Our Dinner With Tony
Wes Marshall and Mick Vann do dinner with a worldly renegade chef.
By Wes Marshall and Mick Vann, Fri., Dec. 27, 2002
We had a dilemma on our hands. Bestselling author Anthony Bourdain was coming to town. The brilliant writer (Kitchen Confidential, A Cook's Tour), world traveler, chef and bon vivant, Food Network star, and self-proclaimed searcher for "the perfect meal" wanted to go to dinner. We volunteered at the Food writers' meeting in one of those Bre'r Rabbit kind of moves: We couldn't wait to get thrown into that briar patch. Now the hard part. Where?
There were problems: It was a Monday night after 10pm, and lots of restaurants would be closed. Also, Tony is a prolific smoker. His right to smoke is as big a deal to him as it is to the anti-smoke set. He was already grousing about the smoking limitations in Austin, calling it Berkeley's little sister.
We met him at BookPeople after a packed, hilarious book signing. Someone from the audience had asked him where he was eating that night. "I don't know. Someone's picking me up. But I'm sure of one thing, it'll have dirty bathrooms." The crowd laughed while we groaned to ourselves. We had finally settled on Demi Epicurious. They have great food, they're open late, and have a dining table in the bar where Tony could smoke his Larks.
Larks? His choice of smokes is as individual as his lifestyle and career. Here's a guy that was a college dropout, a CIA culinary grad, a guy that led the consummate junkie's life in New York City (when he wasn't behind the line at numerous NYC restaurants), and partied with Lou Reed and the Ramones at CBGB's. As if all this wasn't enough, one day on a whim he sent an article to The New Yorker, and they printed it! For writers, this is the equivalent of a first-time screenwriter sending a script to Martin Scorsese and getting a contract by return mail. He eventually ended up with a totally bitchin' writing and television career that we all envy -- rich people pay him to travel all over the world and eat the best and the weirdest, while he gets to meet food luminaries from every level.
We had a great meal, drank a little too much wine and tequila, and told each other tall tales like drunk dudes do. We found out that Tony away from the crowds is ... well ... identical to Tony on TV or in his books. There's not a shred of pretense or fluff, and the banter flows nonstop, like the smoke off his cigs. The main difference was that we could have the fun of give and take with a guy we both highly respect. Here's some of what we learned about Tony's view of the world.
His biggest fear in life: Some morning he'll wake up, light up a Lark, go look in the bathroom mirror, and see Bobby Flay looking back at him like some culinary Dorian Gray. He doesn't want to morph into Emeril or come off like the media-manufactured, pseudo-chef Jamie Oliver (one of Tony's best jokes is that Jamie Oliver has found a way to tell two lies in three words: The Naked Chef). He shouldn't worry. He's too skeptical of the trappings of stardom; plus, Bourdain has paid his dues.
His favorite Food Network personality: Mario Batalli, because Mario has turned New Yorkers on to the glory of "variety meats," he actually does the cooking live-time on Molto Mario, and he can party longer and harder than Tony, or damn near anyone else. Most importantly, Mario knows what the hell he talks about. Nobody is writing his scripts or doing his research for him.
Favorite word: "fuck," which to Tony has myriad meanings. And he used 90% of them during our few hours together. He used the word like an artist, one minute meaning a shoulder-shrugging "cool" to the next meaning of, "If I had a rocket launcher some son-of-a-bitch would die."
Favorite food: sushi. "I eat it all I can ... New York's got some great sushi joints, and the stuff I had in Japan was ethereal. It's the perfect bite-sized meal made from the freshest ingredients by people that really care about their craft. ... It's an art form. I just wish that the fugu [potentially lethal blowfish meat] in Japan had some flavor, or at the very least it had gotten me high!"
Worst meal of his life: a vegan potluck in Berkeley. "OK, OK ... they don't eat meat, I understand. ... I don't care. But the goal of cooking is to make food taste good. These idiots took beautiful, pristine produce and created shit from it. It was inedible!"
Best chef on Earth: Thomas Keller of French Laundry in Napa Valley. Close second: Gordon Ramsay of London's Gordon Ramsay. "What people don't understand is that we got the same meal that everyone else gets at the Laundry. The guy's a genius ... course after course of these incredible-tasting tidbits, every one a perfect little work of art. Everyone should eat there before they die!"
Favorite place on Earth: Vietnam. "The people are so friendly, the beaches are so fucking unbelievable, the food, from the most basic bowl of noodles to the most elaborate feast, just blows your mind. If all of this TV and book shit all came crashing down tomorrow, [wife] Nancy and I would pack up, chuck it all, and move there for six months or so. I love that place."
Least favorite places on Earth: Cambodia (for the soul-stealing violence and poverty, for the abuse that the visitors, even today, heap on the populace) and the "People's Republic of Berkeley" (his term for the most active anti-smoking and vegetarian brigade in the U.S.). "Parallels can be drawn ... they both give me the creeps, but I like Pol Pot's pals better than the Berkleyites. You know where you stand with the Khmer Rouge, and they don't let you shoot machine guns in Berkeley."
Restaurant regrets: "I really miss the end of a hard, balls-to-the-wall shift behind the line at Les Halles. That's such a perfect slice of time. You're sitting at the bar getting plastered with all of your kitchen staff, letting off steam, surrounded by mutual respect and camaraderie after a job well done. That fucking rocks! There's no other feeling like it."
The night was short and sweet, the drinks flowed, and the food was fabulous (even if the bathrooms were too clean). Bourdain is a guy like no other and at the same time a guy just like us all. Any subject we angled off on, whether it was music (his father ran marketing for Columbia Masterworks, and he was a jazz hustler in Paris in his post-teen years), world politics (he understands Cambodian and Vietnamese politics and history better than the State Dept.), or food (he personally knows most of the great chefs in the world), he kept us totally entertained. "I don't know how a bozo like me ended up where I am now ... dumb luck and timing, I guess. It all could have gone south so easy. Most of my friends from a big part of my life are dead now. I lead a charmed life ... I'm blessed."