Anthony Bourdain on Writing, Food, Adventure, and Finding a Calling

Anthony Bourdain
Alex Tehrani

Anthony Bourdain, the beloved chef, writer, and TV personality, died on June 8, 2018, at the age of 61. This interview was first published in the print edition of Men’s Journal in 2014, and remains here in its original form.

What’s the one adventure, journey, or trip that most changed your life—like before you were famous I would guess?

My first trip to Japan — a couple of years before Kitchen Confidential — was absolutely life-changingIt was like my first acid trip. It was that mind-expanding and climactic. I came back thinking about everything in a completely different way. I went there thinking there were a certain amount of primary colors. I came back knowing, in fact, there were 10 or 12 more. It made me want to do things. It showed me there was so much more in the world than I had any idea about — there was so much to learn and there was so much stuff out there. It just gave me an appetite and drive. Where I was, was suddenly not enough. Whatever happened to me in Tokyo, I wanted more.

What’s the best advice you ever received from anyone? Who gave it? And when?

Show up on time. I learned this from the mentor who I call Bigfoot in Kitchen Confidential. If you didn’t show up 15 minutes exactly before your shift — if you were 13 minutes early — you lost the shift, you were sent home. The second time you were fired. It is the basis of everything. I make all my major decisions on other people based on that. Give the people you work with or deal with or have relationships with the respect to show up at the time you said you were going to. And by that I mean, every day, always and forever. Always be on time. It is a simple demonstration of discipline, good work habits, and most importantly respect for other people. As an employee, it was a hugely important expression of respect, and as an employer, I quickly came to understand that there are two types of people in this world: There are the type of people who are going to live up to what they said they were going to do yesterday, and then there are people who are full of shit. And that’s all you really need to know. If you can’t be bothered to show up, why should anybody show up? It’s just the end of the fucking world.

Anthony Bourdain

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What have you learned from your drug experiences?

I was a long-time drug addict, and one of the things drug addiction did, especially when you have to score cocaine or heroin every day on the streets of New York — you learn a lot of skills that are useful when dealing with Hollywood or the business world. In a world full of bullshit, when you need something as badly as drugs, your bullshit detector gets pretty acute. Can I trust this guy with money? Is this guy’s package going to be all he says it was? It makes it a lot easier to navigate your way through Hollywood when you find yourself at a table and everybody says, “We’re all big fans of your work.” Well none of you motherfuckers have actually read it. You don’t fall victim to amateur bullshit when you’ve put up with professional bullshit. My bullshit meter is very finely tuned, and you learn to measure your expectations.

What are the benefits of hedonism, and what are the risks?

Look, I understand that inside me there is a greedy, gluttonous, lazy, hippie — you know? I understand that free time is probably my enemy. That if I’m given too much free time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I’m afraid of that inner hippie emerging. There’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy. I make sure I commit to projects based on: Will they be interesting? I like to keep momentum going. I’m aware of my appetites, and I don’t let them take charge. It goes back to heroin: If heroin, or delicious delicious food, is the Number One thing on the to-do list every day, there probably won’t be a Number Two thing on your Things To-do list. You know?

What about drinking?

A little perspective is useful. I like to have fun. I do take intense joy in self-indulgence. But I’m honestly pretty disciplined. You see me drink myself stupid on my show all the time. And I have a lot of fun doing that. But I’m not sitting at home having a cocktail. Never, ever. I don’t ever drink in my house. I don’t even drink beer in my house. During summer vacation, maybe I’ll have some beers while I’m grilling in the back yard, because it’s part of the experience. I’m pretty moderate in my vices: When I indulge, I indulge. But I don’t let it bleed over into the rest of my life. I have shit to do, I caught a bunch of lucky breaks, I’m not going to fuck it up. That’s an important lesson to learn. Or at least an important thing that I understood after Kitchen Confidential came out. I was 44. I was uninsured, I was broke, and I was dunking fries into a fast-food fryer. I understood that I got a pretty lucky break here, and that it was statistically unlikely to happen again. I’ve been pretty careful about not fucking up the opportunities that have come since.

When should a man say “No”?

The “don’t fuck up” instinct is much more important than the “I’ve got to keep this going” instinct. People are going to offer you a lot of things, and I always have to ask myself, “Okay. This might be good and profitable today or tomorrow, but will this thing be good for me in a year or in two years when everybody thinks I’m an asshole for having done it?” I was offered a project years ago. It would have been spectacularly profitable franchise. And I went in with my partners, and we met with someone who’s very, very good at this business and would have no doubt made us spectacularly wealthy. We all emerged from the meeting and looked at each other, and I said, “Look, do you want to answer, when the phone rings, do you want to pick it up and have that guy on the other end? Do you want that person in your life? We’ll all be fucking miserable. I don’t want to go on that ride. I want to keep the assholes in my life to an absolute minimum, if not zero.” That’s worth real, real money — to not have assholes in your life.

What advice would you give the younger you?

I wouldn’t have listened. That’s the kind of asshole I was. I would never listen to me — I could show up and tell him exactly what’s happening, you know? I would have gone right ahead and made the same mistakes. I was that kind of person, I would have said, “Fuck it. I don’t care, old man, I’m still taking this ride.” And look — it paid off! All that fucking up seemed to directly get paid off. So I don’t think I’d even want to go back and have that conversation at all.

You’ve had some pretty famous feuds. When should a person start a feud with someone publicly?

I guess my threshold for feud is weird. It’s like, by all means feel free to say you find me just generally repulsive, that you hate me, you hate my work, that you think I’m an asshole. That I’m ugly or stupid or offensive. All of those are completely legitimate areas to criticize me or attack me in public, and I’ll probably shrug my shoulders. Where I get into a feud is if I feel like you’ve lied about me. Or that you’ve willingly misrepresented me in a way I really don’t want to be misrepresented. Or if you’ve misrepresented, or lied about, something I feel very passionate about — like food. If you’re going to have an enemy, it should be someone who you respect. My arch-enemy, Alan Richman who I wrote about having a feud with, we actually get along very, very well now and have snuck out for dinner together on more than one occasion. I feel happy about that. I enjoy having an epic battle, but I can change my opinion about a person, and I respect people who can change their opinions.

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Being able to change your mind is a really important trait, isn’t it?

I have an operating principle that I am perfectly willing, if not eager, to believe that I’m completely wrong about everything. I have a tattoo on my arm, that says, in ancient Greek, “I am certain of nothing.” I think that’s a good operating principle. I love showing up to a place thinking it’s going to be one way and having all sorts of stupid preconceptions or prejudices, and then in even a painful and embarrassing way, being proved wrong. I like that. If you can get a little smarter about the world every day, it’s a win. I just came back from Iran, and perfect example: I went in thinking all sorts of things, and man I had every expectation, everything I thought I knew or suspected, turned up-side-down.

Is there a place you turn to time and time again?

Southeast Asia’s constantly inspiring to me and puts things into perspective. I’m a guy who lives in New York. I’m a very busy guy. I would say that I work hard. But — it was only 14 years ago that I was at the tail end of almost 30 years of actually working in a kitchen. And then to go to Southeast Asia, a place I find incredibly beautiful and enchanting, and deeply satisfying in every sense of the word, but you’re constantly confronted with what work really can mean. I love rice country for that reason. Any place where people grow rice. You see people bent at the hip, re-planting rice, eight, 10 hours a day. It puts words like “work” into perspective. You see how people fight to live every day in Congo — you know, it forces you to reevaluate words you thought you knew the meaning of.  It just puts your own life and the world you live in, in a larger perspective.

How does a man find his calling? How do you know what you’re doing is right?

I don’t know — you keep at it. I like building things. I like making things. I liked making plates of food. I was a very happy dishwasher. You know, the plates went into the dishwasher dirty and they came out clean every time. And that felt good. I liked making plates of food. There was a sense of accomplishment every time, even if it was the same plate I made a thousand, or 10 thousand, times. It satisfied me. I liked making our episodes of television. How do you find your calling? For me, I like to create things or be part of the creation of things. Whether it’s a comic book, or a book, or a tv show, or a plate of food. If I just laid in bed all day with a big tube feeding me money, I would not be a happy guy. I need to make stuff. I need a fucking job. I think everybody does.

What’s the best cure for a hangover?

Look, you’re screwed in any case, especially the older you get. There’s no escaping it, and they get worse and worse as you get older. The best all-around cure I’ve found — and this is the best-case scenario, meaning, presumably, if you’re going to go out and drink too much, you have made allowances for this on the other end. This is something I learned very early. I mean if I’ve got to wake up and go to meetings tomorrow morning, I’m not getting hammered tonight if I can avoid it. I know — I’ve learned. So the thing is: Schedule. Schedule your hangover. Wake up as soon as you can. A cold Coca-Cola, or Pepsi. Wash down a couple aspirin. Smoke a joint. And the joint will help you to develop an appetite at which point, have some really spicy food. Some spicy leftovers, like — leftover Kung Pao Chicken would be perfect.

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What’s the best way to motivate other people?

Make them feel special. Create an esprit de corp, and a feeling that you are an elite, that even if you have the shittiest jobs within a large organization, you should feel proud of the fact that you’re part of something. Recognize excellence. Celebrate weirdness, and innovation. Oddballs should be cherished, if they can do something other people can’t do. But also everybody needs to understand that there are certain absolutes; there is a certain line. That no matter how much I love you — you may be my favorite, but if you show up late, two days in a row, I’m sorry — but you’re going over the side.

How should a man handle his critics?

I got a book review in The New York Times a while back. It wasn’t a particularly good review, it was actually a painfully bad one. But it was well written, it was well-reasoned, it hurt like hell, nothing in it was unfair. I might have disagreed with some of the conclusions. Others, I had to reluctantly — wincingly — agree with, and I just ate it. I curled up in a little ball, recovered and hopefully learned from the experience. I can’t fault them for not liking my work. Especially when it was a well-presented indictment. There are critics that have been unfair, meaning they’ve misrepresented, or they came at something I did with a preconceived notion. And then sort of cherry-picked in order to reach the conclusion that they’d already made. I don’t like it — it hurts, but if you cook food or write books or make television, it’s like the tide — the weight will break on the beach. There is no stopping it. It will come, and then another wave, and then another wave. There’s nothing you can do about it, and there’s no point to railing against it. You’ve just got to toughen up. Learn to swim. I just suck it up. You’re lucky that people give a shit in the first place to even bother to talk about you.

What role does vanity play in a man’s life?

If you’re a writer, particularly if you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it, it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror in the morning and think, “You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.” You know, “I’m an interesting guy, and I have interesting things to say.” Look, the numbers overwhelmingly disprove that notion. It’s an insane notion. Most writers fail. So the kind of drive — the kind of compulsion to spend a year or two of your life writing a book in the hope that people will buy it, that’s what’s called narcissism. An over-inflated sense of self. It makes a lot of us unpleasant or dysfunctional socially — so there’s that vanity. On the other hand, I’ve been offered a lot of money to do stuff that I turn down. And to be honest, a lot of it wasn’t because I have any integrity, it was because I didn’t want to take a million dollars to represent you know — anti-diarrhea medicine. My vanity would not allow it. Also, vanity saved me from heroin, a lot of people, with what they call, “low self-esteem”, if you look at anyone getting rogered on a dirty couch by Ron Jeremy in the history of film, chances are you’re going to find a self-esteem problem. That’s true with people who have the most trouble getting off hard drugs. When they look in the mirror, they don’t see someone worth saving. I looked in the mirror, and I was very unhappy, and embarrassed by the guy I saw there. And I think that’s what provided me with the will to kick narcotics, because I was too fucking vain to be that guy anymore. That whining, desperate, sick, fucking victim.

Is there a meal that every man should know how to cook?

In an ideal society, everyone over 12 should be able to cook a few basic things reasonably well. They should be able to feed themselves and a few friends, if called to do so, both as a kindness, and as a basic life skill. Everyone should know how to make an omelet. Everyone should know how to roast a chicken, properly, how to grill a steak properly, how to make a basic — very basic — stew or soup, prepare basic vegetables and pasta. After you’ve progressed through 101, the next thing to learn is how to cook a simple pasta pomodoro — I think it would make the world a better place if we all knew how to cook pasta properly. These are all very easy things to do. They require really only the will and some patience to learn through repetition, which is really the way most cooks and chefs learn. As I said in the last book, you know everybody you have sex with for the first time? If you’re going to have sex with someone, you should be willing and able to cook them a fucking omelet in the morning. And a proper one. It’s a nice thing. It would make the world a kinder and gentler place. It’s the least you can do.

How should a man handle regret? And what’s your biggest regret?

Regret is something you’ve got to just live with, you can’t drink it away. You can’t run away from it. You can’t trick yourself out of it. You’ve just got to own it. I’ve disappointed and hurt people in my life, and that’s just something I’m going to have to live with. If you made the basic decision that even in spite of your crimes, you are worth persevering, that it’s worth trying to get good things for yourself, even though you might not deserve them, then you eat that guilt and you live with it. And you own it. You own it for life.

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