Anthony Bourdain on Donald Trump, the #metoo movement, and the most disgusting thing he ever ate
TV presenter and author criticises the US President for his ‘stupidity, lack of curiosity and laziness’, damns those who do not report sexual misconduct in the workplace, and fears for his taste buds after eating fermented shark
Maybe the perfect Cayman Islands weather helps, but looking at Anthony Bourdain, it’s hard to believe that this summer he will turn 62.
He is totally at ease as he wanders among the global food stalls at The Cayman Cookout, enthusiastically tasting a bite of blood sausage called dinuguan from the Philippines stand, or gently ribbing Britons at their stall about the nation’s celebrated carb overload that is a chip butty.
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In ripped jeans, a blue and white check shirt, flip flops and shades against the Caribbean sun, he looks every inch the cultural icon: celebrated author, TV presenter, ex-drug addict – and former chef.
The four-day annual cookout held at The Ritz Carlton hotel is a culinary wonderland launched by Bourdain’s great friend, chef Eric Ripert, from the three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin in New York. 2018 marks its 10th anniversary and Bourdain is one of a number of renowned names from the world of food and drink who attends whenever his schedule allows, which, given he racks up 250 days of travel every year, is no mean feat.
Joining him is José Andres, the larger-than-life Spanish chef whose volunteer work feeding millions of people in Puerto Rico and elsewhere has made him arguably as famous as his TV shows and 27 restaurants. There’s also Daniel Boulud, the affable Frenchman, who has multiple Michelin stars to his name, San Francisco-based Dominique Crenn, named best female chef 2016 by World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and the only female chef attending (others were invited but only she accepted).
Yannick Alléno who has a Hong Kong restaurant as well as six Michelin stars in France, is in attendance, as are Emeril Lagasse, Rick Bayless and Robert Irvine.
But it’s clear that the name attracting most of the very well-heeled, largely North American attendees, is Bourdain. Not one to normally to attend corporate events, he explains why he has made the journey to the tiny Caribbean island, just south of Cuba.
“Purely for personal reasons. You know, I have such a dysfunctional, minimal social life – I travel so much – so to see my good friends, José, Eric and their families, lay on a beach, [watch] kids playing together for four or five days, this is deeply satisfying to me. A tradition,” he says.
Bourdain’s story is well-documented. The New Jersey-raised son of a New York Times journalist and classical music industry executive, he dropped out of Vassar College after two years before enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. From there he worked in a succession of restaurants, before ending up as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan. It was there in 1998 that he wrote a behind-the-scenes, tell-all piece Don’t Eat Before Reading This for The New Yorker.
It was caustic, hilarious, visceral reading, which in 2000, led to his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Thereafter came other books including Medium Raw, A Cook’s Tour and, most recently, Appetites. But it was his cool, naturally telegenic style on the small screen which made Bourdain something approaching a household name and the global star he is today with more than 10 million followers on Instagram and Twitter.
One of his hallmarks, both in print and on air, is his total honesty. Never one to shy away from a question and utterly disdainful of spin and PR means, he makes for a hugely compelling and entertaining conversation.
We talk as news had come in overnight of the latest outburst from President Donald Trump, this time in his reference to Haiti, El Salvador and a number of African nations as “s***hole countries”.
It’s hard to imagine that there exists a more experienced global traveller – and eater – than Bourdain. From Libya to the Congo, Bhutan to Iran and seemingly everywhere in-between, he has crossed the globe, frequently to some of the countries Trump referenced. It’s left him with a finely tuned appreciation of international diplomacy through food.
“Travel, eat what’s offered, be polite, be a good guest, be grateful – and be curious. These are qualities I think are sorely missing in the current discourse. Why go to – quote unquote – ‘s***hole’ countries? Well I’ve been going to s***hole countries for 17 years, happily and proudly.”
Having lived his whole life in New York, he explains how he's long been aware of President Trump. “Just when you think you can’t be stupider or go lower. Look, this is a man me and my fellow New Yorkers have known for 30, 40 years as a neighbour. So we always knew. It’s no surprise that this is the way he looks at the world,” Bourdain explains.
“Nobody that isn’t male, white and wealthy counts. We’re just hearing what he thinks. But it’s the astonishing lack of curiosity, the astonishing laziness. I have to travel this world where everybody is laughing at us. It’s one thing to be hated, it’s another thing to be feared, but to be ridiculed, everywhere, and treated as pathetic?”
He sounds – and looks – incredulous, as he continues his evisceration, “He has no interest in talking to anybody, he talks about himself and that is the only subject which is of any interest to him. It’s a level of discourse so sub-moronic that it was unthinkable at any other point in my life. You know he hasn’t eaten at a single restaurant in Washington DC other than at a steakhouse in his own hotel since he took the Presidency? Just what he eats is already damning.”
Phew. Moving on from Trump, digging deeper into his legendary global travels, Bourdain explains the one thing that he found more unpalatable than any other.
“I tried fermented shark in Iceland. It’s possibly the single most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten. And this is me talking. I mean, the smell alone could really stop a charging rhinoceros. When the chefs serve it they wear rubber gloves so the stink doesn’t get on their hands, you eat it with toothpicks accompanied by shots of Brennivin, a flavoured vodka – because you need a lot of alcohol to get it down.”
As is almost always the case, the anecdote comes with a more profound point, namely why trying scary-looking food can have far-reaching cultural consequences. “If you make an honest effort, if you take a bite or two, thank them and smile, that is good. And if you end up liking it – which you will far more than you won’t – you’ve got a new friend.”
The Cayman Cookout is in full swing, the heady waft of grilled meat and fish in the air, while sponsors including Möet ensure that no glass goes empty. José Andres is giving a cooking demo on the white sands of Seven Mile beach while set-up is under way for a pétanque tournament where Bourdain would later show uncanny skills.
Some of his favourite destinations are touched on next – Oman, Beirut, Senegal, Uruguay – as well as those he is still keen to get to including Afghanistan, Yemen and Kashmir. One country he has yet to visit is surprising – and typical Bourdain: “I have a weird, pathological fear of Switzerland and all things Swiss that goes back to my childhood. I have a deep neurotic fear of Alpine vistas, cheese with holes in it, fondue, lederhosen, yodelling – it’s all deeply frightening to me for some reason. Over 17 years of making television, I’ve never been to Switzerland.”
We then move on to talk about an issue in which Bourdain has been one of the most high-profile voices, namely the #metoo movement. His partner, the Italian actress Asia Argento, was one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape. The allegation has since allowed countless global stories of harassment, assault, rape and more to emerge, not just in the entertainment industry but within politics, the arts, the media – and also the world of restaurants.
Mario Batali, for one, stepped away from his restaurant empire in December following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Bourdain, a former friend of Batali, subsequently penned a piece where he wrote: “In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women.”
He goes on to tell me that, although he has been out of the business for 20 years: “It’s not just restaurant culture, it’s business culture in general.
There are disgusting people out there who are directly committing bad acts, but I think the real problem is a culture which allows that, or overlooks it, or doesn’t report it, or laughs it off.
“People who watch their chef behave in an offensive or criminal way and let it go now have to think about where they were and how they’re going to explain that to a newspaper, a lawyer – or their own child. I think everybody has to think about what side of history they want to be on at this point.”
There is, he feels, some cause for cautious optimism. “We’re in an environment now where we’re talking about things publicly that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. So, I’m hopeful. When you hear those expressions of pain and shame, a sense of futility again and again, I think it’s very hard – I would hope it’s very hard – to let s*** like that slide, when you get even a sense.”
Ever mindful of others, however, he lets the last word go to those at the heart of the issue.
“There’s a concern, because of my platform, it ends up retweeted, it’s clickbait in a lot of articles, I’m eating up space that should perhaps better be taken up by women telling their stories – and that is a fine line to navigate.”
Chris Dwyer was a guest of The Ritz Carlton at The Cayman Island Cookout,caymancookout.com