If you watch any of Anthony Bourdain's popular TV shows — food/travel hybrids such as No Reservations and The Layover — you'll notice that he frequently looks a little bleary-eyed. He comes by this look honestly, as the man seems never to sleep. And not because of the excesses he detailed in his best-selling 2000 butcher-blockbuster Kitchen Confidential, the book that spurred the craze for rock-star chefs even as the author skewered the likes of Emeril Lagasse (whom he famously compared to an Ewok).
In addition to the aforementioned shows on Travel Channel, Bourdain is a writer and culinary consultant for the HBO series Treme, is working on a new novel, co-hosts a new reality/cooking-competition show with Nigella Lawson called The Taste, and is developing a new travel show for his upcoming move to CNN. He has also produced and narrated a limited PBS series titled The Mind of a Chef, premiering 8 p.m. Nov. 9 locally on WNPT-Channel 8. In it, he will profile different culinary celebrities around the world, with a particular focus on New York chef David Chang, the leader of the Momufuku empire.
In the midst of all these projects, Bourdain is about to kick off another leg of his "Guts & Glory" national speaking tour with a Southern swing that includes a stop at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Saturday. He plans 15 stops on the tour this year and a similar number for 2013, among the 200-plus days he spends traveling every year.
In advance of his tour, he spoke by conference call with journalists from across the country to discuss "Guts & Glory," his new projects, Southern food, and which nerdy travel writer he'd like to get plastered with. It provided a glimpse of what Bourdain's life is like these days, now that he's a bigger media personality than almost all the chefs he visits.
Bourdain's popularity and bad boy persona were much on the minds of many journalists on the conference call. Some giggled fawningly at every comment; others asserted their own street cred with gratuitous cussing and bluster: "Have you ever been anywhere exceptionally shitty in Dallas?" "We've got some kick-ass chefs, so get your ass down here!" Still others asked painfully specific questions of the world traveler — things like, "Have you ever had a Muchacho from Taco Bueno?" When Bourdain responded, "No, I have not," the follow-up question was, "Have you had anything from Taco Bueno before?"
Bourdain's writing projects the image of a belligerent gustatory swashbuckler who does not suffer fools gladly. But he could not have been more affable or polite during his hourlong interrogatory. To the Taco Bueno line of inquiry, he replied only, "I have not. I guess I'm really missing something." One questioner even asked whether Bourdain had ever considered Spalding Gray an influence on his presentation style. (OK, that silly question came from me.)
"I'm flattered by the comparison," Bourdain said. "I hadn't thought of it, but that's good company."
He said he's been sharpening his chops for his multimedia rant/discourse/stand-up routine by making appearances at New York City area comedy clubs to try out short sets of material. His TPAC performance should address anything from the hazards of culinary celebrity to warming trends and warning signs in the world of dining.
Among these trends is the way Southern cooking is infiltrating international cuisine and vice versa, as in the recent New York City craze for Korean fried chicken. Bourdain agreed that the trend is important and potentially long-lasting.
"If you look at New Orleans, there's a huge number of Vietnamese, and that's delicious, delicious food," Bourdain said. "There's a whole new supply train of ingredients that are now entering the spectrum of flavors of what will be in 10-15 years traditional New Orleans cuisine. So as you get people from other places setting up shop, generally speaking it's an improvement culinarily and good for the food scene."
One particular Southerner drew great admiration from Bourdain: Chef Sean Brock, who has recently announced that he is bringing an outpost of his wildly successful Husk Restaurant to Nashville. Fans will recall Brock pretty much stole the "Cook it Raw" episode of No Reservations in which he and Bourdain traveled to Japan with a group of chefs to attend a culinary conference that invited them to "rethink the simple act of feeding ourselves."
"I'm a huge fan of what Sean is doing and a big supporter of his take on Southern cooking and his affection for traditional Southern foodways," Bourdain said. "I'm very happy to hear that Nashville will be fortunate enough to have him. Any city would be. Sean is saying important things and doing important work."
No less vital than the Southern revolution, Bourdain says, is the rise of food trucks and pop-up restaurants.
"I think food trucks and pop-ups are really useful for allowing venues for really talented young but undercapitalized cooks and chefs to express themselves creatively," Bourdain explained. "It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to open up a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. You could get yourself started with a food truck for significantly less, and you now see a lot of people starting out with food trucks and then segueing into a bricks-and-mortar location after making a success and raising some capital." Pop-up restaurants, he adds, are another method of bringing new food to the diners who might otherwise never encounter these cuisines.
"I think generally anything that's bringing delicious, presumably affordable food to the masses that offers an alternative to McDonald's is surely a good thing," Bourdain said.
If there's a trend Bourdain has mixed feelings about, it's the rise of food celebrities, the most destructive of whom he's called out ever since Kitchen Confidential. He promises to continue to bring the dirt and name names during the "Guts & Glory" tour. Aw, c'mon — surely you can give us a taste?
"Guy Fieri just opened a 500-seat restaurant in my hometown," Bourdain said, "and that worries me." When asked who had the better job between him and buttoned-down public-television host and travel writer Rick Steves, Bourdain answered unequivocally.
"Oh, I have the better job," Bourdain said. "Rick Steves has to be nice and wear mom jeans. But wouldn't it be great if Rick Steves got, like, completely hammered? I'd love to do a crossover show with him, get him all fucked up and maybe get him in trouble. I wanna take him someplace like Borneo or Hong Kong. I think it would be pretty funny to see him swinging his shirt over his head in a stripper bar in Bangkok going 'Whoo-hoo!' at the top of his lungs, getting tattoos together. It would be great!"
Despite his own celebrity, Bourdain has no handlers or complicated contract riders on his speaking tour. "I only demand local beer and Red Bull," he said. "I need to maintain a sufficient state of caffeinated enervation." He also rarely has time to eat anywhere interesting while on tour, preferring to grab a quick bite on the way out of town late at night after an engagement. So while chances are slim that you'll spot him at Prince's after midnight on Saturday after he's through speaking, feel free to stake the place out. (He might like a hot leg quarter sandwich to go, though.)
Oddly enough, for a man who's dined on cobra heart in Ho Chi Minh City and sampled some of the world's most far-flung delicacies, the TPAC stop will be Bourdain's first visit to Nashville. "There are a number of places that I've been that I'm shamefully ignorant of," he said. Told that Nashvillians have shown an ardent, almost prurient interest in his visit, he sounded pleased. "Great, that makes for a good audience," he said. Although few of the episodes of his shows focus on the South and its culinary traditions, Bourdain says he's a big fan of the region.
"I spend a lot of time traveling in gun country, in red-state America," Bourdain said. "I'm a New York left-wing blue-state guy, but I feel very happy and very comfortable in places with traditional values very different from my own. I'm pretty sure I can sit down with just about anyone in America, and we can eat barbecue and drink beer together. We at least have that in common."
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