When I heard the shocking news, I thought back to my interview with Anthony Bourdain about writing and eating.
I wanted to interview him about writing. In 2004 I was working on the first edition of Will Write for Food, my book about how to become a food writer. Bourdain’s bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, had come out four years earlier, and he already had a travel show.
The path to Bourdain was surprisingly easy. I got his email from the editor of a food magazine. I went through an assistant whose email was “grillbitch,” who set up a phone interview. Bourdain and I talked about food writing, memoir, eating, cooking, and travel.
I was a nobody, but he gave me his time. He took my questions graciously and seriously, even talking about his drug use.
For the first time, I present this 2004 interview here. It’s entertaining, irreverent, but full of good advice. Parts of it are chilling and sad, in light of his death. When you read it (edited for length and clarity), you’ll be struck by how much he sounds the way he always did, in interviews and on his CNN TV show Parts Unknown.
Later he wrote a spectacular endorsement of my book. It’s been on the cover for most of the last 15 years, and it still thrills me to read it.
So here’s my posthumous interview with Anthony Bourdain, about how to write and eat fearlessly:
Q. How is good food writing different than good writing?
A. It’s not different. One should be able to write on a variety of subjects. You need a command of language, and the ability to say anything in an interesting way.
Specific to food, you need passion, knowledge and enthusiasm for your subject, and not to be a snob. Snobbery is anathema in food writing.
Lots of food writers don’t like food and don’t like people. They are skeptical, frightened, and sneering. Concerned about sanitation. Critics get jaded very quickly. It’s a terrible impediment. Critics are a death sentence for good writers. It’s hard to write afterwards. They have used up all the adjectives.
I don’t like strong prejuidices. Collect experiences like a butterfly collection rather than you ‘love eating and cooking.’
It’s important to like the people who prepare your food, not to be contemptuous of people who cook. It’s a common flaw to be contemptuous of a subject or afraid of the nasty bits, dirt, strange food, unfamiliar experiences, or be jaded.
Fear of the other makes a lot of food and travel writers bad. Get people to talk about eating in Mexico – the water, I might get sick, raw vegetables. Lots of food writing is concerned with health and purity. That’s dangerous, friend. Food is about decay and dirt. Moldy cheese, fermented wines. Bacteria. The original ketchup was garum, rotted fish.
Q. What is your approach to writing?
A. I imagine other cooks as my readers. I write on paper the way I talk to my cooks in the kitchen, as someone for whom a lot of the world is new and exciting, as someone who’s been working in kitchens for a long time.
I’m writing from a cook’s perspective. I have limited expertise. I am neither an expert or critic or a reliable guide. I approach it with a stated point of view, to be open to the world.
Writing about food feels good. Someone else is doing the cooking. When you go to a restaurant, say ‘I hear you’re great, what is it you do?’ I want the whole ride.
Often I am cynical when approaching a subject, but I allow myself to be won over. It’s great to be wrong, to go to a place and be won over.
Writing and cooking are dominant acts. Eating is a completely submissive act. It’s essential for a food writer to submit to whatever happens. Good meals should be magic at whatever level. You’re not going to get it if you don’t let go of the reins.
Q. Which food writers do you enjoy reading most?
A. I really enjoy A.J. Leibling, especially this quote: “A man who is rich in his adolescence is almost doomed to be a dilletante at table. This is not because all millionaires are stupid, but because they are not impelled to experiment.”
There’s that authoritative curmugeon, Jeffrey Steingarten. He likes to eat.
Jim Harrison. The Raw and the Cooked. He was one of the last attitude-free bon vivants. Grab all the life in two hands and eat.
Q. How would you advise someone who wants to write about the senses?
A. Enjoy your own. To cook well, you have to like to eat, like sex, movies, things that feel good. Chefs tend to live slightly larger-than-life existences. Enjoy all of life’s pleasures. Make food come alive.
Q. What are the characteristics of the best food writers?
A. They are romantics. Passionate. They love not just food but are fully aware of the context. They are able to personalize it, able to make the reader feel how they felt before the meal, how much of a revelation or surprise it was. They have to be humanists, like Leibling and M.F.K. Fisher. A.A. Gill of the Sunday Times is mean, cynical, sarcastic, unbelievably cruel, passionate, not afraid, not a snob. Underneath it all, though, he’s a failed romantic.
Q. What is your voice about?
A. I’m not shy about hyperbole. I remind the reader at all times who’s talking. I’m not an authorotative third person. It’s not from the mountain top. It’s what happened to me that day and how it made me feel. I use myself as a comedic foil.
I have a reasonable understanding of what it took to prepare the food. I’m always at least as interested in who’s cooking as how the food got there. I appreciate it as part of the story. The best foods came from great human suffering, struggle and poverty. Much of French cuisine came from grim necessity. You don’t want to look at food in a vacuum.
I’ve been accused of being macho. I don’t understand what that means. There are qualities every chef has to have: confidence, authority, leadership, and control. It’s okay to have introspection and self doubt in lonely moments.
Q. How does one become discriminating about food?
A. Eat a lot. It’s just that simple. The more widely you eat, the more varied the circumstances. Start to appreciate different things. When you see what really great chefs cook after work, they make something very simple and heartfelt. It’s evocative of happier or simpler time. It’s the same process when someone who loves you is making it. Chefs don’t want to see technique after hours, they want to submit.
Q. Do you need a background in food to be a food writer?
A. It helps. You don’t necessarily have to have worked in a professional kitchen, but helps to have hung out there, know a lot of chefs, and be familiar with the food chain. Alcohol is necessary. I can’t imagine how to be a food writer as a teatotaler.
Q. Let’s move on to memoir. What was the hardest thing for you about switching from fiction to memoir?
A. Memoir’s a lot easier. I didn’t have to worry about the plot and I knew who was speaking at all times.
Q. How did you decide which stories to tell?
A. I measured entertainment value versus who gets hurt. Is this story really essential. If it’s just a horror story or has no comedic value, leave things out.
Q. Annie Dillard said most good memoir turns out not to be about the memoirist at all. What do you think of that quote?
A. I like it. How interesting can one person be? I didn’t know I was writing a memoir. I was writing about the world I lived in, as I felt it and saw it.
It helped me tremendously that I was working full time as a chef. I didn’t have the luxury of time to think about why I couldn’t or shouldn’t write, and I didn’t have the luxury of thinking it was more important than what I was doing at work. I didn’t want to make myself look any better than I was. It was very easy to make it into a poor me book. I was not afraid to look like an asshole if I was one or am one. Otherwise it had a predicable story arc.
I want to keep reminding people exactly how reliable and unreliable the person is who’s talking to them. I didn’t want to talk down. When I was a heroin addict, I spent a Christmas eve in the snow on the sidewalk, selling my books and records. Having been a heroin addict was extremely valuable. You never think anything is beneath you.
Q. What advice do you have for someone who wants to write memoir?
A. Look unblinkingly at your life. Describe the most painful and embarrassing parts. Try to find something funny about it. Comedy walks a fine line between comedy and tradgedy. Richard Pryor talked about excruciatingly painful moments of his past. Use the same rule as I do if possible: make the bad guys unsympathetic. It’s not the plot. It’s about whether I’m still going to like the hero at the end of the chapter. The reader should waver.
Q. What about someone who wants to do travel writing based on food?
A. It’s the best job in the world. It’s really important to be a good guest. Be willing to put yourself in a situation and let things happen. Absolute fearlessness is essential. Don’t be squeamish or hesitant. I have eaten a lot of food that was very difficult, but I’m often the honored guest.
The table is the best reflection of a nation, the fastest way into that culture. People who let down their guard, it requires that you match them shot for shot with the vodka laced with bear bile. Now is not the time to say ‘I’m a vegetarian’ or ‘I’m lactose intolerant.’ You’re not going to move closer to the heart of the matter.
I always eat like at I did at my grandmother’s house. I don’t go out there looking for shock horror food, but I take what comes. Leave yourself open to that meal that’s going to make you sick or queasy, or you will never have that magic experience.
Find where local people are eating, not the best restaurant in town. Ask a taxi driver, someone at a market, say ‘Where do you eat?’ People tend to be happy and pleased that someone from far away would be interested. People drive me to their homes when I take that attitude.
Avoid France and Italy. Go to Southeast Asia, Vietnam, and China. Singapore and Malaysia. It’s such fertile ground. You get excited because everyone is crazy about food. It’s certainly easier to come up with something fresh that hasn’t been done. Like chef Tim Kelley, runawaychef.com. He travels by himself all over Asia, eating. It’s wonderful travel writing. He takes exactly the right attitude: Grateful to be alive with his eyes open.
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