Ming: What is your exposure to the wine world?
Bourdain: I spent a fair amount of time in France as a kid. I briefly studied wine in Culinary Institute. And of course I’ve worked with it for 28 years, and spent a lot of time drinking it.
Ming: Is there any wine you’re loving now?
Bourdain: As I’ve gotten older I’m becoming more interested in Cote du Rhone and Burgundy and less interested in Bordeaux.
Ming: Shifting gears a little bit to Asia. How do you think about the Chinese palate?
Bourdain: It’s an endless source of fascination to me. It’s such an enormous country, there are so many distinct regions, with so many different flavors and traditions. I’m a little intimidated by how much there is to learn. I quickly came to understand that there’s not enough time in my life to learn anywhere near what I’d like to learn about Chinese cooking and the Chinese palate. I’m fascinated by the flavors and sensations of Szechuan province in particular.
Ming: It’s hard to find spicy food in Western cuisine, why?
Bourdain: The whole pleasure/pain component is fascinating to me. I think the roots of our cuisine are bland Western European. I think the Church was ambivalent on whether or not it was a good thing to enjoy food too much, and I think we may have suffered as a result.
Ming: How do you think about the Chinese wine market?
Bourdain: It’s completely crazy and distorted. Apparently the preferred unit of currency in business is a case of Bordeaux, a recognizable Chateau. It’s distorted the wine market a lot, particularly for the bigger, more recognizable names. But I think the more people around the world appreciate wines from other countries than their own, the more people are willing to eat outside of their own area. I think that’s good for the world. The French love Chinese food, so it’s only appropriate that the Chinese appreciate French wine and food.
Ming: Back to you and your world. Last time we met was while filming your Outer Borough episode in Flushing. I heard you have some exciting developments – what’s next?
Bourdain: In the fall I’ll be moving over to CNN, with the same production crew, the photographers, cinematographers, the editors, the same production company. I hope we’ll be able to improve the quality of the show even more; and be making the show in some areas of the world. I’m quite certain that we’ll be able to shoot in areas of the world where security concerns might have prevented us at one time. CNN is a big news organization and they have an infrastructure that might well allow us to shoot in places like the Congo or Libya. And I very much like the idea of having the program shown everywhere in the world at the same time, rather than a year later or two years later on a different network.
Ming: Why do you do what you do? What motivates you?
Bourdain: Until I was 44 yrs old I hadn’t really been anywhere, my whole life was inside a kitchen. I’m very aware of how lucky I am and I’m taking advantage of every minute of it. I assume it can’t last, so I want to see as much of the world as I can, and satisfy my curiosity about it, and have as much fun as I can, and make as many things, and be as productive as I can, in the short period of time available.
Ming: Is there a character named Anthony Bourdain that you have to live with everyday?
Bourdain: Is there a character I have to live with? No. I’m in an enviable position of getting paid to be myself. I think that’s unusual. I don’t have to play anybody else on TV, I don’t have to be any nicer or be more diplomatic. It’s a relief.
Ming: Looking back, what are the top three lessons you’ve learned?
Tony: The first, most important lesson I ever learned, as a dishwasher, I learned to show up on time. If you told people you would meet them at 8:00, you were there five minutes before 8. Another lesson I learned is to eat what is offered, wherever you are, when people offer you food, accept it without fear or prejudice. This is an essential part of understanding and communicating with people, even if they are very different than you or where you come from. And do the best work you can. If it’s not fun and makes you miserable, don’t do it. Go do something else.
Ming: You’ve held many positions in your career and have gotten a unique perspective as a result – how would you define your industry?
Bourdain: I don’t know that I belong to any industry. The restaurant industry – the service industry – it’s manufacturing, it’s a blue-collar profession. People who are making things are just like factory workers. But there’s a service component. Chefs are not rock stars. They may appear to be now and then, but they’re not. It’s closer to manufacturing than to art.
In my case I don’t even know what my job is, I don’t even know what to write down, when I fill out immigration forms and they ask what my job is. I don’t know what it is that I do. I used to be a cook, I knew what that was. Now I guess I’m a storyteller. I write books, I publish books, I write for television, but I wouldn’t know how to describe myself. I’m quite sure I’m not an artist, but I think “storyteller” would be good.
Ming: You often engage with a place in many ways beyond food – sometimes politics and history. Will you put more emphasis on matters besides food after joining CNN?
Bourdain: That’s not my intention. Usually it’s the other way around. Politics intrudes into the meal all the time. Why do people eat what they eat? Why do they not eat what they’re not eating? The foods we choose to eat or end up eating are from the end of a long history. There are very utilitarian reasons why we like the things we like, or we have the things we have. So I will always view the world through the prism of what people are eating and I’m much more interested in how people live, what they have to say, when they’re sitting around the table communicating through food. I like to tell the story of the world in different cultures, always with that framework. I don’t anticipate going to a place with a particular point of view or an agenda. I’m not a reporter. I’m not a journalist.
Ming: Any trend that you hope Asian cuisine to cultivate?
Bourdain: I’ve traveled a lot, and the way things are changing in food seem generally pretty positive. Only I’d like to see less of American-style fast food – the major chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, convenience food. I’d like to see those companies less successful. I don’t see them as a positive influence. To me the Chinese, like the Da Pai Dong in Hong Kong, or the Hawker Center in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, those are ideal fast food models for me. I’d like to see that spread to America and Europe more.
Ming: Confucius taught people how to eat meat on the bone, westerners completely leave it out, what’s your verdict?
Bourdain: Confucius is right. There’s no doubt about it. I also love that Chinese story of bandits attacking a caravan, and they take prisoner the wealthiest-looking person. They offer him a whole fish, and watch which part he ate first. If he ate from the head first, they held him for ransom – they figured he was a valuable person of good quality whose relatives would miss him and be willing to pay. If he went for the fillet, they killed him right there and settled for what was in his pockets.. So yes, I think the Chinese traditionally have been much more enlightened as to the best parts of things to eat.
Ming: Simple question: GG Allin or Iggy Pop?
Bourdain: Iggy Pop, no question.
Ming with Anthony Bourdain & Chris Cheung exploring Flushing, Queens