Editor’s note: Anthony Bourdain tragically took his own life on June 8, 2018. This story was first published on on September 2015, and remains here in its original form.
While he’s best-known as a chef and host of shows like CNN’s Parts Unknown, if you ask Anthony Bourdain to describe his profession in as few words as possible, he’d probably mention he’s a writer first. “On a good writing day,” Anthony Bourdain told Men’s Journal in this month’s cover story, “I’ll write myself into a corner, then spend the rest of the day trying to solve the problem.” Although his most well-known book is probably the 2000 memoir about working in kitchens from New York to Japan, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain has also dabbled in crime fiction, and the 2012 graphic novel about a killer sushi master, Get Jiro!, which Vulture’s Abraham Riesman called “a lysergic mixture of Top Chef and The Warriors.”
Next month, Bourdain will team back up with co-writer Joel Rose along with Alé Garza and Dave Johnson, and revisit Jiro, this time with a prequel set in Japan that tells his origin story, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi. Men’s Journal caught up with Bourdain to talk about his love of subversive comics, dystopian fiction, and how he functions as a writer even with a schedule that doesn’t have too many moments to spare.
You talk about the influence of music and writers like William Burroughs. Were you a comic book fan growing up?
Yeah, I was. I collected Golden Age EC comics. I grew up reading the original Mad magazine. I was a big fan of the old Mad from the ’50s with Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. It was back when Mad was a comic book. They were really disturbed, something really dark and filled with anxiety and sex and violence. So I wanted to be a comic artist. Then that sort of morphed and I wanted to be an underground cartoonist like R.Crumb or Robert Williams or a lot of the stuff that was underground that were really exciting to me. I wasn’t a very dedicated art student, to put it that way. I sort of put those dreams aside. But I had a sizable and impressive collection of comics, so when I got the opportunity to work on one a few years ago, it was kind of a realization of unfulfilled dreams.
I was trying to describe your first graphic novel, Get Jiro!, to a friend, and the only thing I could come up with was this cross between Kill Bill with JG Ballard and William Gibson and food thrown in, kind of. How did you come up with it?
It’s aspirational in a lot of ways. I was sitting at Sushi Yasuda in New York, and the chef there is a friend and somebody I really respect. I’m well aware of the many, many years it took him just to learn how to cook rice properly before his master allowed him to work with the fish. And I was sitting there as these two wealthy knuckleheads sit down at this bar and immediately start stirring a big wad of his hand-grated, fresh wasabi into a dish of soy sauce with the intention of dunking, unseen and untried, his sushi in there, and I saw a look of pain and discomfort. I thought, man, wouldn’t it be great if he could just reach across the bar and slice their heads off. So that was the jumping off point. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where disrespecting good sushi could get you killed and no one would care? In my fiction, people who don’t know how to eat or who do terrible things to food tend to get killed.
Something that runs through all of your projects, TV or writing, is the theme that food isn’t something to be taken lightly.
You know, I worked in an industry for 30 years, and more often than not, the chefs were punished for their best efforts. There’s a disconnect, for much of my career anyway, between what we were doing in the kitchen and how hard we worked on things and how they might have been appreciated. You know, the lives of our costumers are very different, and very remote from the lives we lived in the kitchen. I guess that has something to do with it.
So food and strife go hand-in-hand?
There’s nothing more political than food. As I travel around the world, it’s either intensified a national or ethnic vibe, or something that people fight or struggle every day to have. I mean, who’s eating and who’s not eating. When I’m traveling, countries where food isn’t worth arguing about are not countries I generally enjoy being in.
In the Tokyo episode of Parts Unknown, you say your first time in the city, where the graphic novels are set, was transformative. What kind of effect does the city have on you still?
You confront it right away with all of the things you don’t know. You know it’s such a steep learning curve, even mastering one block in Tokyo — it’s so densely packed with stimulus and little worlds within worlds. Just learning to behave appropriately by Japanese standards is an impossible task. It’s so different, so stimulating, and when you go there for the first time — when I went for the first time — you really are forced, in a violent way, I think, to re-examine this notion that you come from the center of the world. That’s immediately brought into deep question. Everything you thought was true has to be re-examined now because you realize, ‘Wow, maybe I don’t live in the center of the world. Maybe I have a whole hell of a lot to learn.’ It threw me off kilter in a wonderful way that I’ve never recovered from.
People like to speculate who Jiro is based on.
It has been erroneously reported that there is a connection between the character and [sushi master, subject of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi] Jiro Ono. There isn’t.
You’ve had a number of successful nonfiction books, and you’ve written some crime fiction as well. How do you approach a graphic novel differently?
I like to start all my stories with a character and with a dialogue and a situation. Joel Rose is my co-author and he’s had a lot more experience working in graphic novels, so as far as pacing and how to break down a story into digestible pieces but work in a graphic way, that’s something he’s much better at than me. But it started as a story: the dialogue, details, and atmospherics, these are the things I like. The mechanics of making its layout, mapping out a plot in a dramatically coherent and satisfying way is the most difficult part for me. I tend to not care about plot much either when I read or write. Like a good Elmore Leonard book, I don’t care what happens. I like the characters. I like to lose myself in the details, the atmospherics, and the lushness of the dialogue. One of things that’s great about Elmore Leonard, for instance, is you really don’t care whodunit, because he tells you whodunit right away. It’s not a mystery.
How do you carve out time to write? Do you have some sort of schedule?
I write first thing in the morning. I found that I’m a morning person. I always write first thing in the morning before I have time to think up any of the million good reasons why I shouldn’t or couldn’t be writing. I also tend to get progressively stupider as the day progresses, so I’m at my best in the morning. I try to jump on that quickly, write for as long as I can and then go about my business.