Anthony Bourdain Talks Medium Raw, Illegal Ortolan, and Evil Cake Maker Sandra Lee

If you know Anthony Bourdain from No Reservations and nothing else, perhaps you're under the impression he's just some cuddly middle-aged curmudgeon. Newsflash: You're wrong. Sure, he can be a friendly, engaging, and gracious dude. But for a full, uncensored view of Bourdain's too-hot-for-TV alter ego, you need to read his books.

And the newest one, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, shows Bourdain at his shit-talking, satirical best. In one chapter, "Lower Education," he teaches his toddler daughter that Ronald McDonald has cooties and smells like poo. In another, he calls Wolfgang Puck a villain for turning on his peers in the foie gras war. But the sharpest stab in the whole thing is reserved for the creator of the Kwanzaa cake, Sandra Lee.

"'You've been a bad boy,' Sandra was saying, perhaps referring to casual comments I may or may not have made, in which I may have suggested she was the 'hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson,'" Bourdain writes. "Right now, I have no contemporaneous recollection of those comments. Nor do I have any recollection of Sandra's icy, predatory claws working their way up my spine and around my hips -- like some terrifying alien mandibles, probing for a soft spot before plunging deep into the soft goo of my kidneys or liver."

Tonight, Anthony Bourdain will check into the Lincoln Theatre to read from Medium Raw and sign copies for his legions of smart and snotty fans. As a sort of preamble, New Times spoke with Bourdain about Miami food, Hunter S. Thompson, trips to China, and cigarettes.

New Times: Like everyone else, Miamians like to hear about themselves. Do you have any local favorites, food spots or otherwise?

Anthony Bourdain: Anything to do with Michelle Bernstein, I love. And there's the taco place across from Club Deuce. Love it.

The jacket flap for your new book, Medium Raw, doesn't say anything about it, but are you still the executive chef at Les Halles?

In a sort of, kind of spiritual leader in absentia kind of way. I mean, I don't serve any useful day-to-day purpose for the restaurant. I haven't worked a line in ten years. I'm traveling 175 days a year for the show and another 40 for speaking gigs. So... whatever. No, I'm not the executive chef.

How often do you cook these days? Do you cook at home for your family or friends?

Yeah, I usually cook at home. Though I'm very lazy now with a lot of chef friends, so back in New York, I eat around or I go out to dinner with my wife and friends, like I said, most of whom are chefs. But I do cook now and again, you know, a little pasta or something simple like a boeuf bourguignon. You know, something my daughter would like.

In the past, you've said the first oyster you'd ever eaten was your big formative food experience. Did you have a similar book experience as a kid?

I liked adventure stories as a kid, you know, Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. As a 12-year-old, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a big book for me. Clearly influential, maybe not the best role model, but an important inspiration. I was reading it serialized in Rolling Stone, and I was absolutely riveted the whole time.

Did you always have literary ambitions? Did you know you'd eventually publish a book?

No. I've never written anything that hasn't been published. I mean, I haven't been toiling away on unpublished manuscripts my entire life. Given the opportunity to write, I will do it.

But from your earliest writing, there's a pretty distinctive prose style. How did you develop that?

I think it's a conversational style. I like the way I talk. In the crime writing, I definitely have influences, but the nonfiction is conversational. It's just the way I talk with my friends. It's the way I talk in the kitchen. I think I come out of an oral-storytelling tradition more than any kind of written-word one.

Your new one, Medium Raw, opens with a secret chef dinner of ortolan, a protected bird species. How long had you been dreaming about that forbidden French classic?

It was something I noticed I'd never had. I wouldn't know where to get it. And I would have mixed emotions about it in any case. It just sort of fell into my lap that I was lucky enough to be invited to this gathering of the cream of America's chefs, eating this extremely rare and difficult-to-find, 1,000-year-old culinary tradition. It's really, really an extraordinary experience.

Are there any other off-limits delicacies you've got on your eat-before-I-die list?

I've pretty much had it all. I'm trying to think of something I haven't had that I really, really want. There's a lot I want more of, but I've pretty much covered the waterfront at this point, I think.

How about traveling? Is there anyplace left?

Sure, there are a lot of places, like Cuba. And I hope to go up the Congo river and retrace Conrad's trip in Heart of Darkness. There are a lot of places that I want to go back to. Areas of the Far East that I haven't been... I mean, China's a big country. There are a lot of places that I have not visited in China.

You made a similar comment about America in A Cook's Tour. Have you done more domestic traveling since then?

A lot. Between the 40 speaking gigs a year and book tour... Just in the last month, I've been to a lot of cities I haven't visited before. And I'm finding surprising, real outposts of creativity in unlikely places.

Is that the upside to a book tour? There are plenty of writers who dread being out on the road doing PR.

Listen, it's tiring. But, gee, I can hardly complain that people care, that I even get a book tour is a privilege. I think any author who's complaining about a book tour should really get over themselves and stop whining. You know, they're making a living in a sitting position. And their publisher cares about them enough to even send them on tour in an environment where that's all too rare. I have no sympathy for anybody who whines about book tours.

Early in the new book, you detail a chilling encounter with cake maker Sandra Lee. Has Ms. Lee followed up with any other thinly veiled threats?

No. I'll run if I see her. She's genuinely terrifying. I have to say I was overmatched. She nearly had me for dinner. Whatever else you may say about Sandra Lee -- and I've said plenty -- she's not a weak sister. She is a strong, determined, self-assured, somewhat scary woman. It was a very uncomfortable moment that I would not care to relive.

Yeah. In the retelling, you seem oddly silent, which isn't something typically associated with Anthony Bourdain.

Well, I was struck dumb with terror.

You also write culinary students like they're wannabe supermodels -- useless by the age of 30.

Wait a minute... I'm saying that culinary school is a very good idea. I'm just warning people before they get into a $60,000 student loan that they find out for sure if they really and truly love this business and that they have a realistic expectation for their career and income. I think responsible culinary schools have an obligation to force people to ask themselves some very hard questions. There are a lot of predatory schools out there.

There's a question of chefs preferring to work with younger grads too. Why can't an older guy or girl cut it in the kitchen?

It is a physically demanding job. It's a young person's game. You're asked to do hundreds of knee-bends per day just to get into your own station and get food out. You're under incredible heat and incredible pressure. If you're not physically up to that job, then you're not going to do well. It'll all be a waste. You'll quit after a couple of years. So many people I've met, you know, they went to culinary school and do maybe two years in the business and just couldn't take it. It sounds like a sweeping generalization, but if you're 32 years old and just getting into culinary school now, the odds are stacked against you. I'm not saying you can't make it. I'm just saying it's going to be a rougher ride than if you're going in at 19 or 20. It's the same thing as going into the military in that sense. You know, it's a physical activity being an infantryman, and I think people are realistic about that. It's a hell of a lot harder for someone to go into it in their 30s.

How did you first fall into the restaurant business?

It was at 17 years old as a dishwasher. You know, I just wanted to get laid. It was a different world back then. It was a subculture for refugees and misfits. Now there's a lot of prestige and hope and real possibilities. It's a much more professional business.

So you didn't go into it all with grand plans of serving the best food in America?

I might have thought that at a few moments in my life. But I was never a great chef. The times in my life when I thought I was a creative mastermind, people got hurt.

What finally pushed you to the point where you decided to write a memoir, Kitchen Confidential, about your life of cooking and bad behavior?

Well, I had written a short article for a free paper that had ended up in the New Yorker and it became a sort of succès de scandale. You know, a publisher called me up and asked if I wanted to write a book. I'm not an idiot. I mean, you offer me money to write a book.

Had you started to feel too old for the high-octane cooking game? Was it time to starts something new? Or was it just a fortuitous moment?

I was 44. I was not getting any faster or smarter in the kitchen. It was extraordinarily good timing. It was a very, very lucky and unexpected break.

In your TV show and books, cool cult bands like the Stooges or the Ramones always crop up. Have you ever cooked for any of your punk idols?

Well, I've eaten with a number of them. Back in the day, there were some people that I cooked for, but I was just the service help. One of the great things about doing the show is that we increasingly find if we call up people we really like, a lot of times they're willing to come on the show. We've had Queens of the Stone Age on the show. Iggy's given us music. Marky Ramone and Ted Nugent have been on the show. It's pretty cool.

Nugent? Really? How was he as a dinner companion?

Great guy. I mean, we disagree as far as politics go. We couldn't be less alike. But it sort of encapsulates my worldview, you know, I don't have to agree with you to like you or respect you.

I haven't seen every episode. But it seems like there's less footage of you smoking in the last season of No Reservations.

I quit smoking about two years ago. I'm a daddy. I've got a three-year-old girl. Also, I was 50 when I had my first child, so I feel this paternal obligation to at least try to live a little longer. I just took that drug Chantix. That works for me.

I recently reread A Cook's Tour and you seemed to have been very conflicted at the time about the business of television. But these days you appear to be very happy with No Reservations. And with the "Selling Out" chapter in Medium Raw, have you made peace with your status as a TV star?

I mean, I can't complain because I'm my own boss. Me and my partners decide, unlike A Cook's Tour, where we're going to go, how we're going to make the show. We have more creative freedom, I think, than anyone in the history of television about making the show look and sound the way we want it. I can hardly complain to the boss 'cause the boss is me.

There's a bit of news in Medium Raw that I previously managed to miss. You write: "Scripps Howard, the parent company of Food Network, outbidding Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, bought my network, the Travel Channel." Has the buyout affected day-to-day life for your show at all?

I am assured by the president of Travel Channel that the show will go on as before and that no one will interfere with what has turned out to be a very successful business model for them and for me. I see no reason for unhappiness.

So it's unlikely that the same kind of corporate interference that happened at the tail end of your first show, A Cook's Tour, won't happen again with No Reservations.

Well, if it does, I'll do the same thing I did the last time. You know, they have seen my back before.

Anthony Bourdain discusses Medium Raw. Wednesday, June 30. Lincoln Theater, 541 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are free with a purchase of Medium Raw from any Books & Books location. Call 305-442-4408 or visit

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
S. Pajot