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Anthony Bourdain: The 'Fresh Air' Interview


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Three years ago, the celebrated chef, writer and TV host Anthony Bourdain took his own life in France while there to film an episode of his TV series "Parts Unknown" on CNN. Now his life is the subject of a new documentary titled "Roadrunner." It's directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, who also made "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and "20 Feet From Stardom." Before becoming one of the world's best-known food and travel journalists, Bourdain spent decades in the restaurant business, becoming the chef in what he described as a working-class brasserie in New York. Then he discovered he had a gift for writing and storytelling. He wrote a bestselling book "Kitchen Confidential," then several others.

Eventually, he found television, hosting two series on the Travel Channel before launching "Parts Unknown" on CNN. The show took viewers to places all over the world, exploring local cultures and cuisine and offering his own unique commentary on the experience. A memorable episode found him eating a $6 bowl of noodles with President Barack Obama in Vietnam.

Bourdain was also a guy who'd tell you what he thinks, which led to some public battles with others in the food world. I spoke to Anthony Bourdain in 2016, when he'd published a cookbook called "Appetites." It focused more on family meals than professional cooking because at the time he was the father of a 9-year-old.


DAVIES: Well, Anthony Bourdain, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin with a reading from the book. Share this with us.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: (Reading) What is it that normal people do? What makes a normal happy family? How do they behave? What do they eat at home? How do they live their lives? I had little clue how to answer these questions for most of my working life as I'd been living it on the margins.

(Reading) I didn't know any normal people. From age 17 on, normal people had been my customers. They were abstractions, literally shadowy silhouettes in the dining room of wherever it was I was working at the time. I looked at them through the perspective of the lifelong professional cook and chef, which is to say as someone who did not have a family life, who knew and associated only with fellow restaurant professionals, who worked while normal people played and who played while normal people slept. To the extent that I knew or understood normal people's behaviors, it was to anticipate their immediate desires. Would they be ordering the chicken or the salmon? I usually saw them only at their worst - hungry, drunk, horny, ill-tempered, celebrating good fortune or taking out the bad on their servers.

(Reading) What they did at home, what it might be like to wake up late on a Sunday morning, make pancakes for a child, watch cartoons, throw a ball around a backyard - these were things I only knew from movies. The human heart was and remains a mystery to me, but I'm learning. I have to. I became a father at 50 years of age. That's late, I know, but for me, it was just right. At no point previously had I been old enough, settled enough or mature enough for this, the biggest and most important of jobs, the love and care of another human being.

DAVIES: Thanks. And that's one of the reasons you wrote a cookbook about normal food and normal everyday stuff.

BOURDAIN: Indeed, yeah.

DAVIES: You seem like you had a normal life. You grew up in Fort Lee, N.J. Your parents sounded like normal people. Why didn't you get along with normal people?

BOURDAIN: I don't know. I was an angry kid. I think I grew up, you know, as a child of the Kennedy years. The Summer of Love, I missed. I wasn't old enough for everything that was happening with the subculture. So when I became an adolescent, I was disappointed, very disappointed, bitterly disappointed with the way the country was going, with the kind of entertainment and adventures that seemed to be on offer. I seemed to have missed the good times. For whatever reason, I was definitely a very angry, bitter, nihilistic, destructive and self-destructive kid.

DAVIES: You did acid when you were 13. Is this true?

BOURDAIN: Yeah. To the extent that I identified with anyone, it was - I pretty much defined myself and my - I was - you know, I was, like most 13-year-olds, I think - 13-year-old boys in particular - you know, I was awkward. I lacked confidence. I was looking for some kind of a template for a personality. And I guess like a lot of people of the time, I found that in drugs. I defined myself by the drugs I was taking, and I identified with people who did similar drugs. And the people who were doing LSD and marijuana and other drugs, those were the people I wanted to hang out with.

DAVIES: You found a home in - among restaurant people, right? You dropped out of college, went to culinary school.

BOURDAIN: Yeah. Well, I started working as a dishwasher one summer, and it was really a big event for me because up to that point, I was lazy. I was - I was the kid that if you hired me to shovel your walk in winter, I would really do a terrible job of it and probably find a way to weasel out. I just - there was no group - there was no club to which I wanted to be a member.

This was the first discipline, the first organization because it is a very militaristic organization, the kitchen brigade, the first people whose respect I wanted and the first time in my life that I went home feeling respect for myself. I mean, I'd work - it was very hard work. You had to be there on time. There were certain absolute rules. And for whatever reason, I responded to that. It was a mix of chaos but also considerable order that I guess I needed at the time. You know, there's a joke or the old, you know, I found a home in the Army...

DAVIES: Right.

BOURDAIN: ...Or I found a home with a circus. I met circus folk who I felt - it was a subculture I wanted to be part of. And I was willing to work very hard to be part of it.

DAVIES: It's interesting that you describe the discipline because a lot of what people think of when they think of restaurant people is a really wild, hedonistic lifestyle, the hour - after-hour stuff that goes on forever.

BOURDAIN: At its root, it is factory work in the sense that the religion of any successful or busy restaurant is consistency. You have to do the same dish the same way and on time. I was a happy dishwasher. I jokingly say that I learned every important lesson, all the most important lessons of my life as a dishwasher. And in some ways, that's true.

Thomas Keller, the great chef, talks about how happy he was as a dishwasher. And he talks about the magic of discovering that you put those - you line the dirty dishes up, you push them in the machine and they come out clean every time. There's something very comforting about that.

And, you know, there was something - there were things I just had to do. And when I did do them well enough, I received approval. And I liked being - I still like being at the bottom of a steep learning curve. I liked being the worst in the kitchen and struggling every day to earn respect, you know, and status within that hierarchy. It was - but it is a very organized thing. I mean, no one lasts in the restaurant business who does not present they're part of an order, which requires many people on time. You - it's a - it's not a team sport, but it's a team activity. And if you let the team down, everybody crashes.

DAVIES: Your big breakthrough came with the book "Kitchen Confidential," huge bestseller, started with an article you wrote. Tell us that story.

BOURDAIN: Well, I wrote a piece intending it for a free paper called the New York Press that they give out of little boxes on the corner. You know, they offered me $100. You know, I figured their standards were low enough that they would take it. And my intention was to entertain a few other people in the restaurant business in the New York area. I thought that would be really cool.

I was a fan of George Orwell's "Down And Out In Paris And London" and that account of another dishwasher's life had thrilled me. And I kind of wanted to evoke that response in a few other cooks.

DAVIES: And for people who don't know...


DAVIES: ...What's the kind of the substance of the story you were writing about?

BOURDAIN: I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction honestly. I didn't - maybe - I didn't mind goosing the general public, horrifying them a little, but that was not the intention. I wanted to just write about our thing, our life, the way we spoke in the same sort of over-testosteroned high-speed hyperbolic prose that I was familiar with in the kitchens. But the customer, the intended reader, was always a fellow professional who would get it, and I hoped they would get it and respond.

So I wrote the piece. They said they'd take it, and they kept bumping it. Every week, I'd run to the box on the corner and open the magazine - open the paper and I wasn't in that issue. And eventually, at a moment of frustration, I think my mom said to me, well, you should send it to The New Yorker. You know, I know someone there. They'll read it. And I thought, OK, great, you know, of course, The New Yorker, the possibility of - the likelihood of ever being published for it over the transom piece there is astronomical.

DAVIES: Doesn't happen, yeah.

BOURDAIN: So I sent it along, and to my surprise a few weeks later, phone rings in the kitchen. It's David Remnick on the phone. They ran the piece. And I mean - I had a book contract - a book deal within days. And when the book came out, it very quickly transformed my life - I mean, changed everything.

DAVIES: How - what did it feel like? How did it change everything?

BOURDAIN: At first, I was distrustful of what was happening. I say freely it's an unreasonable attitude to think that you could ever make a living writing. And I'd been in the restaurant business long enough where there are so many failed writers and actors and performers and artists and playwrights. So even after the book came out, even after it hit the bestseller list, I was distrustful.

I thought, I better keep my day job, and I continued, you know, making steak frites and salads and working in a busy kitchen until it just got crazier and crazier. And I got offered a TV show. And I just went to work one day, and there were like 20 journalists in the restaurant waiting to talk to me. And I said, you know, I might actually be able to milk this scam for a few more months (laughter).

DAVIES: Now, the book and the article is this like grab-your-attention look at things you don't know about what goes on inside the restaurant and all kinds of things. But, I mean, it's - the writing is powerful. Had you been writing while you were cooking? Creative workshops, creative writing classes?

BOURDAIN: No, I had done a writing workshop with Gordon Lish, the notorious creative writing teacher at one point many years earlier. But I'd never actually written. I was - I never had the time to sit there in my garot (ph), you know, writing unpublished novels. I just didn't have the time, and I think to a great extent, the reason "Kitchen Confidential" sounds like it does is I just did not have the luxury or the burden of a lot of time to sit around and contemplate the mysteries of the universe.

I had to wake up at 5:00 in the morning, write for an hour and a half, and then I had to go to work to a real job. So I - here I was. It was liberating in the sense that I had no time to think about what I was writing. And I certainly had no customer or reader in mind because I was quite sure no one would ever read it. That was in many ways a very liberating place to be. And I've kind of tried to stick with that business model since.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain is the subject of the new documentary "Roadrunner." We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with food and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain. He's the subject of a new documentary, called "Roadrunner," which opens in theaters today. Bourdain took his own life three years ago. I spoke to him in 2016, when he'd just published a new cookbook.


DAVIES: Well, you're now in your third television show.


DAVIES: You did a show called "No Reservations" for the Food Channel, right?


DAVIES: And then "The Layover" 48 hours...

BOURDAIN: And actually, before that, there was "A Cook's Tour," so...

DAVIES: OK. Right, right.

BOURDAIN: ...Third network, fourth show.

DAVIES: Right. And now you're traveling around the world visiting places in "Parts Unknown." And I thought we'd begin with a clip. This is the beginning of your trip to Borneo on this series. Let's just listen how it starts.


BOURDAIN: When I first went up this river, I was sick with love - the bad kind, the fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me up river all the way. That was 10 long years ago - a previous episode of a previous series in a previous life. Yet, here I am again, heading up to that same long house in the jungle.


DAVIES: And that's from your series "Parts Unknown." You know, these are part travelogue, part personal essay and a lot about food. This seemed really personal. What did you want - why did you want to go back to this little village in Borneo after 10 years?

BOURDAIN: I kind of - I think I wanted to see how things had changed. I think someone said - some travel writer said that, you know, you - what you're really looking at when you travel is inward all the time. I think in a lot of way it was - the first time I went up that river, the Skrang river from Kuching up to a Iban longhouse in the jungle. I was heartbreaken (ph). I was coming off of a love affair that did not pan out the way I had hoped.

I think in a lot of ways the motivation for the show - the second one - was to see if it still hurt, you know, to see how I felt. So it was very personal. I thought I was going to go right back to the same longhouse. Yes, let's see how that community has changed. Let's do a better job with better cinematography, bringing to bear all of the things that I've learned and my crew has learned in the intervening years. But really, it was revisiting an old wound to see if it was OK now.

DAVIES: There's a moment in this powerful scene in there - I mean, in this episode where you're standing in pouring rain with a spear in your hand. You've been granted an honor by the village. Explain this.

BOURDAIN: Well, I think both times when I went to the - both times when I went to the village as the guest of honor, you know, they kill a pig for the feast, the whole village eats. There's an equitable division of pig parts. It's a big deal. But that first time, I don't think I'd ever killed an animal before. I mean, I'd been ordering them up as a chef over the phone, so I was culpable in the death of many animals. But here I was being asked to physically plunge a spear into the heart of a pig.

It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy, however uncomfortable I might have been with that, to put it off on somebody else. You know, I'd been responsible for the death of many animals. Here I'm being asked - I didn't want to let the team down. I didn't want to dishonor the village or embarrass anyone.

The first time was very, very, very, very difficult. My camera guys almost passed out. It was certainly very difficult for me. The second time, as much as I'd like to say that it was still really hard - and I think I said in the voiceover I don't know what it says about me, probably something very bad, that I'd become - you know, I have changed over time, I like to think in good ways for the most part. But I've also become more callous. I've become able to plunge a spear into the heart of a screaming pig and live with that much more comfortably than I did the first time. And I can lie and say it tormented me forever and since, but, you know, I felt that ugly emotion or lack of it. And I thought I should mention it.

DAVIES: Yeah. You said, I did it this time without hesitation or remorse.


DAVIES: But it was a relief when the screaming stopped.

BOURDAIN: Well, yes, no one - no good person likes to hear or see an animal in pain. That is monstrous. I mean, I tried very hard to do a good job quickly. Yeah, exactly right.

DAVIES: You had a memorable episode recently where you went to Vietnam. And you - I can't remember whether you said this in an episode or whether I read it somewhere else - you said the world tilted for you in a Vietnamese rice farmer's home.

BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think the first time I went to Vietnam, I just - I remembered coming away from it thinking I just have to have more of this. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life...

DAVIES: More of Vietnam or more of that kind of travel?

BOURDAIN: I want to be able to come back to Vietnam again and again and again. And if this place is so wonderful, the world must be filled with many more wonderful and interesting and challenging and heartbreaking and inspiring and beautiful places, as it turned out to. But I really got - the first time I went there, I think I found myself sitting in a - yeah, it was a rice farmer's home in the Mekong Delta. At the time, they were a little more suspicious of Westerners with cameras, so the people who I was allowed to eat dinner with were all former Viet Cong with impeccable revolutionary credentials, the sort of people who you would think would be hostile to Americans, particularly in that area where they caught a lot of ugly action.

I got just hammered drunk and had this sort of wonderful bonding experience. I remember the 85-year-old former Viet Cong, I asked him, aren't you angry about anything? And he looked - and with amiable contempt - said, look, buddy, Vietnam, don't take yourself so seriously. Before you, there were, you know, the French, the Japanese, you know, the Chinese, the Cambodians. Since you, there's been - you know, I've been fighting - this country's been fighting for 600 years. Don't take it personally. Now drink.

And I just had this wonderful time. And Vietnam is a country that I go back to at every opportunity, meaning as soon as I can make another show, getting away with making another show there, I do.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain, who took his own life in 2018, is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Morgan Neville. It's called "Roadrunner," and it opens in theaters today. We'll hear more of our interview after a break. And David Bianculli will review the new Apple TV+ series "Schmigadoon!" starring Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today we're listening to my interview with chef, writer and TV host Anthony Bourdain, who's the subject of a new documentary which opens in theaters today. Bourdain killed himself three years ago in France, where he was filming an episode of his CNN series "Parts Unknown." I spoke with Bourdain in 2016 about his life, travels and a new cookbook he'd published.


DAVIES: I want to listen to another clip. You know, as we said, the show is part personal essay, it's part about travel in the countries and about food. And this is a moment in your trip to Borneo before you go up the river, where you sit down in a noodle house. Let's listen to this.


BOURDAIN: If I look at my life as a continuum, a trail of noodles going round and round the world until it comes right back to the same spicy bowl. Oh, yeah, that is - can I say tumescent on CNN? Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can.


BOURDAIN: Oh, yeah, baby. This is just a magical dish. I don't know, it's like two types of noodles, I think, chicken, prawn, coconut, chili. You know, the main event of this is the broth. The wisdom of the ages is contained in there. It's, like, super complex, a truly happy moment (laughter).

DAVIES: Can you taste that stuff now?

BOURDAIN: It is, in fact, a constant - it is a reliable source of happiness for me, a bowl of spicy noodles or actually - or a bowl of, like, decent pasta in Italy, both. There's something there that I'm always able to respond to in an emotional way rather than, like, a critical way, and that's important.

DAVIES: You go to some far-flung exotic places and some places that are a lot closer to home. And I wanted to play a clip. This is from your visit to a place in Camden, N.J.


DAVIES: Donkey's, that makes cheesesteaks. It's right across the river from Philadelphia...


DAVIES: ...Known for cheesesteaks. And you're sitting down to enjoy one with the owner. Let's listen.


ROB LUCAS: Pleasure to meet you.

BOURDAIN: So this is the place - the best cheesesteak in South Jersey, unless I'm mistaken?

LUCAS: In New Jersey.

BOURDAIN: In New Jersey, period?

LUCAS: Yeah.

BOURDAIN: Is there a difference between Jersey style and Philadelphia style?

LUCAS: Yeah, we do ours on a round poppy seed Kaiser roll.

BOURDAIN: Really? I'll have one of those. What's the way to go? I mean, anything I need to know or just...

LUCAS: ...No, a regular, cheese and onions.

BOURDAIN: A beautiful thing.

LUCAS: I need one, Paulie (ph).

BOURDAIN: It's round. It's got steak, spices, browned onions, real American cheese, such as it is, and a poppy seed roll.

Fantastic. Thank you, sir.

And it is sublime.

Relish? What do you think?

LUCAS: That's hot pepper. Yeah, a little bit of that won't hurt.

BOURDAIN: A little bit? Oh man, I drove a long way for this. I've been thinking about it the whole way.

LUCAS: Good.

BOURDAIN: Man, this should be, like, a national landmark right away. This sandwich is unbelievably good.

LUCAS: Thanks.

BOURDAIN: Really a thing of beauty.

LUCAS: That's good to hear.

BOURDAIN: Worth driving across the state in a blizzard for.

LUCAS: Well, we get a lot of people from Philly.

BOURDAIN: No way, Philly?

LUCAS: Oh, yes, for sure.

BOURDAIN: Wow, that's treason. Do they, like, change the plates on their car and, like, wear a disguise? I mean...

LUCAS: It's different. The poppy seeds help.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, and I like this roll. It's awesome. That's delicious. Well, I think we've learned something here today. Jersey cheesesteaks - I'm not saying they're better than Philadelphia - yeah, I am, actually, so there. This is great.

LUCAS: Glad you enjoyed it.

DAVIES: That's fun. That joint's about 5 miles from here. I'm going to get over there.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, it's good stuff.

DAVIES: I'm going to get over there. Do you care about the reactions you get from the locals after the episodes appear?

BOURDAIN: I care about the - yes. I - what I want to happen ideally - and it's so weird. It's a double-edged sword. Ideally, I'll go to a place like - I'll find a little bar in Rio, let's say, some little local place that perfectly expresses the neighborhood. You know, it's not on the - it's not a tourist-friendly place. It's, for lack of a better word - I hate this word, but I'll use it anyway - authentic. I'll feature that on the show.

The response I'm looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It's, you know, a - truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood.

But on the other hand, that's kind of a destructive process because if I name the place - and I don't always when it's a place like that - I've changed it. The next time I go back, there's tourists. There's people who've seen it on the show. And then I might hear from the same person from that neighborhood say, you ruined my favorite bar, (laughter) you know? All the regular customers have run away and it's filled with, you know, tourists in ugly T-shirts and flip-flops.

DAVIES: Do you sometimes protect somebody's identity?

BOURDAIN: There are times that I have looked at the camera and said, look, I'm just not going to tell you where this place is. It's too good, and I don't want to change it. It should stay like this forever. I do do that now and again.

DAVIES: You're known for being willing to eat just about anything. What's some of the most intimidating or nasty stuff you've been offered?

BOURDAIN: I don't know. I mean, at this point, if freshness and hygiene is a question - I mean, generally it's tribal situations that are problematic where the whole tribe - the chief is offering you something, that's what they have. And often, they don't have refrigeration. It's often old. Their tolerance for meat that's even spoiled is higher than my relatively sensitive stomach. Often, these dishes are eaten in one large bowl with the whole tribe jamming their fingers in.

So yeah, rotten food, food that's clearly not clean, water that's clearly not good - those are a challenge. On the flavor spectrum, I'm pretty good with just about everything. There are a few dishes that are - you know, when you get to, like, rotten shark in Iceland, that's - I mean, I could do it, but I'd rather not be doing that again.

DAVIES: You did it?

BOURDAIN: Yeah. Yeah. It's unpleasant, but, I mean, it's not the end of the world. I don't know, for sheer, soul-destroying misery, like the - you know, if you're talking about a bite of food that just makes me question the future of the human race and just sends me into a spiral of depression, I think eating at an airport Johnny Rockets pretty much would be the nadir.

DAVIES: (Laughter) That's as bad as it gets. In a circumstance that you just described, where there's food that's rotten or not clean, how do you handle it?

BOURDAIN: You take one for the team and you hope for the best and hope that you have a good supply of antibiotics. I've lost three days of work in 16 years, three or - I think only three days that I've been, you know, down for the count and confined to bed and desperately, horribly ill. Generally speaking, if it's, like, a street food stall that's busy, even if it looks dirty as hell, if there are a lot of locals there, they're eating and they're happy, my crew will always eat at that place. You know, eating a Caesar salad at the major chain hotel in, you know, Central Africa or the Middle East, these are - that's where you run into trouble stomach-wise, generally.

DAVIES: You must have a heck of a microbiome...

BOURDAIN: I would think so. I think everyone on our show, all of our veteran crew, are pretty good about that. We have pretty good resistance. We don't get sick easily. And when somebody new joins the team, you know, we tell them the rules of the road. But if after we've told them general do's and don'ts, if we find ourselves sitting at a - as happened in, I think, Kurdistan, in Iraq, and where some new member of the team says, oh, look, Zuppa Di Vongole. Like, seafood - you know, like, a seafood stew. And we're awful far from the ocean right now. And we all looked at each other and we're like, should we tell him? Should we say something? And we all just sort of - nah (ph), let him learn.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Is it true in Namibia you were offered an unwashed warthog rectum?

BOURDAIN: Yeah. Well, they killed a pig. And apparently, that was the - you know, the chief yanks that part out and throws it on the grill and grills it medium rare and splits it with me. And I look - the whole tribe is watching. He's offering me what he sees as the best part. That's a clear take-one-for-the-team situation.

What am I going to do, refuse him, embarrass him in front of his people, look ungrateful? That changes the whole tenor of the relationship. I mean, when somebody's offering you food, they're telling you a story. They're telling you what they like, who they are. Presumably, it's a proud reflection of their culture, their history, often a very tough history. You turn your nose up at that important moment, the whole relationship changes, and it will never be the same.

DAVIES: What did it taste like?

BOURDAIN: It tasted like exactly what you would expect - a sandy, gritty rectum.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. Bourdain is the subject of a new documentary. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're listening to our interview with food and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, who's the subject of a new documentary which opens in theaters today. Bourdain died by suicide three years ago. I spoke to him in 2016, when he'd published a new cookbook called "Appetites."


DAVIES: This is an interesting cookbook to look at and to read. You write in it, there's nothing remotely innovative in the recipes. You're lifting them from imperfect memories of childhood favorites. Why this kind of book?

BOURDAIN: Well, I wanted it to be useful, approachable, reflective of the life I've lived over the past eight or nine years as a father, as opposed to a professional trying to dazzle with, you know, pretty pictures and food that's different than everybody else's. No, I wanted to make a beautiful cookbook, creative-looking one spoken in honest, straightforward, casual terms that gives the reader reasonable expectations, that encourages them to organize themselves in the way that I've found to be useful as a professional.

It's also reflective of, I think, age and all those years in the restaurant business. Most chefs I know after work do not want to go out to dinner and be forced to think about what they're eating in a critical or analytical way. They want to experience food as they did as children, in an emotional way, the pure pleasure of that bowl of spicy noodles or even a - you know, a bowl of soup that their mom gave them on a rainy day when they'd been bullied in school. I mean, that's a happy time when you can escape this world, you know, and lose yourself in food. So these are recipes that hopefully - where I try to evoke those kinds of feelings and emotions.

DAVIES: You reluctantly address the subject of breakfast. You said...


DAVIES: ...As a professional, the smell of breakfast was the smell of defeat...


DAVIES: ...Because...

BOURDAIN: ...You know, I do not have a particularly prestigious or notable career. And for much of the time as a chef, I was unemployable by respectable businesses. And the only people who would hire me would hire me for brunch shifts because most cooks hated doing brunch for very good reasons.

I was good at it, but it was the only work I could get. And I came to hate the - you know, when you're cooking 300 omelets a day and, you know, scraping waffles out of the waffle iron and making French toast and pancakes and, you know, cooking hundreds of pounds of home fries, those smells, those associations, those were very painful times - you know, addiction, post-addiction. You know, I was a desperate man, often working under a pseudonym when I was cooking brunch. So I really hated it, and I also hated the whole concept of brunch.

And later as a chef, I hated it because it was a huge profit center that caused problems for me as an employer because all my cooks hated to do it. But it was such a moneymaker because people are so foolishly happy to pay $22 for the same two eggs and bacon, you know, that they have during the week for $7 or even - or $3. You know, give them a free mimosa and a little strawberry fan and suddenly they're happy to - I just had utter contempt for the entire enterprise.

DAVIES: All right, so back to the cookbook. You tell us about breakfast. One of the things I was shocked to read is you don't fry bacon. You cook it in the oven?

BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think it's a - first of all, it's nicer. I mean, you know, you stink up the whole - I live in an apartment in New York, so frying bacon, first of all, is going to stink up the whole apartment. Second of all, it's really - particularly if you're naked, never fry bacon while naked.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BOURDAIN: It's a very dangerous business. And it's just not the best way to evenly cook bacon. We all like - most of us like crispy bacon or at least evenly cooked. And the best way to do it in my experience and the way we always did it in restaurants was to lay it out on a baking parchment and put in the oven and cook patiently but evenly, turning occasionally because there are hotspots in ovens. You get a much better product.

DAVIES: Do you often cook naked? (Laughter).

BOURDAIN: Well, now that I have a 9-year-old around, no. But prior to that experience, I did have some bacon-related nudity-related injuries that were memorable, let's put it that way.

DAVIES: Comfort is comfort, yeah.

DAVIES: As you've traveled around the world so much and you love street food - but you've - so you've seen kind of cheap authentically-made food and you've seen a lot of poverty and what - how people get by. Has that made you less interested in high-end dining?

BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think - because on one hand, I'm happiest in experiencing food in the most purely emotional way. And it's true of most of my chef friends as well when it's, like, street food or a one-chef-one-dish operation where they're just somebody who's really, really good at one or two or three things that they would do it for a very long time that may be reflective of their ethnicity or their culture or their nationality. Those are the things that just make me happy.

And I'm - you know, I'm spoiled like a lot of fellow chefs. We get a lot of fine wines and dinners thrown our way. And you do reach this enviable point where you just don't want to sit there for four hours with course after course after course. It's too much, first of all. It doesn't feel good at the end of all that time, and it's not interesting.

And you don't want to - you know, if it's - if the waiter's taking 10 minutes to describe each dish, you know, it only took you three to eat it - something's really wrong. I mean, I think people lose sight of the fact that chefs should be ultimately in the pleasure business, not in the look-at-me business.

DAVIES: You sometimes visit places where there are really contentious political issues.


DAVIES: You say you're not a journalist, you're a storyteller. But you must think carefully about how you deal with that stuff.

BOURDAIN: Well, there's nothing actually more political than food - I mean, who's eating, who's not eating. Also, it's - I found it's just very, very useful to not be a journalist. I mean, journalists drop into a situation, ask a question. People sort of tighten up. Whereas if you sit down with people who just say, hey, what makes you happy? What's your life like? What do you like to eat? More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.

So yeah, we've shot in some pretty contentious places. We shot in Beirut during the war and since, Congo, Gaza, post-Benghazi Libya. I'm not a journalist, but I think it is useful as a - as an addition to journalism to have seen what people are like in Libya, for instance. I mean, who are these people we are talking about when we talk about Benghazi or Libya? Is it not useful to see them with their kids, to see how their lives, their everyday lives are doing - seemingly ordinary things or trying to do ordinary things, to show what people actually live like in Iran who may not support their government at all? What are ordinary people like in Iran? We seem all too eager and willing to ignore those things.

I think in southern or, you know, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, we are - seem to be so used to seeing people of color in these disastrous situations that we become inured and callous. So it's always useful to, especially in Africa, say, look, you know, there are lives happening here. This is what's involved in getting water for the table. You know, this is how nice people can be or how gentle or complicated - it just seems to me the more you are able to show people's everyday lives often as they revolve around food and daily tasks when something happens in the news, you have a better idea who we're talking about here.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain, thanks so much. It's been fun.

BOURDAIN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain, recorded in 2016. "Roadrunner," the new documentary about Bourdain, opens in theaters today. Bourdain took his own life three years ago in France, when he was there to film an episode of his CNN travel show "Parts Unknown." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Schmigadoon!" - a new six-part series on Apple TV+ inspired by the Broadway musical "Brigadoon." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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