New Yorker Anthony “Tony” Bourdain, pictured, is a best-selling author (Kitchen Confidential and The Nasty Bits) and executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles. Travel Channel viewers know him as the host of No Reservations. He is out-spoken, has been described as a bit racy and possesses no qualms in making not-so-subtle put downs of other celebrity chefs. On October 23 he will be speak at the 92nd Street Y with Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/owner of Prune; Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernadin; and Michael Ruhlman, food journalist and author. First, we let Ben Leventhal of the popular food blog, Eater.com, pepper Tony with five questions.
BL: You famously taught us the restaurant rule of not ordering fish on Mondays. Does it still apply? Are there any new eating rules you’ve discovered?
TB: Fish on Monday? I eat it all the time--but at sushi bars--where the quality is apparent and at Le Bernardin or at any restaurant where they specialize in and have made their reputation on seafood (like Esca) and at restaurants where consistent quality is assured. So I guess I’d like to hedge on that rule. Where it remains a solid, sound ordering policy would be any low to mid range eatery where fish is not the focus. A West Village saloon with a fish special would NOT be a great place to order the skate. I’m not saying they’re going to poison you, I’m suggesting strongly that you wait for Tuesday.
BL: There are now a dozen restaurant critics, or more, with clout in NY, DailyCandy and a half-dozen influential online publications that track openings (and can get a restaurant’s reservation books filled for the first four weeks), hundreds of online food “journalists” who record, photograph and report on their every bite; plus thanks to outlets like the Food Channel everyone’s an “expert” on how a piece of salmon should be prepared. Has any of this changed the way you run your restaurant? If not, how do you stay above it?
TB: First of all, I no longer run my restaurant. I’ve been traveling nearly 10 months out of the year since 2001--so I’m a “chef” in only the most notional, figurehead, bobble-head, casino-greeter kind of a way. Clearly, the dining public are better informed and have higher expectations than they once did--a nice side effect of the oft-annoying “celebrity chef” phenomonen. You can’t get away with being mediocre--or doing the same thing everyone else is doing (unless you do it better). And yes--the advent of the food nerd means that should you open a new high end, fine dining restaurant, there will be people photographing every course, taking down notes on every mouthful, and blogging about it the next day. This raises the stakes for every plate of food a chef sends into the dining room--as one bad order could well be the one to get splashed all over the net as evidence that you are “sooo last week” or “not as good as you once were”. However troubling that might be--and potentially unfair, I think it’s on balance, a good thing. Anything which raises expectations, places more value on consistent excellence, which pushes chefs to be better and encourages diners to be more knowledgable and to try new things--is good for the world.
BL: Generally speaking—I think—chefs who open successful restaurants open more restaurants. But not you, at least not one to which you’ve attached your name publicly. Why haven’t you opened a restaurant since Les Halles? Do you have any plans for a sequel?
TB: I’m waaay too busy traveling to be a good chef. At one restaurant--much less two or three. I was always careful to point out that even though there are a number of other outposts of Les Halles, that I was only ever involved in running the kitchen at the Park Avenue mothership. If you had a disappointing meal at the Coral Gables Les Halles (just for instance--hypothetically speaking)? I feel for you--but assure you that I have no idea what happened. I’m a type A personality--when in the kitchen. If I put my name on the door of a restaurant, I’d be unable to stay away, keep my distance--NOT be involved. And after 30 years in the life, I’m having waaay too much fun seeing the world with my crew, making TV about it and writing about it.
BL: What restaurants and chefs are you excited about right now? Are there any new places you’re eager to try?
TB: I think Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago is doing really forward looking, exciting, high quality stuff. But most of the food that pleases me these days is casual, ethnic and free of the pomp and circumstance and potential exhaustion that comes with a fine dining tasting menu. I’m on a late night yakitori jag these days when in NYC. Casual, family style and dead-on authentic Japanese where I’m usually the only non-Japanese in the place. I’m not going to give you names of places--cause then it’ll be ruined.
BL: What is the one, yes one, restaurant in New York that you hope will never close?
TB: Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King.
[Anthony Bourdain: How I Learned to Cook: 10/23/06]
Check out more food talks and classes at the 92nd Street Y and Makor.