Cooking up a Mystery: an interview with Anthony Bourdain

by Jessica Bennett

Anthony Bourdain has come a long way since the release of his first two mystery novels, Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo. His curriculum vitae now contains two hit nonfiction books (Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour) and the television show A Cook's Tour, which, with the possible exception of Iron Chef, is the best show on the Food Network. Bourdain's following includes fellow chefs and restaurant workers, as well as those of us outside the industry who admire their outlaw lifestyle and love good food.

Bourdain's latest book, The Bobby Gold Stories, is a short collection of self-contained stories about a New York mafia tough-guy, and Nikki, the sexy sous-chef he falls in love with. The disparate stories add up to a crime novel that's a comedic page-turner. I talked with Bourdain in Minneapolis about fiction, food, and a few other sizzling topics during his recent book tour.

Jessica Bennett: Do you consider The Bobby Gold Stories to be, at heart, a love story?

Anthony Bourdain: Well, it is kind of a love story, a dysfunctional love story. I didn't know that I was writing one at the time. I'd been writing about myself for two books, talking about myself on television, and frankly I'm bored with the subject. Maybe I'm working through some personal issues here. I was also very much under the influence of the Pat Hobby stories by Fitzgerald. Not that I write anything like Fitzgerald, but he wrote these stories when he was at his abject lowest point in his career, all about a failed screenwriter named Pat Hobby. He wrote them to put his daughter through Vassar and sold them to magazines. And when they were published in a collection it was this lovely sequence of long short stories, all with the same character, and all of them, at least putatively, in order. And I thought, wow, that's a really fun thing to do, they can both stand alone and have some sense of continuity. I just wanted to enjoy myself, and I didn't want to have to chase my characters up a tree, the denouement—I don't care who done it in crime books or why they done it, I care what they're wearing, what the room smells like, what's cooking, that sort of thing. I think those things speak volumes about people.

JB: And what they're listening to as well.

AB: What they're listening to. The record collection, always very important.

JB: I notice that you mention the Modern Lovers in at least a couple of places, which thrills me to no end, because I think Jonathan Richman is a genius.

AB: You know his greatest album, he hates—the first record, The Modern Lovers. He won't perform it. I love "Someone I Care About." There's this great line, "There's a certain kind of girl / That you care about so much / I don't care what you guys do to me / but her, don't touch." It's just a guilelessly wonderful song. I'm a huge fan of that album, that mixture of naiveté and earnestness and cynicism and everything else.

JB: There's also this concern there for the people around him, for people who are destroying their lives, in a similar way to how the people in your books are sometimes destroying their lives—especially with the biggie, drugs.

AB: Yeah, well, it's very autobiographical. I deliberately set out to make my hero and heroine as unsympathetic as I could possibly make them and yet still make you want to keep reading. I don't know whether I pulled that off, but to me, it's not will they get the bad guy, or will they get away with it; what interests me when I'm reading is whether I'm still going to like this guy next chapter. That issue is seriously in doubt in The Bobby Gold Stories. And I always try to find a way to like the bad guy a little bit.

Bobby is a little guy in a big body. He's bulked up to this monster size, but he's basically a pussycat. He's shy, he's socially inept. I guess it's kind of a parable for what you become when you become a chef. Also, this book is very much a reflection of... you know, I got health insurance for the first time a couple of years ago, after I wrote Kitchen Confidential, and I had my walls painted for the first time, and I bought a little furniture. And I was just so giddy to be doing something normal. I'd lived on the fringes, paycheck to paycheck, for 28 years, and I'd always been curious about the massive, abstract entity out there in the dining room. What was it like to own a home, have a lawn, own a car, have kids, any of those things. So it's about two people who have their nose pressed against the glass, but who in their own weird dysfunctional way are trying to emulate Beaver Cleaver.

JB: It's a natural fit for Bobby and Nikki to end up together, Bobby the gangster and Nikki the cook.

AB: I think so. She made herself into this rough, tough, heavily armored character and so did he. They both want something, and in their own, inept way, they're looking to play house.

JB: There are places in your fiction where you write voraciously about food, and the other place where I see that kind of passion is in the sex in the books. There seems to be this really strong connection between food and sex in both your fiction and non-fiction.

AB: Taking pleasure in food has always been associated with sin. Food and sex have been closely aligned in the Judeo-Christian ethic going right back to the very beginning and the apple. If you don't like sex, if you don't like music or movies, chances are you're not eating well, either. Yes, I think there's a close connection personality-wise, but also physiologically, you undergo many of the same physiological changes in anticipation of a good meal as you do with sex. I think they're closely aligned. I read a lot of food writers, and I'm always thinking, this person writes about food like they've never had good sex in their life. I think they're interchangeable in that if you can't take pleasure in one, you probably can't take pleasure in the other.

JB: So what food writers do you like?

AB: (pauses) Um...

JB: Do you like Jeffrey Steingarten at all?

AB: Yeah, now there's a guy, the authoritative crank done well. Really, really well. I kind of like Ruth Reichel's stuff. Not my style, but she makes it interesting because she's so kooky and writes about her own dysfunctional life. I also like the Nigella Lawson stuff. It's all about eating, she doesn't set herself up as an expert.

JB: Do you like any of the classics, like M. F. K. Fisher?

AB: Great writer. I've been accused of being more interested in chefs and in the lifestyle, than in the food, and that's true. Ludwig Bemelmans, George Orwell, Nicolas Freling, they all write about chefs, and about the life. But, you know, if you're in the life, chances are you love food. I guess I'm more interested in the tribe of cooks, and their customs, attitudes, and argot, than I am in ... well, you know, when you write about food it's like writing pornography. I mean, how many adjectives can you use to describe a salad? After "crunchy," "garden fresh," and "redolent of unkilled fields," what are you gonna do? It's like writing for Penthouse Letters.

JB: One of your other apparent passions in fiction is writing about the mob. Does writing about the Mafia offer you a way to explore the characters, or do you think it's just fun to write and read about?

AB: All of the above. I worked with a bunch of those guys back in the seventies and eighties. I'm a crime buff. I watch a lot of trials, I listen to wiretap recordings, read transcripts of surreptitious recordings of mobsters. First of all, I like the sound. To me, it's poetry, the sound of mobsters talking—especially when they think they might be being taped, but they're not sure, and they're speaking in that loopy, elliptical way. To me, Joe Pesci is like Charlie Parker: beautiful to listen to. So that's number one. Two, it's a pressure-cooker situation, with moral gray areas, personal loyalties... it's a more extreme version of life. What is the great American family television show? It's The Sopranos. There's no more accurate representation of the average American family. You have to go to an organized crime family to see what Americans really live like and how they talk at home. So, in a sense, it's just a comfortable way to explore the kind of social relationships I'm familiar with. Organized crime, much like real life, is not The Godfather. Somebody makes a mistake, they screw up, they don't get whacked, it's not the end of the world. People betray each other in small ways all the time. You make a decision, and you move on, you try to do the best you can. So it's a comfortable world, it's a familiar world, and it sounds good to me. I like the way they talk. They're funny guys. Almost all of them. And they eat, and eat well.

JB: Although you do make fun of the way the mobsters eat in Bone in the Throat.

AB: That was very much based on this kid I knew, a chef. There was a lot of me, a lot of chefs I worked with, but I was very much thinking of this hood-y character from Arthur Avenue who had become a French chef in New York. I thought it was very interesting that he was half in and half out. I was a kid who grew up with pirates and cowboys. The gangsters are simply a continuation of that tradition of A Boy's Own Adventure.

JB: I like the conversational tone of both your fiction and non-fiction, and I've read in other interviews that you feel you developed your capacity for bullshitting in the restaurant world, in the kitchen. When you write, are you taking things from your own life and then "bullshitting" them out?

AB: You're never going to find me writing about Irish potato farmers. I avoid any characters whose voices I can't do. If I don't know them and how they talk, I'm not doing them. On the one hand, it's limiting, on the other, no, I don't see it as limiting. I've been in the business 28 years, I've met a lot of people, I know how they talk. It's comfortable for me. Catchy, realistic dialogue is intensely important to me. More important than anything else. To hell with plot. If I'm reading a crime book for instance, like the Spenser books, and Spenser and the girlfriend start engaging in quippy repartee, catching up on the plot, it stops dead for me. Who talks like this in their private moments, in perfect sentences? I hate that. And also, when I'm imagining the reader, I'm always gearing it towards the kind of people who are like my characters. I'm writing for cooks, because I don't know who anyone else is. I haven't had that much exposure to the general public, I don't really know what they want, I wouldn't even know how to begin to try and please them. What I don't want is a salad man in some restaurant to read one of my books and say, "This is shit. Who talks like that?" If no one else, at least I talk like that.

JB: So what mystery novelists do you like?

AB: Crumley is great at his best. Daniel Woodrell. George Higgins. I think The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the absolute benchmark of pitch-perfect dialogue and atmosphere. You can smell the beer on these characters. I like my characters. I want to hang out with them. And I guess that's what I'm doing when I write fiction, is I'm creating a little world that I can escape into for a while, a more dramatic version of the world I've lived in. I can disappear in to their problems and move them around as I like. For me, George V. Higgins is the benchmark of absolutely perfect, unreliable dialogue. Everybody's kinda bullshitting. He owns that territory.

JB: Do you like Ian Rankin?

AB: He's a good friend. Perfect example of a guy who owns his territory. Don't be writing any crime books set in Edinburgh, because Rankin owns it. Higgins owns Boston, as far as I'm concerned. Woodrell owns the Ozarks. Rankin's got Edinburgh. Ellroy, at least in the past, he owned '40s-'50s L.A. I don't know what he owns now. I like that. Nobody's ever going to accuse those guys of getting the voice and the characters and the clothes wrong.

JB: How much "bullshitting" creeps into your nonfiction?

AB: I think when you use hyperbole as much as I do, a constant mea culpa is required. I think the most boring thing about my life is that I was a junkie. We've all read that book, that's why I didn't talk about it much. But I thought it was necessary in Kitchen Confidential to mention it: If I'm going to say all of these obnoxious, sweeping, bold statements about "the business" and the people in it, people should be reminded that, hey, this is a utility level ex-junkie talking to you here. So every word is true. Not that I'm not wrong about stuff. But as far as my own life, what I've seen, what people have said, for better or worse, it's all true.

JB: It seems like the mafia world and the restaurant business as you write about them are these very male-dominated places where women can become tough and make it, but you don't see many "typical" women.

AB: I guess they don't interest me. Some of the greatest moments in my professional career are when I've had the privilege of working with women who identified, absolutely correctly, the kitchen as a meritocracy, and said, "OK, boys, I'll play by these rules." And they kicked everybody's ass, as well they should and could. I greatly admire them. So, yeah, there is an archetypal woman in a lot of my books and she's largely constructed from pieces of my wife and women that I've worked with in the kitchen. I'm always a little dismayed when I go into a kitchen and it's a boys club except for the pastry section. It breaks my heart, because I want to see—not that it's my place to want or not want—but I would like to see women sauciers and women sous-chefs, women bossing around a bunch of Neanderthals who got an education real quick.

JB: You must have an incredibly busy life, with book tours, TV—

AB: Just filming the show is, like, six months out of my year.

JB: When do you find time to write?

AB: In the morning. And I take three months off in the Caribbean every year, or I try to. So I'll be taking notes or a diary or whatever while I'm on the road or whatever I'm working on, then I'll take two solid months in the Caribbean where I do nothing but pad around barefooted, wake up first thing in the morning and write for a few hours. You know, it's a carrot and stick. I can't leave the house, have a beer, or go to the beach until I put in the writing. The first three books I wrote, the reason I could write them is because I had no time to write them. I was working seventeen hours a day. I woke up, I started writing, got through as much as I could, then went to work. I didn't have any time to think about all those metaphysical aspects of writing: is it good, is it worthwhile, is it important—I didn't have time. Just wake up, do the job.

JB: But why did you do that job?

AB: Because I had the opportunity. I've never toiled away in a garret writing unpublished manuscripts. Absolutely everything I've ever written has been published. In almost every case, it started with either a short writing sample, a lucky break, or I wrote something short to entertain a limited audience, and an opportunity opened up where I could tell a story for money. Or love. And I could. I'm a hustler. I make the most of opportunities. Give me a crack at the bigs and I'll do my best.

JB: In that sense, do you feel that the way you got into writing was similar to the way you came to be a chef?

AB: I have exactly the same work ethic. I don't see writing as anything more important than cooking. In fact, I'm a little queasier on the writing. There's an element of shame, because it's so easy. I can't believe that people give me money for this shit. The TV, too. It's not work. At the end of the day, the TV show is the best job in the world. I get to go anywhere I want, eat and drink whatever I want. As long as I just babble at the camera, other people will pay for it. It's a gift. A few months ago, I was sitting cross-legged in the mountains of Vietnam with a bunch of Thai tribesman as a guest of honor drinking rice whiskey. Three years ago I never, ever in a million years thought that I would ever live to see any of that. So I know that I'm a lucky man.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003