This article originally appeared in The Bergen Record on Aug. 6, 2015. Anthony Bourdain died by suicide on June 8, 2018.
Anthony Bourdain needs little introduction. Since the debut of his surprise bestseller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly in 2000, the Leonia native and former executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan has become a cult figure and culinary celebrity, attracting both at-home TV viewers and the tattooed masses of the food biz with his erudite commentary and a willingness to take risks.
The professional gadfly, never without an opinion (often expressed in salty terms), brings his tales from the road and kitchen.
Are there any surprises at this point in your career?
People surprise me all the time. I like to think of myself as a cynical person. I like to think of myself as someone who has been around. But human behavior is an endless mystery to me.
Do you think of yourself as a storyteller, as a teacher, or in some other way?
Definitely not a teacher, definitely not an advocate or a journalist. "A storyteller" sounds good to me.
Do you have a message you're conveying to viewers?
No message. I want to tell as compelling and as entertaining a story as possible, as true to the way I felt about the place as I can. I'm not looking to necessarily tell you everything you need to know about a place; I want to give a sense of what I felt about it. It's not exactly journalism; it's very subjective. It's a very manipulative process because I have the advantage of editing and nice camera work and music. Those are all part of the storytelling process.
How long can you continue doing your worldwide adventures?
I'm doomed to have the best job in the world. How could I ever not do this? I go wherever I want. I work with close friends. I tell whatever stories I like in whatever fashion I choose to tell them, with the muscle of a major international cable news outfit behind me. It's a dream of a job. It's the best job in the world. I think I could be forgiven for being reluctant to ever leave it. I will probably die in the saddle.
What do you think of the state of food TV?
Television as a medium in general tends to be filled at the national level with frightened people. They are afraid of doing new things. They are punished for new things. Everyone claims to want new things and original ideas, but that's not really true. I think that atmosphere of fear and reluctance to try new things, the sort of franchise mentality, that aversion to risk, the imperative to pander to people, to talk down to them, to treat the audience like idiots, has proven to be a safe bet. That said, a few good things -- or at least a few attempts to do good things -- flit through here and there. Look, I'd rather see too much food television than too much sports television. I think food and cooking are better for the world.
What advice do you have to those who want to do what you do?
I have absolutely no idea how this happened to me, honestly. I don't know how I ended up with this job. In my case, I did everything you are not supposed to do. I screwed up in every possible way. I was rude to everybody you are supposed to be nice to. I did everything wrong as far as the conventional wisdom on how to be successful in food television. I think, in my case, there seems to be an audience out there for the other guy. It's not so much who I am or what I'm doing; it's what I am not doing. There seems to be an audience for that. I don't know how big an audience that is. I never honestly cared about being successful. I always assumed I would be kicked off television every season. It came as a weird surprise to me every year when I wasn't canceled. I was shocked.
I don't really care whether people like the show. Ideally, you'll really like this episode, you'll hate next week's episode, you'll be confused by the following week's episode and you'll love the one after that. That would be perfect for me. I just don't want to do the same thing all the time. If you are reliably making people, even your core audience, happy, you are doing something wrong. I'm much more interested in trying to be creative, trying to stay interested, trying to push my crew and my creative partners to do their best work. I'm fully aware that, if that's your priority, you are going to make some people unhappy on a regular basis. That's what I do. I don't know if that's a recipe for success. It probably isn't. The recipe for success is to make the stupidest show about bacon and burgers, fill it with plenty of rodeos and Americana, get yourself frosted tips and some goofy cargo shorts and a signature look and be sure you have a catch phrase, and you are well on your way.
Is there any place that you haven't explored yet?
It's a big world. China alone is a huge place that I'd like to know a lot more about. There are countries I haven't been able to get into and make television that I want to go to. There are places I've been that I think I did a bad job that I'd like to go back and do a better job. There are places I've been where we did a good job, and I'd like to go back and do it from a different perspective.
We did a Los Angeles show, for instance, where the entire point of view was Korean-American. I'd like to go back and pretend there is no one in L.A. but Mexicans. That would be intriguing. There are plenty of stories to tell in this world.
Is your daughter a good eater?
My daughter is 8 and loves cooking with her daddy, and we do that as often as we can together. She stands on a little stool next to me in the kitchen and we have an increasingly large repertoire of things we cook together. I look forward to that when I'm on the road: going to the market, shopping and cooking with her.
Tell me some likes and dislikes that you have.
I like anybody who is making food sincerely, who really cares about what they are doing, who takes pride in their food, who genuinely enjoys eating food, who likes people and who likes the whole process of cooking and eating, because if you don't like to eat, there's no way you can cook. I like eating a simple bowl of well-made spaghetti out of a cracked bowl and mopping the sauce with a hunk of country bread. That makes me happy. I like sushi. I like being in Japan, I like music.
What I don't like is cynical TV shows or movies that pander, that are less smart than they could be.
I don't like people who make deliberately stupid, second-best efforts because they figure that's what people want. That really offends me. People who are too lazy or who don't care enough or are too cynical to give their best effort? That breaks my heart and makes me angry.
If you know someone who is thinking about suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).