Frank Bruni’s recent column about the food fight between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen (sparked by Bourdain’s TV Guide interview) reminded me of a phone conversation I had a few years ago with the acid-tongued celebrity chef. Most of it went unpublished, though a few choice nuggets, such as his colorful comments below about Wolfgang Puck, made it in censored form into the Wall Street Journal. But here you will find Bourdain in the raw. He does not mince words—but he does mince.
VM: The older chefs like Jacques Pépin and Michel Richard say that in reality you wouldn’t see such a kitchen with all that yelling and screaming and intimidation. Is that true or is it just the view of the kitchen from the older generation?
AB: There are still kitchens like that. Less and less so now because of this added prestige, people who show up at restaurants now want themselves motivated if they’re working at a good restaurant. And I think a lot of guys manage now by the Joe Torre school of management rather than the Billy Martin school. It’s very instructive to look at Boiling Point, the British series that followed Gordon [Ramsay] as he chased his stars back in the ‘90s. You know, he was kind of like that. He came up under Marco Pierre White who was a terrifying figure who made Gordon cry many times. They all came up in this French system in England where they put hands on you, they dunked your head, you were bullied and pushed to the breaking point—this was the way, the old way. I agree it’s disappearing. I’ve seen Gordon with his kitchen and his cooks and he does have a temper and he will lash out at you if you do something incredibly stupid. But he’s a fair and decent guy who gets a lot of loyalty out of his chefs and they’re not giving him their loyalty because he makes them feel like idiots everyday. He’s a decent guy and a good chef. The real Gordon is on Kitchen Nightmares. He’s sort of playing himself the way he was 10 or 15 years ago.
VM: Daniel Boulud says let’s wait and see, 10 or 15 years from now, when the dust settles, who is left standing. What about the reality-based shows? Just a fad or just the beginning?
AB: I think it’s the beginning. I mean I think a lot of the knuckleheads will wash out. I don’t think Rachael Ray will be one of them. I think she’s going to be more of, you know, that’s a cult of personality and she doesn’t need to cook on her show or have anything to do with food at this point and I would suggest the same, you know, Why cook on the new talk show? I can’t imagine she’s too happy about still having to slop out chili-cheese whatever the hell she’s doing. So I think she’ll be around in one form or another and bigger than ever in 15 years. I think some of these creature-of-the-month, homegrown talent that they’re trying to develop—the ones who don’t have anything—are going to be gone. But if you look at Jacques Pépin, you know, that’s a guy—how long has he been around? And he’ll be around for a lot longer. There will always be an audience for him. Emeril, there will always be an audience for. Mario, I think, his full potential as an educator, as a personality, as a humorist, as a businessman, as an empire-builder, has yet to be fully tapped. But I think a lot of these guys are just going to be gone, gone, gone, and I think some of the lamer cooking reality shows are just going to disappear real quick.
VM: Do you share some of the fears that the older chefs like Pépin and Boulud have about the younger generation no longer doing lengthy apprenticeships, succumbing to the pressures of television, wanting to be a star? And that while it is a good thing that the profession is now seen as something nobler than ever, expectations are way too high?
AB: I’ll quote Jean-Louis Palladin who, when asked why he became a chef, he was old school and he laughed at the interviewer and said, “Madame, my parents sold me into slavery!” I think the business has always been a welcoming refuge for misfits, so there will always be people, fantasists, and people with unreasonable expectations, who’ve entered the restaurant business or ended up in the restaurant business or fallen into it like I did who had unreasonable expectations and washed out. The whole system is designed to weed those people out and break them quick. A few major disappointments, a couple of busy Saturday nights. They’re gone, those people. I don’t feel bad about it because they’re not going to make it, so it’s not like the business is going to be clogged with idiots who are making shit food wanting nothing more because they expect they’re going to be on TV in a year. They’re not going to be able to make shit food for two years because they’re not going to hold a job. I think the only thing that’s changed is that it’s become a much more expensive mistake to make for someone who isn’t fully aware of the situation. If you’re 32 or 33 and you’re quitting your job to go to cooking school, expecting you’ll either make a living or have a glamorous, swinging time, you’ve just made a very expensive mistake, chances are. The restaurant business, particularly the kitchen, will always demand the same types of personalities. And it will have them, and it will weed out through an organic process those who do not have those traits.
VM: Did you see Wolfgang Puck’s column in Newsweek where he talked about buying his foods from places where the animals were humanely treated and as for foie gras, he said, “who needs it?”
AB: I think dickhead should stop worrying about cruelty to animals and start worrying about all the customers he’s flopping his crap on at airports.
Listen, he does a lot of business in California, he got squeezed and pressured and phone-called from all angles and like a German shopkeeper, you know, he folded, and sold out the people hiding in the cellar next door. I got no respect—it makes it all the more painful that he’s a chef of such stature and importance to American culinary history, so it makes me want to throw up in my mouth thinking what a treacherous little cocksucker he is now.