"I'm A Man in Love with Words"
Anthony Bourdain, in New Zealand to promote his Les Halles Cookbook, chats to Jan Bilton.
His book, Kitchen Confidential has sold over a million copies. He has written three novels and his television series and book, A Cook's Tour, have made him an international household name.
What inspired you to write novels?
"An old college room mate gave me the opportunity to tell a story and I took it. I enjoyed it. It was fun."
Tony grew up in a house filled with books where language and movies were important. He started reading at a very young age and was a voracious reader. "When I started using language I found it had power. It made people laugh, it stopped big kids picking on me — they were afraid of what I might say. I had the power to hurt my enemies and the power to amuse or seduce the people I wanted to like me. It was a useful skill.
"I always use language to manipulate events to my liking — to get out of trouble, to get into trouble.
"I had some great English teachers at high school. I was given good books to read and it impressed me how delicious a good book could be, how powerful language could be. It was a fairly conservative school and a lot of the books had a very subversive subtext. Tennessee Williams, Orwell — they were saying things that were very much contrary to what we were told was the right way to live. If you cared to look there was another level of enjoyment. I like language.
Is writing fiction easier than non-fiction?
I think writing novels is a little harder because — damn it — you have to have a plot, which I kind of resent.
"It's therapy for me. It's escapism. I read novels like I used to use drugs — as an escape. In much the same way, I can make my characters in my novels that do things that I can't.
Do you travel with a laptop?
I write a lot of freelance essays — travel, eating — while I'm away. However, When I'm writing a book I generally write the first draft longhand." He doesn’t take notes while he is eating at restaurants or in people's home. "It's rude." He commits details to memory.
Is all this travel taxing?
"Compared to 17 hours in a kitchen at 110 degrees, six days a week. It's OK. And no, I don’t don't work out. I smoke, this does affect my palate — all chefs smoke — but this is why God made salt.
I'm happiest when I'm travelling alone. I like being alone in a country or city where I've never been and don't speak the language, where I don’t know how to feed myself, order breakfast, and I find this sense of disorientation enormously satisfying and challenging. And when you are able to do those little things for the first time, it's hugely satisfying. You learn a lot in a relatively short time."
Do you still cook at Les Halles?
Almost never. I travel seven to eight months of the year now. It's great for me. I have a base of operation so when all of this (television) falls apart I have a fall-back plan. It's nice to know that someone will still employ me.
"I still have an influence on the menu for sure but there is no original recipe on the menu — they're all traditional French bistro/brasserie classics which is probably what I should have been cooking my whole career — it's what I'm good at. I'm not an innovator. I'm not a Charlie Trotter or a Tetsuya Wakuda — I haven't changed the world with my cooking."
Have you any advice for aspiring chefs?
"Be sure you know what you're doing, that you really want to be in the restaurant business before you quit your regular job, before you put yourself through cooking school. Work in a busy restaurant as a dishwasher or prep cook to find out whether this is the lifestyle for you. It's a sub culture you're joining, a tribe you're joining. It's hard, it's unglamorous. Be sure you love it. You basically turn your back on the straight, normal world. Goodbye weekends, goodbye holidays, goodbye normal relationships.
However. "Cooking is noble toil."