Remembering Anthony Bourdain and his classic 2000 Indy interview


On Friday, June 8, the culinary world and its admirers woke to the loss of one of the industry's most notable figures. Anthony Bourdain, 61, was found unresponsive in his hotel room, CNN confirmed Friday, the cause of death was reported to be suicide. Bourdain was in France working on an episode of his television series Parts Unknown at the time.

Well before his cable network fame, Bourdain steadily built a loyal fanbase of industry professionals and foodies "in the know" with his brash, unfiltered and often explicit takes on the restaurant industry and lives of those working in it. My first introduction to Bourdain came courtesy of my older brother, Thomas, a chef, when he gifted me Bourdain's New York Times best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
I was in high school at the time, anxiously contemplating what it was I was going to do with the rest of my life, and following in my brother's footsteps was high on my list of possibilities, as it is for any little bro. When he gave me the book, a paperback all creased and worn with an illegible personal note scribbled inside the front cover from owners past, Thomas told me "read this if you want to know [what being a chef] is like. This is as real as it gets."

In short, Kitchen Confidential changed my life. Bourdain talked me out of pursuing a life as a professional chef while gifting me insight into my mysterious older brother's life I wouldn't have had otherwise — the trials and tribulations, and the seedy and scandalous sides of fine dining and kitchen culture. Most importantly, though, I learned that being a cook doesn't come down to the kitchen you're in or the school you went to, it's about a passion for food. I carry that thought with me to this day, practicing age-old family recipes and experimenting with new ones in my garden level home kitchen.

Bourdain's passion led him to international fame, publishing multiple books, Emmy award-wining television series, and a graphic novel titled Get Jiro, illustrated by local artist Langdon Foss. (The Indy spoke with Bourdain again in 2012 about the graphic novel.)
But I will never forget pre-cable Bourdain, full of "fucks" and evoking the smell of cigarette smoke and images of stained kitchen towels with his unfiltered style. So when I put his name through the Indy archive and found this 2000 interview, I couldn't help but to smile and hear that familiar voice reading back to me.

Here's John Broening's short conversation with Bourdain, titled "Pistol-whipping Mother Teresa," in full:

For a chef who, by his own account, snorted coke through uncooked penne, threatened a sluggish line cook with disfigurement, and who encourages the gadget-savvy amateur to "make Emeril your bitch," Anthony Bourdain is disappointingly sane and even-handed in conversation.

Given the opportunity to slag any number of big names in the food world, he says judicious and evenhanded things. But about Emeril Lagasse, television's best-loved cooking personality, he admits: "I get a rash every time I look at him. ... People want me to say bad things about him ... it's kind of like kicking Barney in the privates or pistol-whipping Mother Teresa."

When asked if there is any precedent for his book within the industry, he scoffs.

"I hope not!" he laughs. "Not that I'm comparing myself to Orwell, but I hope to give the reader the same sense of recognition and a few sad laughs that you get from reading Down and Out in Paris and London," he says, referring to Orwell's classic account of his stint as a dishwasher in a Paris restaurant.

About his own place among the big names, Bourdain is modest. "At this point in my career, I know I'm not going to be on culinary Olympus or breaking any new culinary trends ... the satisfaction in my job comes from running a busy kitchen and doing it quickly, cleanly and profitably for my masters ... and from what I call the Lee Marvin Syndrome. ... I see myself as the pirate leader of a band of people who, outside the kitchen, are uncontrollable, potentially dangerous and dysfunctional. It's extremely satisfying to get them to show up on time, perform at a high level and take pleasure in their work."

Bourdain mentions with pride that he recently recruited a cook out of a Texas prison.

A famous survey put the average life expectancy of a chef at 55. Given that Bourdain is well over 40, does he contemplate the end of his career?

"They say you never see young pigeons or old chefs. ... I'll tell you what I won't be doing: I won't be giving up smoking (he has a three-pack-a-day habit) and I won't be leaving cooking. I'm going to beat the odds."

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