Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain is said to be on the road at least 200 days a year, as often as possible visiting somewhere unknown. Aside from his native New York City, there is but one other place he is guaranteed to be each year: Grand Cayman, for Cayman Cookout, the celebrity chef-driven food festival helmed by his good friend Eric Ripert, of Manhattan’s renowned Le Bernardin. And Grand Cayman was where Canada’s 100 Best editor Jacob Richler caught up with Bourdain.
Canada’s 100 Best: One day you’re a bistro chef, barking at line cooks to move it with the cassoulet and steak-frites, and the next thing you’re here in Cayman, with camera- toting journalists following you around hoping to photograph you eating something. What’s that like?
AB: It’s strange. It’s weird. It was an abrupt transition—literally overnight. I think if I’d gone from college to this I probably would have handled it very badly and would have resented it. Or started talking about myself in the third person or throwing cellphones at hotel check-in desks or whatever. But the fact is I know what work is. I know what it’s like to go to work at a restaurant that I hate, and cook brunch for customers that I hate, when it’s the only work I could get. So, compared to that, having to stop and pose for a photo when I’m trying to run for the bathroom to take a leak, well, it’s not so bad.
C100B: How does writing for television compare to writing books and the fiction you used to publish? Do you find it as satisfying?
AB: It’s easier, for sure. For better or worse, you have all these strange and terrible tools of the editing room and music and all of these wonderful images. So if the object of a paragraph is to get your reader or listener to feel a certain way, it’s a lot easier and more effective. It’s all storytelling as far as I’m concerned. It’s probably worth pointing out, I was never Vladimir Nabokov. I was never artfully crafting sentences as if for eternity.
C100B: Meanwhile you’re about to make Newton Circus—the great Singapore hawkers’ market—look like a small street fair.
AB: And I would imagine that some of the operators from Newton Circus will actually be in our market.
C100B: Last piece I saw in the New York Times was anticipating that Bourdain Market was going to have some terrible visa problems with all those foreign cooks.
AB: No, we are not anticipating monstrous visa problems. We are fully aware of, anticipating and prepared for a large number of visas. And we have the wherewithal, the will and the people to make it happen. We understand the size of this challenge. We are convincing people from small mom and pop operations in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong to come to New York City. They will need to live someplace. They will need to be looked after. They will need to train people. We have a lot of time and a lot of people who are very good at this.
C100B: You’re going to bring to New York City an experience that people used to have to travel for. It’s going to change things.
AB: I think we’re catching up. It’s an inevitable Asianization of the American dining scene—and cultural scene—in general. I can’t believe someone hasn’t done it yet. I’m happy to be part of this historic inevitability. The city is a great melting pot. It’s a natural place for it to have developed.
C100B: And the cookbook?
It’s a 100-per-cent functional family cookbook. Meaning it’s stuff that I actually cook at home.
AB: It’s a family cookbook, with a cover by [British illustrator and Hunter S. Thompson collaborator] Ralph Steadman.
And that kind of tells you everything you need to know! I wanted to make the most fucked- up, self-indulgent, gorgeous, strange [cookbook]. I wanted to push everything that a cookbook shouldn’t be, and should be, in one very strange package. I think the Au Pied de Cochon [from Martin Picard of Montreal] and the Joe Beef book [from David McMillan and Frédéric Morin, same] were both real inspirations for me. As well as Nose to Tail [The Whole Beast by London’s Fergus Henderson].
C100B: You’re a big fan of those two Montreal restaurants.
AB: Those three guys—Martin, David and Fred—are literally the greatest ambassadors for Canadian gastronomy, the greatest ambassadors for Canada, period. No American chef, no chef in the American culinary scene—and we’re talking for 15 solid years now—can enter the city of Montreal without them knowing. They’re a diplomatic corps unto themselves! They’ve got everybody important drunk and sexually compromised. They’re giants!
C100B: I’d love to ask about that but it’s probably best to return to the book. Is it simple and accessible?
AB: It’s a 100-per-cent functional family cookbook. Meaning it’s stuff that I actually cook at home. Decent home cooks should be able to cook these things. It supplies restaurant thinking and strategies—but this is not restaurant food.
C100B: Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert has a memoir coming out, and you’ve read the galleys. What’s it like?
AB: It’s amazing. It’s heart-wrenching. I’ve known him 15 years now. I was stunned— completely shocked. This is about a tortured, angry young man with a seriously just heartbreaking childhood and adolescence. I had no idea. I’ve never seen him wish ill on anyone. Ever. I mean, every job I’ve ever had, everyone loses it on someone else at some point. Someday that rat cocksucker is going down and I’ll be there! Not Eric. Never. The Buddhism—he’s not kidding. I mean temperamentally and everything. But this was an angry kid with a lot of pain. A lot of pain. Dickensian. Not nancially—he grew up very comfortably middle-class. Unlike a lot of chef memoirs where they tell you, you know, “I grew up next to the fields where the saffron grew, with a natural love of food…” Yeah, yeah. This one, you really understand where the food came from, as a sort of desperate plea for love. But it’s not a “poor me” book.
C100B: I put down a lot of chef memoirs unfinished. But I really liked Gabrielle Hamilton’s, because she writes so well. And Marco Pierre White’s was interesting. I guess he had a tough start, too.
AB: It was awful! Awful! And Marco’s a good friend of mine. But Marco and Gordon [Ramsay] both—they were all abused children, these guys.
C100B: I remember White wrote about being an undiagnosed dyslexic and being teased mercilessly.
AB: It was way worse. He saw his siblings taken away to the orphanage. His dad had to choose one—and the others were taken away. And Gordon! Gordon going to bed every night thinking, “Is the bailiff coming tomorrow and are we going to have to leave again in the middle of the night and move to some trailer park?”
C100B: This is the eighth running of Cayman Cookout and you’ve been here every year since the outset, right?
AB: It’s an important part of my year. And I think for all of us—for José [Andrés], for Eric [Ripert]. It’s important for all of our families. Our kids all play together and look forward to running wild. You know—we all live in cities. You can’t let your kids out the door to run wild in the dark. Here, you can. So [Eric’s young son] Adrian Ripert, all three Andrés girls and my daughter [Ariane, nine] form this little expanding and contracting mafia of miscreants getting into trouble in the dark on the beach. Those [sorts of things] were the happiest moments of my life growing up, so I can only hope [my daughter] is having some of the same memories.
C100B: So for you guys this a family vacation? A chefs’ family vacation?
AB: It’s great for all of to get to see each other. We’re all incredibly, insanely busy people. So I get to see Eric and José for three, four, ve days in a row. As well as the other chefs who come along. This year, Ludo [Lefebvre, of Les Trois Mecs, in Los Angeles] is a very good friend. And Daniel [Boulud] from a couple of years ago. Tom Colicchio. We’re all friends. So to all be together in the same place…
C100B: Who has more fun here then, the chefs or the guests?
AB: Oh, the chefs! But I think that’s true in life. You know, cooking is a blue-collar profession. Maybe not now, in our current situation. But all of us came up doing a repetitive task, standing on our feet for18 hours a day. So to find yourself late in life standing on a beach at a Ritz-Carlton, I think—I assume—that we’re probably enjoying ourselves a little bit better than a guy who’s a policy analyst for a Gadhafi or something. Or whatever it is that people do here.