Anthony Bourdain knows his way around a kitchen. In 2000, after two decades in the hospitality industry, he released the book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The book is a memoir of sorts that provides a graphic, behind-the-scenes peek into restaurant kitchens. The popularity of the tome led to Bourdain’s next high-profile gig as host of the Travel Channel’s culinary and cultural adventure program Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Currently using a string of spoken word gigs to work out some new material, the chef-turned-author-turned-television personality will grace our fair city in mid-June. SLUG recently had the chance to ask Tony about his planned visit to Salt Lake, his history of punk rock fandom and his perceived influence on the food industry. While we had him on the horn, we also asked him what he thought about several traditional Mormon dishes.
SLUG: Describe what fans can expect from your appearance in Salt Lake.
Bourdain: It’s a spoken word show—I talk for about an hour off the top of my head. It’s certainly about travel and food, but the content is determined by what’s pissing me off or exciting me that day. I don’t have a prepared speech. Generally it’s about an hour talk and then a Q&A with the audience. A lot depends on how good or how provocative, or even how confrontational the questions are. I like to get challenged from the floor—it helps me work out material that I may use later. And people get to say, “Hey, you said this in that last book, or on TV, but I think you’re full of shit and here’s why,” and that can lead to a spirited discussion. I much prefer that over questions about the grossest thing I ever ate.
SLUG: You came of age as a chef in New York City around the time that punk rock was really getting off its feet there. What do you remember about punk shows back in the day?
Bourdain: I was a huge fan during that time. I was lucky enough to be around, and to be going to the clubs where they were playing. And I obviously have a deep and lasting love for those few, brief years, but I was never a musician or anything.
SLUG: What are some bands that stand out, that you still listen to today?
Bourdain: Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Television, Ramones, those really stick out. And The Dead Boys’ song “Sonic Reducer” is a timeless classic. I was also a Velvet Underground fan and a huge Iggy Pop fan. I remember what an extraordinary, spit-in-the-face presence he was. The first Stooges album, an anti-social masterpiece, came out in 1969. Hippies were dead from that moment on. You need only to look at how awful and saccharine and bloated rock-n-roll was in ’72, and then you look at what some other people were doing around that time, even before punk, and it makes bands like the [New York] Dolls, and the Velvets and Iggy and the MC5 all the more extraordinary.
SLUG: Okay, so what about Iggy today—fronting a reunited Stooges, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in his 60s and still performing without a shirt...
Bourdain: I think that any day Iggy Pop can wake up in the morning and make a living in America is a good day for humanity. It pleases me to no end that he’s alive, apparently healthy and making money. He deserves it.
SLUG: With Kitchen Confidential, you really pulled the curtain back and showed people what was happening in restaurant kitchens. It was wildly popular. Why do you think it struck such a chord?
Bourdain: I really don’t know and I don’t try too hard to figure it out. I was only able to write that book in the first place because I didn’t think anyone was going to read it. I cling to the “not giving a shit” business model, and I worry that if I start thinking too much about who’s going to read it, or what their expectations are, that would be counterproductive.
SLUG: So who was the intended audience?
Bourdain: I wrote it with a tiny subculture of restaurant industry people in New York in mind. I just wanted to amuse and entertain them. I really didn’t think that anyone outside of the tri-state area was going to read it. No one was more surprised than me that it was a success, and continues to sell. I mean, no one cared about cooks and chefs 20 years ago and now everyone seems to care. I’m glad Kitchen Confidential was a success and I’m glad that chefs are stars now, I just, for the life of me, don’t understand why.
SLUG: The rise of celebrity chefs has lead to entire TV networks being formed. As you were at there at the beginning, do you feel any responsibility for the lousier food programming?
Bourdain: I think that the Food Network, at its worst, is still probably a force for good in the world. I may hate most of their shows, but it’s probably good for me personally, and good for the restaurant industry, and chefs in general. You wouldn’t know that from watching the network. But anything that increases interest and expectation in cooking is a win for the good guys. Some shows make me want to gouge my eyes out with flaming skewers. Really. Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake and see what I mean.
SLUG: How much does your real life persona mirror the character portrayed on the show?
Bourdain: I’d like to think I’m nicer in real life because we deliberately have a lot of fun at my expense on the show. I try to not be the same from episode to episode because I like to present a moving target. When people start getting comfortable with this notion of me as “the bad boy chef in the leather jacket.” I think the most perverse thing I could do at that point is to do a family friendly show with my three-year-old daughter and my in-laws. Success came to me very late. I don’t feel any need or urge or requirement to present any consistent identity. As long as I’m entertained myself, and making some sort of interesting television, then I’m doing my job. If I’m getting up in the morning and putting on my “Tony Bourdain” suit, then it’s time to get out.
SLUG: Now, Mormons are known for some gnarly cuisine. Let me describe a few traditional Utah dishes and get your reaction.
Funeral Potatoes (hash browns, cheddar, sour cream and cream of chicken soup, sometimes topped with crushed corn flakes)
Bourdain: Sounds morally wrong, possibly evil, but very likely delicious. Are you sure you aren’t really stoned out there, because that sounds like a stoner delight. Some stoned college student could’ve thought that up. It’s the possibility of corn flakes on top that add that counter culture element.
SLUG: Tiramisu made with fake coffee
Bourdain: I’m probably opposed to that in principle. Yeah, I don’t like the sound of that one bit.
SLUG: Spam and Eggs over Rice (Samoan Mormon edition)
Bourdain: You must be the heart attack capital of the world. What you’re describing to me is just terrible.
SLUG: The Pastrami Burger
Bourdain: I’m pretty sure God’s against it. As a New Yorker I’m uncomfortable with that. I believe there’s a statute against that in New York—criminal misuse of pastrami.
SLUG: Green Jell-O with shredded carrots
Bourdain: Now you’re scaring me. You’re really frightening me. I mean, I grew up eating those Jell-O desserts in the late 1950s, but good God, it’s 2010. Put down the Jell-O mold! I don’t know if I’m frightened or intrigued, but that might make a good show.
Bourdain will be appearing at Abravanel Hall on Saturday, June 19. For ticket information go to arttix.org.