The National Restaurant Association’s choice of Anthony Bourdain as a featured speaker at its recent Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show was crazy smart. Clearly it was a bid to attract a younger, hipper audience, but no matter what age you are, the guy demands your attention. Bourdain—never shy about sharing his innermost thoughts—isn’t for everyone. He’s like a car crash: some people slow down and take a look, others want to pass right by. But whatever you think of him, you've got to admit the guy is wildly entertaining. And there was no shortage of Tony at the NRA’s restaurantpalooza in Chicago. For two days he was all over the place, judging the Star of the Bar mixology contest, signing books and commanding the stage for an hour-long, one-sided “conversation.” In that hour, here’s what we learned:
• He knows he has the best job in the world. “I get to go anywhere in the world with my friends and tell a story about it. I get to get drunk, I get to curse and I get paid for it,” he boasted.
• He has little patience for mediocrity. Describing a lifeless, precooked burger at an airport-based burger joint, he said, “It was very likely not just the worst hamburger I have ever had, but maybe the worst meal….Why would any company clearly care so little about customer satisfaction as to give so little a shit?” he asked.
• Bourdain might consider McDonald’s and Burger King necessary evils, but he grudgingly admitted he admires them for one thing: “These companies give considerable thought to their products. These are carefully tested flavor bombs.”
• He is not above patronizing some of the very places he skewers. “I have a dirty, filthy little secret: my unholy late-night urge for KFC,” he admitted. He craves the mac ‘n cheese.
• His mild apology for trashing so many popular restaurant brands: “I don’t want to sound like a snob. I am a snob, but I don’t want to sound like one.”
• He values authenticity. In his travels, the meals and foods he has enjoyed the most are those with a family history. “It’s personal—these are intimate transactions. It should mean something when someone looks you in the eye and they feed you,” he observed. Similarly, he abhors knockoffs or unnecessary shortcuts. Bourdain cringes when a cooking professional suggests purchasing already-chopped garlic in olive oil, for example. And “when I see fake Italian food sold in a restaurant—food that any Italian grandmother can make in 20 minutes—that makes me berserk.”
• Yes, he has tried some esoteric foods in his travels, but he’s a piker when compared to Andrew Zimmern, who hosts the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods. “I eat a lot of dick, let’s put it that way. I’ve eaten a lot of unusual things.” He said he balances out those experiences by eating well at other times.
“But how does Andrew Zimmern do it? Poor bastard…. Zimmern eats dick, dick, dick, dick, dick all day.”
• No, he doesn’t get sick very often. The crew on his TV show No Reservations has a pool to see who will get sick first, and the culprit, he revealed, is more likely to be the breakfast buffet at the modern hotel than the food carts on the street. His take on this? “The taco dude is serving his neighbors. He’s not going to stay in business day after day by poisoning his neighbors— that’s not a sustainable business model.”
• The standard, safe order for the road warrior crew that travels with Bourdain to exotic locations is a club sandwich; newcomers quickly learn why when they end up spending a lot of time in the bathroom. One adventurous producer went for the jambalaya, to everyone else’s amusement. “Shrimp, sausage, chicken, mussels, all cooked together. Any one of those could be the bitch of the bunch.
“It’s like getting into a hot tub at Hugh Hefner’s house after Ron Jeremy just got out: No good can come of this.”
How restaurant culture has changed
• His advice for aspiring chefs? Before going into debt for culinary school, he tells them to take a job in a restaurant for a few months. That’s the best way to gauge their tolerance for hot, cruel conditions, talking endlessly about sports and lacking any reasonable social life. Or, as he summarized it, “Is this the life for me, or am I a normal person?”
• No, in case you’re wondering, Bourdain does not miss working in a kitchen. “I’m 56 years old,” he said. “I’m not romantic about standing next to the fryer again…. If you’re 32 years old in a kitchen today, you’re basically grandpa.”
• The celebrity chef phenomenon has yielded some pluses: better choices at the supermarket, a more knowledgeable consumer and more status for chefs in general. Managers and maitre d’s once held the power, but “who gives shit about them anymore?” Bourdain said. Now, “people actually care what chefs think” and actively solicit the chef’s opinion before ordering.
“People care what chefs eat and want to go where the chefs go,” he added.
• He seconded an observation, first voiced by LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, that dining out has evolved into a counter-cultural activity. “This is an extraordinary change in our culture,” Bourdain said. Foodies now brag about being the first on the block to discover the latest dump selling fantastic burgers or noodles. “Young people in their 20s are spending money they can’t afford at Le Bernardin in New York City,” Bourdain said. “All that money we used to spend (when I was) in my 20s on concerts, records and cocaine is now being spent in restaurants.” Those 20-somethings are opting to dine in the lounge, where the price points are lower but they get a taste of the real deal.
• Food trucks are past the point of being trendy; now they are a way for young chefs to get in the game without a lot of skin. “You can now establish a brand and your own personal style and introduce yourself to the public,” he said.
• “When you send an Instagram from a really good restaurant, what are you doing?” he asked. “You want everyone who sees it to feel really, really bad.”
• When he was a working chef, he didn’t give much thought to politics, sustainability or health. He only wanted the best product at the best price. “I’m a dad now, and like any great hypocrite, my little angel only eats organic.”
• He’s a fan of two burger chains that have achieved cult status—In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack. When he found out that a Shake Shack (Union Square Hospitality Group’s casual burger concept) was opening in his neighborhood, “I fell to my knees and started weeping with joy,” he recalled. Similarly, “Every few years some really mean son of a bitch starts a rumor that In-N-Out Burger is going to New York. People go ape shit.”
“Every time I go to LA I go to the In-N-Out burger near the airport,” he admitted. “If you’re eating In-N-Out in your suite at the Chateau Marmont, and you tweet about it or put it on Facebook, you will get more ‘likes’ and positive comments than if you take a picture of yourself having sex with twins.”
What inspires the passion for these brands? Both offer a “good, well-designed burger that’s consistently executed, there’s a hazy understanding that somehow they are also good for the world because they use good meat, take good care of their employees, and freshness is important. This all clearly matters if you look at the obsessive love for these establishments.”
• Bourdain loathes guests who blame the waiter when a meal goes wrong. But if the service is bad, he leaves a 15 percent tip and doesn’t return. And he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about it, he added, “unless it’s the worst burger of my life, in which case I’ll spend the rest of my life talking shit about it.”