restaurant business, for very different reasons. For the first couple of years that I was cooking professionally, food was not something any of us thought about. The state of dining in America was really dreary. The customers would have rebelled if we even considered giving them good food. I was in it because it was a refuge for misfits, and I found a home there. I liked the work and I liked the subculture. That love of food and the "professional pride" thing, that snuck up on me later, at which point I realized that I knew a lot about these dishes, and I got what's good about them.
AVC: Some of those years, you wrote about in Kitchen Confidential, which was later turned into a sitcom. What was it like seeing your life played for laughs?
AB: Well, I've always thought that if you can't laugh at heroin addiction [Laughs.] You know, then what is funny? I don't know. In some ways, it was kind of a relief. It was over with quick. I didn't mind. I had a pretty good attitude about the process, and what it could have been or might be like. Better writers than me have been smashed on the wheel when their work went out to Hollywood. Unlike me, they drank the Kool-Aid. So when people were telling me all along that it was going to be a David Fincher picture and star Brad Pitt, I never believed it. I always figured it would be a David Hasselhoff vehicle or something. So in the end, I was happy to see a reasonably entertaining half-hour sitcom about some smart people. Like I said, it was over fast. I feel a sense of relief that I emerged unscathed from the experience.
AVC: So were you relieved that the show was taken off of the air?
AB: Not really. I just never saw it as my book. It was weird seeing little details of my life. Little, little things, like characters based—sometimes closely and sometimes not at all—on people that I had known. The situations I talked about with the writers, it was weird and amusing to see those things pop up, especially in a sitcom. But I just didn't identify it with my book or with my life, and I think that even if they tried to make a slavishly loyal to the text, dramatic, three-hour film, I think my expectations are such that I could have watched that with a sense of distance as well.
AVC: You've also written some crime novels in addition to your non-fiction work. Which is easier?
AB: The non-fiction, definitely. Fiction's hard. I do it because it's therapy. I spend a lot of time writing about myself, talking about myself and what happens to me. Me, me, me. Fiction is a nice escape from that. You can also be a lot more truthful about a lot of things. Things I can't say in non-fiction, I can say in fiction. But there's that damn plot thing. I really resent plot. I like creating characters and environments. That's really fun for me. But having to create a story arc is something I have always resented.
AVC: Do you have any plans to go back to fiction?
AB: I'm working on one now.
AVC: What's it about?
AB: It's about a former '80s "it" boy writer, who wrote a Bright Lights, Big City type of book, and ends up washed up in the Caribbean. Murder and mayhem ensue.
AVC: Is it based on Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis specifically?
AB: Well, kind of. It imagines if Jay or Bret never sold another book after their big ones, and fucked up in a really spectacular, disgraceful way. This guy can't work anywhere. He's been busted for plagiarism, so he washes up in the Caribbean, where he's basically drinking himself to death and writing long, unanswered e-mails to a former love, and he gets involved in what he thinks is a hit-and-run. Which leads to bloodshed aplenty.
AVC: You seem pretty fascinated with crime. What's that about?
AB: I like extremes. I think it's for the same reasons that kids like cowboy movies. The real world is shades of gray. In fact, I try to write in black and white when I'm writing crime, but I always find myself making the good guys as unsympathetic as I can, and the bad guys fairly likeable and funny. I don't think I do that intentionally. It just happens, and I enjoy watching that happen. I very much want to believe in good guys and bad guys, it's just that life ain't like that, and my books don't turn out that way either.
AVC: Speaking of your non-fiction work, you dedicated The Nasty Bits to the Ramones. Why is that?
AB: I think they were the most important rock 'n' roll band to come out of my lifetime. They made my life good for a while.
AVC: Isn't there something very "un-punk" about fine dining?
AB: It depends on if you're in the dining room or the kitchen. [Laughs.] Yeah, sure, no question. But I've had dinner with Marky Ramone, and he enjoys fine dining very much. And he was a punk for much longer than 10 minutes. Although, you know, the whole movement, such as it was, lasted only 10 minutes. Yeah, I would say that they seem opposed. Certainly, Ramones-style punk was ostensibly about pizza and cold cereal. [Laughs.] But it's grown up a little.
AVC: It seems like your favorite bands—The Stooges, The Dead Boys—would have gotten thrown out of your restaurants.
AB: Actually, I fed a lot of those guys back in the day. I used to feed Johnny Thunders. We fed him because we wanted free tickets and stuff. They were very uncomfortable in the restaurant, that's for sure. They were always very intimidated. They didn't know which fork to use, whether to mix the red and the white, they didn't know what to do. But I mean, that's being 18 and strung-out. I didn't know any of those things when I was 18, either.
AVC: I think the biggest revelation from this interview will be that Johnny Thunders actually ate something.
AB: Oh yeah, oh my God. He came in and we laid it all out for him. He came in all dressed up, wearing a formal, rock 'n' roll tux outfit, and was quiet like a church mouse. He was really intimidated and didn't know what to do with the various glasses and drinks. It was kind of sweet.
AVC: So were you a fan of the British punk bands, or the post-punk bands that followed?
AB: I liked The Clash a great deal, some of the no-wave stuff. I liked The Contortions. You know, it's funny: I was always really resentful of Soft Cell and Tears For Fears and Depeche Mode when that music was current. I've since taken to enjoying a lot of that music. I listen to a lot of Depeche Mode now, and New Order. Back then, I didn't like them. I liked the rawer, angrier stuff. I mean, I hated Lynyrd Skynyrd back then, too, and now I find myself listening to a little Lynyrd Skynyrd. [Laughs.] Things change.
AVC: Are you a fan of modern music?
AB: Some. I'm hardly up to date, but there are bands that have been around for the last 10 or 15 years that I really like. Anybody from the last couple of years? No. But I'm a huge Brian Jonestown Massacre fan. I'm glad that the Chili Peppers still have work. Pearl Jam. I love Queens Of The Stone Age, who just did a show with us, Anthony Bourdain's Holiday Special.
AVC: Was that envisioned as being something like those old Andy Williams holiday specials?
AB: That's exactly what we were going for. Like with Bing Crosby standing around a cheesy set with fake snow in the background, and suddenly the doorbell rings. "Hey, look. Its my next-door neighbor David Bowie!" And just like that, they'd sing Christmas carols. We wore ugly Christmas sweaters, I cooked a Martha Stewart-style turkey dinner, and [QOTSA] provided a lot of music and performed. When you see those sweaters that they wore—which are truly the most terrifying things I have ever laid eyes on—you know that this is a band with a sense of humor.
AVC: Considering how often you've moved in the same circles as bands, did you ever get the bug to make music yourself?
AB: No. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was lucky enough—or unfortunate enough, depending on how you look at it—to be surrounded by some really good musicians. My best friend when I was 12 was a guitar virtuoso—I mean a really incredible guitarist, pedal steel, classical violin. And I roadied for all my big brother's bands, so I knew good musicians, and I knew that it was already too late for me. It required too much work, too much time, and it just seemed too late. No matter how much I liked rock 'n' roll, and no matter how much I might have liked to come back in another life as Larry Graham or the bassist for James Brown, it wasn't going to happen.
AVC: Do you buy the idea that celebrity chefs are the rock stars of the '00s?
AB: I think chefs would like to flatter themselves that that's true. Most of us like reading that in the press, but among ourselves, if we're all sitting around drinking, I think we know better. It's work that is traditionally done by working-class people. The work itself is not glamorous. It's repetitive, and it's a lot closer to factory work than art, whatever level you're doing it at. Certainly chefs are used to living like rock 'n' rollers to some extent, inasmuch as we get a lot of those fringe benefits without having to learn how to play guitar. But when chefs talk among themselves, they know who they are. There aren't that many delusions of grandeur. I'm always a little worried about the chefs who also play guitar, who also have bands. It's kind of like how I don't want to see writer bands either. It just seems wrong.
AVC: So do you have a coterie of celebrity chefs you see on a regular basis?
AB: Well, yeah, sure. I'm good friends with Mario [Batali] and Eric Ripert. I'm always happy to see them. It's like being in the Mafia: You know all the other chefs. At this point, wherever I go in the world—you know, I've been through Melbourne and Sydney and London and San Paulo and Spain, and those are all like different crime families. I know all of the people, and when I go through those places, I have friends—very dear friends—who I like hanging out with. Fergus Henderson in London, Juan Mari Arzak in Barcelona, Ferrán Adrià and his brother in Barcelona. I know what to talk about when I'm with those guys. Everyone else is an outsider. Anybody who isn't a chef or wasn't a chef for most of their life, like me—even though most of my friends who are chefs would never have hired me as even a prep cook, because my skill level was never adequate to the standard of the people I'm friends with these days—we still have a lot to talk about. We have a similar worldview and speak the same language.
AVC: Has becoming a celebrity chef tempered your opinion of your fellow celebrity chefs? In the past, for example, you've said some things about Rachael Ray.
AB: Well, you know, she smartly maintains that she is not a chef. And I agree with her. Like, Emeril [Lagasse] is a chef because he came up through the restaurant system. He was the chef of actual restaurants, and he has a very respectable restaurant empire. I would question Julia Child, whose memory I admire enormously. By that definition, I don't think you could call her a chef. I just see her as a truly great human being, and a force for good in the world. Maybe when I'm harsh on Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee, it's because I think they compare poorly to Julia Child, who I really thought was an advocate for the forces of good and enlightenment. That said, recently I'm beginning to think that I'm just naïve about a lot of things. Why should I feel outraged or surprised that someone with millions and millions of dollars already would want to do something that I see as silly and degrading, like endorse Dunkin' Donuts? It's for the money! Of course it's for the money! Why can't I get that through my head, and why am I having such a problem doing that myself? I was sitting backstage a while back with two chefs whom I really admire—really accomplished chefs who are far more talented than I ever was in the kitchen—and they're talking about how Olive Garden is offering this, and this airline is offering that, and not even blinking. And I asked them "Come on, wouldn't you feel embarrassed if you woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror and saw the chef who endorses Olive Garden?" They looked at me like I was an idiot. And I'm beginning to think that it's just vanity that's kept me from selling out, and doing Imodium commercials or something. [Laughs.] I really don't know why I've avoided it. I'm beginning to think it's for less noble reasons than I have been telling myself.
AVC: Presumably you've been offered endorsements.
AB: Yeah, I've been offered cookware lines, some really gruesome reality shows that would have made me boatloads of money. The usual endorsements. I don't know. Maybe it goes back to the heroin thing. I know what it's like to wake up in the morning and feel ashamed of what you did yesterday. I'm just having a hard time crossing that line. I'd like to sell out. I really would!
AVC: Speaking of heroin and your other past dalliances with drugs, would you say that your attitude toward drugs is similar to your attitude toward food? Like, you'll try anything once?
AB: It certainly was. Actually, no, it was a full-on love affair with drugs. That's who I was. I wanted, very badly, to take drugs from the time I first read about them. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I remember reading about LSD, and Haight-Ashbury, and Jefferson Airplane, and that looked like fun. I wanted that. And when I read about the artists, writers, and musicians who were doing heroin, they happened to be the artists, writers, and musicians that I admired most. So I really had my mind set on becoming a junkie. Not necessarily in a calculated way, but I think it was a predictable part of the story arc. Drugs made me feel good, obviously, but it was a part of the Byron-esque figure that I wanted to be and that I'd imagined myself to be as an insecure, gawky kid. They did make me cool, and they did make me feel good. Unfortunately, they also destroyed my life.
AVC: Do you ever feel like your sense of taste or smell was diminished by your drug use?
AB: Who knows? I think, technically, male palates start to decline very early anyway, around 27 or 28. That's what God made salt for.
AVC: Do you feel like your smoking has affected it?
AB: Oh, I'm sure it has. But most chefs smoke. I always love reading on the foodie blogs, these complete idiots who say, "I would never eat food made for me by a smoker." Listen, asshole: You've been eating food made by smokers your whole fucking life. Most of the three-star chefs—at least half of them—smoke.
AVC: Let's talk Top Chef for a minute. Let's say you were once again a young chef looking to prove himself. How do you think you would have done on Top Chef?
AB: I would have been destroyed. I would have been ground up and spit out. With good fundamentals, guile, and strategy, I might have been able to sneak through for a while, but I don't think I would have done well. Some of those challenges are really hard.
AVC: In your experience as a judge, are the judges' deliberations as lengthy and protracted as they seem?
AB: Really long. I've gone two hours. It is a serious discussion. You win on merits, and you lose because your food was the worst that week. [Tom] Colicchio's independence is very, very, very important to him, and I think that the quality of judging is actually really good. They take it really, really seriously. I read a lot of stuff on the message boards about how they're just keeping a guy around because it would make good drama among the contestants, but it just doesn't work like that. I've never seen, never even smelled interference or suggestions from producers on how the judging should go. I've actually seen their faces collapse in pain. [Laughs.] I'm sure that when they send an audience favorite home—like Tre [Wilcox] last year—I'm guessing that the producers are probably displeased. But I never sensed that anybody would ever mess with the process. The best cook wins. And the money on that show is abysmal. I'm a guest chef now and again because I'm a fan. It's fun. I like doing it. I like hanging out with Colicchio and the other guest judges. It's fun for me. It's like going to a really exciting ballgame. When I'm not on the show, I watch the show.
AVC: Were you in agreement with the decisions they made last season?
AB: Totally. I thought Hung [Huynh] was clearly head and shoulders above the rest technically, as far as skillset. I think it was clear to even the casual or professional viewer early on that he had all of God's gifts.
AVC: A lot of the season seemed to come down to technical skill vs. personality, or putting your heart into your cooking.
AB: I think a lot of that was juiced in the editing. You see the actual judging, you see the actual cooking, but I think that they were playing that up a little bit. Hung had plenty of heart.
AVC: Which do you think is most vital to producing good food?
AB: You need both. There are chefs who are spectacular technicians, and often their food is worth eating once or twice, but if there's no heart in it, if there's no personality in it, it's not something you want to go back for. But heart without any skill at all? All the heart in the world ain't gonna help you if you can't peel an onion, or if you don't understand how to apply heat properly. A well-done steak is a well-done steak, I don't care how fucking nice you are.
AVC: Do you think that shows like Top Chef, and your own show, and the rise of celebrity chefs in general, have led to a more pronounced foodie culture in America?
AB: I think so. I hope so. Anything that improves people's expectations of a meal is good for the world. Anything that weans even one kid or one adult away from Chili's or T.G.I. Friday's is definitely a win for the good guys.
AVC: So you think it's raised people's standards as a whole of what they will and will not eat?
AB: I think so. You need only go to the supermarket and see how many different types of mushrooms and cheese and breads there are than before. It's gone a whole lot slower than I would hope, though. I think that every time Sandra Lee opens her mouth on television, we take a step backward. [Laughs.]
AVC: Has it affected the restaurant industry?
AB: Oh my God, we're allowed to serve good food now! Chefs are actually empowered to decide what food you should eat. Back when I started cooking, no one even knew what good, fresh fish was, or had any idea what real Italian was. And if we would have given it to them, they would have screamed like stuck pigs. When we put together menus, we had to have a sirloin steak, we had to have a pasta, we had to have a salmon. By the time you filled up all the slots of things you had to have, you had very few slots left on the menu. Now, for the very first time, a chef like Mario Batali or David Chang can sit around, have a couple of cocktails, and decide what the next hot menu item is going to be. "Next year, it's gonna be pork bellies or pig tails." And more often than not, they're right. They can make that happen, because people trust them and are interested in what they think is good. In the last few years, for the first time in American history, chefs are being allowed to serve their customers and get them to eat what they themselves believe to be the good stuff. We're not cooking down to them.
AVC: Do you think that there is a correlation between the instability of the economy and the uncertainty of the future in the growing interest in gourmet food, like people find it comforting?
AB: I don't think so. I think that a lot of your hardcore, well-heeled foodies are going through a fine-dining burnout and are kind of exhausted with the pretense of it. They're going, "Do I really need the crystal, the napkin rings, and the silver?" They're dealing with concepts like L'Atelier and what David Chang is doing, and eating good food over the counter. Also, as "food nerdism" reaches ever more extreme heights, people are looking for the "most authentic" at least as often as they look for the best. There's a lot more cachet in finding the out-of-the-way, grimy noodle shop in outer Queens that serves bamboo noodles just like in Hong Kong than there is at eating at the best restaurant in New York.
AVC: That rejection of pretense is somewhat in line with the philosophy you've stated on your show, which is all about "just letting it happen to you." Do you find that philosophy is compromised by having a TV show follow you around?
AB: I have such a small crew. I work with two, sometimes three people with tiny little cameras, and an assistant. There's no sound or light guy or anything like that. And we spend a lot of time with our subjects, eating and drinking off-camera, before, during, and after the time the cameras are rolling. So it's more like traveling with a few annoying relatives. And I think that as I'm breaking down barriers as I drink too much with my hosts in, say, Vietnam, chances are, my crew is as well. So I think the biggest logistical problem is when a lot of people don't really understand the difference between the shooters and me, in that they will serve me and insist on offering food to the guy holding the camera while the camera is running. We try very hard to avoid fine-dining restaurant situations, and we're eating a lot of street food in stalls. Some of those things have been set up in advance, and some are pretty much decided on the spur of the moment. But I think when you're drinking grappa with a bunch of shepherds in Crete, as I just was, there are other things to do than pay attention to the cameras, pretty quickly.
AVC: As far as "letting it happen to you," does having an agenda get in the way of the visceral experience?
AB: We're really fast on our feet, so if what's going on outside the window looks like it's more fun than where we planned to go, we have the mobility to step on the brake and say, "Let's gang-rush that place." I think some of the best shows we've done were visiting places I'd been before on a book tour. I went to Singapore on a book tour the very first time and made a lot of friends there, wandered around and ate, and let things happen. So when we went back to do the show, I'd already been there. We were recreating experiences I'd already had once or even numerous times. Same with Tokyo. There were a number of places where I'd been before. It helps, also, being a chef, so I can always reach out to the local chef. It's like calling up the local capo. "You know me, you know what I like. I'm looking for the best dive bar in town. Can you take me there? You don't mind if my crew shoots while we're out there, do you?" So it's as un-artificial as a travel show can be. What we desperately want to avoid is footage of me taking one bite of everything and saying, "Ooh, that's delicious." I have the luxury of being able to look at the camera and say, "This fucking sucks."
AVC: You've referred a few times now to the food world as a Mafia. Is there a don of the food Mafia right now?
AB: There are sort of spiritual leaders. Nobody's the boss, but there are certain heavyweights who I think are universally respected, if not revered, in the industry. Thomas Keller is respected by young cooks and by his peers everywhere in the world. Fergus Henderson is seen as an iconic figure, even by people who have never met him or eaten his food. The effect of him just doing what he does has changed every chef's life and aspirations. Marco Pierre White has been retired for years, but he's sort of looked at like Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, one of those guys that made cooking cool. Ferrán Adrià. These are like the baseball stars that little kids want to grow up to be. And, of course, there are a lot of chefs' chefs, whom a lot of chefs look at and think of as great cooks—really solid, inspired, inspiring people.
AVC: So where do you rank in the food Mafia?
AB: I have no idea. You know my name because of an obnoxious book I wrote. At least a few times a year, I get a late-night call from a kitchen somewhere else on earth, with a bunch of cooks drunk, calling me up and saying, "Dude, you wrote my life." It's really surprised me that even older-generation guys—like the old French guys—saw something familiar they could relate to in the world I described. So people have been nice to me. I'm surprised by it, and I'm honestly thrilled by it, to hang out with people who were heroes to me.
AVC: And now you're a hero to a new generation.
AB: Eh, we'll see.