At this point, Anthony Bourdain needs little in the way of an introduction. Since making a splash in 2000 with his debut book, Kitchen Confidential, the former New York chef has been one of the more recognizable faces on the modern cultural landscape. His current CNN show, Parts Unknown, returns for another season this Sunday, Sept. 25, and he has a new book, Appetites: A Cookbook, being released in October. In the book, Bourdain uses his lifetime of traveling and cooking experience to illustrate how to cook the dishes that have become his personal favorites, dishes that he feels everyone should know how to cook, in addition to providing insight into how to best host guests in one’s home.
We spoke to Bourdain recently about a number of things, including his love for Popeyes fried chicken, the current state of food culture, places he’s been and would still like to go, his personal fitness routine, and his long-running “feud” with Guy Fieri. He also weighed in with a definitive ruling in the home fries vs. hash browns debate.
First off, I want to thank you, because in the early days of Uproxx you were one of the first big “gets” we ever had. You were nice enough to make time for an interview and a pow-wow session with our commenters when we were in our early stages of development.
Very happy to do it. I like your site.
I recently went back and read one of the things that you did with us back in 2012 and your answer to the question, “The first face that comes to mind when you think ‘punchable’?” was Donald Trump. You added that he’d probably “cry like a wuss” if you did punch him. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that your opinion of him hasn’t changed that much since then.
Yeah, I saw the mosquito incident. Nothing has changed.
I think something that you’ve been able to do with your shows over the years is that you’ve been able to break down some of the hesitancy some Americans have about traveling to certain places. Are there places that you’re wary of going to, or places that you’d be hesitant to go back to?
I’d very much like to see Yemen but it’s just inadvisable now. I’m hoping to go to Afghanistan next year. I’m not going to Syria anytime soon. I’ve heard under better circumstances it was well worth visiting, but I’m not a madman. I’m not an adventurer. I’m not in the business of standing there in a flak jacket as some sort of danger junkie. I’m a dad. I feel a responsibility to at least try and live for my daughter and not put my camera crew in danger so that I can look cool. I don’t delude myself that I’m a foreign correspondent or a war correspondent. There is a threshold for me for sure. I mean, I wouldn’t go back to Libya right now probably.
I was going to ask if there are any situations that you’ve found yourself in that when you look back on them you’re like, “Holy shit. That could have gone really bad.” I take it that Libya was one.
Libya was very, very, very difficult. The situation had changed a lot even by the time we arrived. We had unarmed security guys who were pretty much advising us to have our passports ready and our luggage packed, that we should spend no more than 20 minutes at a scene, never let anyone know we were coming, change our routines constantly. We ended up having a local militia to look after us. It was very, very dodgy.
Besides Afghanistan, which you mentioned previously, are there any other places that you’ve yet to go that you’d really like to?
I haven’t been to the tribal areas of Pakistan or Bangladesh. I’m hoping to go to Kashmir this coming year. There are places that I just don’t feel that I’ve gotten right yet or I haven’t done enough. China is a big subject, I could just keep on going back there pretty much indefinitely. Venezuela is very, very tough to get in to shoot right now. Getting the insurance coverage to shoot in Venezuela is turning out to be very problematic. I really want to do a show there. I’d say number one on my bucket list right now is Venezuela.
Are there any underrated food regions that you’ve completely fallen in love with?
I had a really great time in Georgia. That’s a really cool country. It was much prettier, the people were wonderful, the food was great, very hospitable. That’s totally underrated and not enough people talk about it. Iran, I can’t say enough nice things about the food. And if you find yourself as a guest at an Iranian’s house, you’re going to be fed a lot of really delicious food. Way more than you can possibly eat.
I’ve heard great things from the few people I know who have been there.
Mexico gets more interesting every year. I don’t know if I’d say the fine dining, but Mexican food for the middle class is getting really, really interesting and really, really sophisticated. It’s probably the most underrated cuisine right now.
What do you think isn’t working? Are there any bullshit-y things in food culture, either American food culture or worldwide food culture, that you take issue with?
There’s always going to be a certain amount of bullshit. That’s the way any business works, but the restaurant business in particular, there is a herd mentality. Chefs tend to follow the same inspiration for a little while. The bullshit gets weeded out as part of a natural process. The trends don’t last. Genuine, good ideas, however, do. In general, I think we’re moving in a positive direction. I don’t really have any major complaints about the way things are going. I think by and large, we’re eating better in America than we ever have.
Do you remember the last meal that you’ve had that was a revelation, something that surprised you in some way?
Honestly, it takes so little to move and thrill me. I was in Rome recently and we finished shooting for the day and my crew and I, we all knew this little family run place, a very Roman little restaurant, little family joint, nothing special. We shot there years earlier. Whenever we shoot in Rome, we always go as a crew just to eat for fun. I went and I had pasta carbonara and some simple table wine and I was practically weeping with joy.
What’s your personal relationship with food right now? Do you cook much at all, and when you do, what are you cooking?
I cook for my daughter all the time, as much as I can whenever I’m home. She likes lasagna. I make school lunches, we all prepare dinner every night and I really enjoy it. I like to cook pasta because I don’t really have that much of an Italian background. I don’t get that much of an opportunity to cook Italian, but it actually makes me very, very happy. Strangely enough, my wife, who is Italian, won’t touch the stuff. She only eats zero carb, full protein meals, so she eats her thing and we eat our thing. It’s a rather unusual situation.
(Editor’s Note: In between the time this interview was conducted and the time it was published, Bourdain and his wife, Octavia Busia, have reportedly separated.)
Conversely, if you could have anyone cook for you, any chef cook for you, who would that be?
I don’t know, I feel really, really lucky in that regard. Maybe Michel Roux. I mean, if it was a fine dining meal. But honestly, just give me a bowl of hot fucking noodles from off the street. That’s when I’m happiest, when I’m not pressured to analyze or think analytically or technically. I’m happiest when I’m eating and enjoying my food in a completely emotional way and I’m off the clock.
I think the thing that makes me most happiest in that way is eating a fried chicken breast from Popeyes.
I love Popeyes.
I know you’ve tweeted and Instagrammed about Popeyes in the past. What’s your typical Popeyes order?
Mac and cheese and the chicken breast.
You’re a white meat guy as well?
I’m not, but you get more bang for your buck on the breast.
Yeah, no doubt.
I like thighs generally. But at Popeyes, it’s the breasts. But I tell you, I like Popeyes best if I’ve been eating fish and rice for a long time. If there’s a Popeyes at the airport on the way back, I’m pretty damn happy. If you’re talking about a transcendent experience, one that still has a magical powerful effect on me every time, it’s spicy noodles in broth somewhere in southeast Asia, or a bowl of pasta, like working-class pasta, and some cheap wine in Italy. That’s what thrills me and fills me with joy and makes me believe that food is magic again.
You’ve got a book coming out. What’s your writing routine? Are you writing daily? Is it still part of your everyday life?
When I am working on a book, I wake up very, very early in the morning and I write for as long as I can before I head out. I mean, that’s it. Once I’m done in the morning, I’m done. It’s true to say that I get stupider and slower as the day goes on. If I don’t write it in the morning, I ain’t writing.
I envy that because I’m the opposite. I usually do my best writing late at night. I can’t function early in the morning.
I’m energetic, I’m filled with hope. I go right from waking up to writing, so I don’t have time to think of all the really good reasons why I shouldn’t be writing and why my writing sucks. I don’t have time to roll in self-doubt and misery and self-criticism. That comes later in the day. I just wake up and attack. When I’m not writing, I’m not writing. I do a lot of writing for the show, so anytime I’m shooting, I’m writing in a notebook working on what will eventually be the edit and the voiceover. When I’m working on a book, which I’m about to start another one, I keep regular hours.
What about exercise? You somehow manage to stay relatively fit and skinny. What’s your daily exercise routine?
Every single day that I’m in New York, I go to Renzo Gracie Academy. I do a one-hour private lesson with my professor, Igor Gracie, and then I do a 90-minute class with the general population where I work really, really hard to not let younger, stronger, more talented people choke me unconscious and break my arm, which I find really really hard to do. That’s really the hardest physical thing ever. I do it every day when I’m in New York.
When I’m on the road for the show, I go to whatever Jiu-Jitsu school, however small, however big, however dangerous, however broke-ass, whether it’s eastern Europe or Malaysia or Beirut or Brazil. I’m waking up super early every morning going off and taking a class. If there isn’t a class, generally I will arrange ahead of time so that anybody who wants to come and kick my ass can show up and they can kick my ass. You know a lot of people show up just so they can kick my ass and put a picture of it up on Facebook. So I get a full workout every day.
Is your interest in Jiu-Jitsu an outgrowth of your MMA/UFC fandom?
No, my wife is basically a professional. She trains seven days a week, birthdays, Christmas, holidays, about 10, 12 hours a day. It’s a profession for her. But she got me into it pretty much on a dare. No one was more surprised than me that I enjoyed it.
I was kind of startled to learn that you just turned 60 and you’ve accomplished so much but for the first 40-45 years of your life you were a “self-proclaimed fuck-up,” as I believe you put it in your first book, Kitchen Confidential. So in the span of 15 years or so, you’ve turned your life around dramatically and you’ve done some pretty diverse and remarkable things; hosting and producing multiple shows, you’ve written books, you launched your own publishing company, you’re opening a food market. Hell, you ate with the president recently. You’ve lived a life that most people only daydream about. Are there highlights along this journey that people may not know about? Were there times when you’ve reflected and thought, “Holy shit, this is wonderful. I can’t believe this has happened to me.”
I’ve been seeing Iggy Pop a fair amount lately and I always pinch myself then. That’s a hero to me.
You mean, like, hanging out with Iggy Pop?
Yeah. That’s something I’m very pleased about. That’s where I find myself looking in the mirror and saying, “Wow, life is turning out pretty awesome.” Because he really was a hero of mine. Back when the first Stooges album came out, it has literally been the soundtrack for my life. I would listen to it as a total fan boy and it was very satisfying. That I could have dinner together with Iggy Pop on numerous occasions has made me very happy.
Speaking of music, what do you listen to when you travel?
I have a lot of music on my phone. I’m definitely always thinking of it in terms of soundtrack, what’s right for this particular window of time. Generally I listen to a lot of Mark Lanegan, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Danger Mouse. A lot of ’60s soundtracks. Who else? Oh, Depeche Mode. I was never a Depeche Mode fan when they were at their peak, but in my later years I found that you’re driving a rice patty on a moke scooter listening to Depeche Mode, it kind of works.
The Guy Fieri feud, is that totally dead now? Are you guys pals?
I never said that I ever had a feud with the guy. I never had any personal animosity against him whatsoever. Look, I tell dick jokes for a living when I go out on the road and I do these public speaking engagements. I’m expected to be funny. He is a white male, a guy who has chosen to dress like that, and make that act his living; people are going to make fun of him. I’m all too happy to do that. It’s all too easy. But I never saw it as a feud. I don’t have anything personally against the guy. I’m not rushing out to eat at his restaurants, true, but I don’t wake up every morning angry about Guy Fieri. He’s just a rich source of humor and material..
I can tell you that he’s been much the same for us at Uproxx over the years too.
It’s almost too easy at this point. I’ve kind of got to find somebody else.
I wonder who the next great target could be? I’m sure someone will arise sooner rather than later.
One final question: home fries or hash browns?
Home fries or hash browns? I loathe home fries. I used to have to make them for brunch and the lowest point in my professional career was always making brunch. I must have cooked hundreds of thousands of pounds of home fries. They’re fucking disgusting. Hash browns all the way.