It seems hard to believe that it's been more than a decade since the publication of Kitchen Confidential, and yet Anthony Bourdain's name, for people interested in cooking and eating, at any rate, has become a byword for a straight-shooting approach to writing and broadcasting about food. Bourdain was in Australia for the Sydney Writers' Festival in May, and he caught up with GT's Pat Nourse to talk about his newfound love of TV script-writing, his Twitter alter-ego and how French food got its groove back.
Pat Nourse: Is French food in danger of losing its relevance outside France? Anthony Bourdain: That was true 10 years ago, for sure, but it's coming back really strong, especially with the new bistronomy movement. Paris is fun again, Paris is exciting again. And in Paris now for the first time you can eat spectacularly well for cheap.
How do you account for the shift to that more casual bistronomy style? The economy is part of it, of course, and I think it also reflects a change in lifestyle and in the ambitions of a new generation of classically trained chefs, as well as upstart self-taught chefs. It's a mixture of personalities, economics, timing and a general trend towards empowerment of chefs. Chefs are now creating the sorts of menus and environments that they themselves would want to eat in. These are all very chef-friendly environments. A lot of these guys are also influenced, believe it or not, by Brooklyn, by what's been happening in New York.
I thought what Iñaki [Aizpitarte] was doing at Chateaubriand in Paris was really good. What he's doing there is much more modest and you can't compare it to El Bulli or Noma but out of five courses there were two there that were really great dishes. I like what they're doing at Le Comptoir, I like Frenchie. Those are all the places that are making French food fun again.
What happened? What was the problem? They got stuck. And then they admitted that Spain exists. The young guys now have travelled, they've eaten in Spain, they've discovered sushi, they've acknowledged that life exists outside France. What's incredible is that Robuchon was way out in front with all of this with his atelier concept.
The wine world also seems to be loosening up. It's definitely happening for wine in Paris. I went to what seemed to be a musty old wine shop, and here's the owner saying, very proudly, "there is no wine in my establishment older than six years". I mean, wow, what a change. And the biodynamic stuff tastes good and doesn't hurt you so much in the morning. You gotta like that. Clearly that's going to be a growing sector. Sommeliers now are not snobs. They're really knowledgeable and they're not afraid to throw a beer at you in the middle of a tasting menu, a sake - whatever works. That's cool.
Why has French cuisine remained so potent a force in restaurants? Because any time anyone picks up a knife, a Western-style cutting implement, and approaches a piece of meat or some vegetables, they owe a debt to the French.
The Italians might have something to say about that. Which the French would be the first to admit. But the French took it in a very different direction. They had a centralised aristocracy which Italy's city states didn't have; France has or had a national cuisine, that was The Way. If you cook in the Western or English-speaking world, and you've had any sort of classical training, chances are you owe a debt to the French.
Who are the game-changers in America right now, as far as you're concerned? David Chang continues to be the guy, not just because he is who he is, but because he's a magnet for really interesting people. He's a smart guy - he likes to under-promise and over-deliver.
I see you've got a writing credit on the new season of Treme on HBO. Is writing for TV your new thing? I was brought on last season as a consultant and this season I'm writing anything to do with the chef's story. Later this season, too, you'll see a lot of famous chefs playing themselves. This is easily the most fun I've had.
What's it like working with [The Wire's] David Simon? The man responsible for the greatest show in the history of the television medium? It's f*ing awesome. I've been to a couple of story meetings and you sit around at a table full of great writers, George Pelacanos, Eric Overmyer, Tom Piazza, Lolis Elie. All of these guys have CVs beyond belief, so I just do my thing. They give me the story beats, I write the scenes, I send them down and… being rewritten by David Simon doesn't suck.
Have you got much history with New Orleans? The culture of cooks in New Orleans is unique and wonderful. When I first went there, on a book tour, it was like slipping into a warm bath. I was taken in and looked after, so I feel a very personal connection to New Orleans. It's the most uniquely American of American cities. There ain't no city like it. There are places kind of like New York. Kinda. There are certainly cities kinda like Chicago or San Francisco. But there ain't nothin' like New Orleans.
What's your take on [satirical Twitter identity] Ruth Bourdain?
I'm hoping I never find out who it is. If you really wanted to set your mind to finding out, you could, but where's the fun in that? I've been told a few names, but I don't want to know. Julie Powell? She's not that f*ing sharp.