Eat Your Words: Anthony Bourdain on Being Wrong

What it means to make mistakes.
May 31 2010 8:32 PM

Eat Your Words: Anthony Bourdain on Being Wrong

Anthony Bourdain's first nonfiction book, Kitchen Confidential , introduced the world to a kind of one-man alt-FDA: a 6-foot-4-inch executive chef and former heroin addict who wrote like Kerouac by way of Blackbeard and would happily fillet your sorry ass with his own kitchen knife if you showed up late to work. More books and the hugely successful Travel Channel show No Reservations soon followed. His latest book, Medium Raw , will be published by Ecco on June 8.

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I got interested in talking to Bourdain about wrongness because of a disagreement over strawberry-rhubarb pie. I hate it; my girlfriend loves it. It wasn't that I wanted him to adjudicate the dispute (I had a sinking feeling he would side with her); it's that I was curious to hear his thoughts on why people tend to act as if they are objectively right even with respect to matters of taste in this case, literally. This impulse is, of course, not limited to food. Even though we know better, it's remarkably easy to feel as if our own aesthetic judgments reflect reality and that, therefore, anyone of sufficient intelligence and sensitivity should share our view.

In addition to talking about wrongness and taste, Bourdain and I talked about wrongness and travel. Thanks to No Reservations , he spends most of his time on the road these days, and he was thoughtful on the subject of how leaving home upends a lot of your beliefs and how travel forces you to think hard about people and practices you disagree with. He also had interesting things to say about how cooks think about mistakes, what it's like to skewer celebrity chefs and then become one, and why heroin keeps you humble.

A couple of years ago, a hedge-fund manager whom I interviewed about wrongness pointed out that in the circles he moved in, being right was essentially synonymous with making money. During my conversation with Bourdain, he suggested that, in the cook's universe, a very different stand-in for rightness prevails: "Is it good? Does it give pleasure?"

OK, let me start with the basics. Should the categories "right" and "wrong" apply to food?

Personally, I think right and wrong are maybe a little too apocalyptic as terms. But you know, food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go. Even before we get into food professionals or food bloggers or food nerds, you're already talking about something that people identify very closely with their identities.

Are professional chefs more or less likely to use right and wrong as a yardstick? It's easy to imagine that with your training, some food preparations just do seem right or wrong.

Chefs are fond of hyperbole, so they can certainly talk that way. But on the whole I think they probably have a more open mind than most people. Chefs are more likely to understand the mechanics of taste, and they know, as a simple matter of fact, that some people perceive flavors differently than the next person.

On the other hand, you can run into some seriously hidebound attitudes. I mean, do not tell a Roman how to make cacio e pepe, for instance. And, certainly, most chefs have very strong opinions on the right way to do most classic dishes and strong opinions about departures from that.

So is there a dish no one should tell you how to make?

I feel that if Jacques Pepin shows you how to make an omelet, the matter is pretty much settled. That's God talking.

I'm interested in this relationship between doing things right and doing things the way they've always been done. It's almost like being right is synonymous with conforming to tradition.

Yeah, or with authenticity. There's enormous respect and a romanticized reverence for what's considered the "right" way meaning, the classic way and I think most chefs feel powerfully that one should know that before moving on. Like, "I've researched this, this is the way they were making it in 1700, goddamn it, and that's the way it should be made." Or: "This is the way they make laksa in Kuching and Borneo; that stuff I just had on Ninth Avenue is definitely not the same; ergo it's wrong." But, you know, what does "real" or "authentic" mean? The history of food is the history of migrating ingredients and occupation and foreign influences and accommodation.

Somebody who'd be very interesting to speak to on this is Grant Achatz [one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy]. Here's a guy who's been trained in the classics, who knows the quote-unquote "right" away to do everything, but made a very deliberate decision to subvert it all. I think that's admirable. We need people like that. We would never have had Jimi Hendrix if he'd stuck to the right way to play guitar.

Is there a part of the culinary universe that finds that kind of subversion upsetting?

It's getting smaller and smaller. Anyone who's a chef, who loves food, ultimately knows that all that matters is: Is it good? Does it give pleasure? The right way to do things, the wrong way to do things I think chefs have always in some ways sought to undermine that. Creativity means going against what you've learned. So however much you might hear people say there's a right way and a wrong way, that will always be accompanied by, "Except when I do it."

How would you characterize the overall attitude toward wrongness within cooking culture?

I think when you've lived your life under similar pressure to an air traffic controller, when you come out of a very rigid, semi-militaristic system, chances are you were either praised or punished depending on your adherence to certain rules. The real god of professional cooking is consistency, so making a mistake basically means being inconsistent. It's all fine and good to be a genius in the kitchen, but if you cannot execute consistently, you're doing it wrong.

That's interesting. The equation between wrongness and deviance comes up a lot in areas like business and manufacturing, too. A fellow reporter once told me that there are signs on GE's factory floors that say "Variation is Evil."

Right. That's something a lot of home cooks don't understand. They read cookbooks, they assume that professionals just see the recipe and cook it, right? No. Professional cooks learn through trial and error. You make an omelet 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 100 times under pressure. Eventually you get good at it. It's all about repetition. You'll never understand how to make certain complex sauces without screwing them up. Particularly emulsions, you know, hollandaise there's a case where there is clearly a wrong way to do it. A butter sauce either stays together the way you expect it to or it breaks into something that I think just about everybody in the world would find disgusting, and everybody who was familiar with the sauce would recognize as having gone terribly wrong.

If cooking is all about repetition, I assume that when you first started out, you spent a lot of time getting things wrong. What was that like?

Some kitchens are more tolerant than others. I grew up in a fairly tolerant kitchen, meaning if you screwed up, it wasn't a good thing, but it was understood and even considered funny: You fall on your face, you're gonna get laughed at. If you came up 20 years ago in a three star bistro in Paris, doing something wrong was an altogether different matter. You had your entire six hours' worth of mise en place thrown on the floor by the chef. Back then, they still hit cooks. It was a truly terrifying to be wrong in the eyes of the great chef. It made grown professionals cry.

You've been out of the kitchen for a while now, but back in the day, how did you handle it when your employees made mistakes?

It depends. You know, if it's just a stupid mistake accidents happen, mistakes are made, so it could be that I'd just tease them. If it's a stupid mistake they've made again and again, then it would be a decidedly more acid-tinged mockery. But if you treat me like an idiot, if you're insulting me and betraying your coworkers, then, yeah, I'm gonna get right up in your face and question your lineage.

After a whole lot of years in New York kitchens, you're suddenly traveling almost all the time, largely overseas. In my experience, that's an incredibly good way to be wrong pretty much hourly.

It's the most exciting thing about travel to me. You're constantly wrong. You're constantly challenged by your own preconceptions. You're forced to relearn such basic, basic things. Words you thought you knew the definition for become completely changed: the word work , the word hunger , the word generosity . Or you think an entire country's going to be one way and then it's another way. I like being wrong in that respect.

Can you give me an example?

I've experienced that kind of wrongness a lot in the Muslim world. The idea of otherness kind of evaporated for me there. You know, sitting down in a Saudi home, observing Saudi Arabians, seeing that they, too, watch Friends , that they're funny you know, sense of humor often surprises me most. That, and random acts of kindness. I used to believe, deeply, that people were basically bad that given a slight change in the our situation, we would all revert to packs of wild dogs who would devour each other and sell each other out. I took a very dim view of human nature. Travel has made me more optimistic. I believe now that for the most part, the world is filled with people doing the best they can under the circumstances.

Do you think that travel has made you kinder?

Yeah, I do. It's made me more tolerant, for sure. Anything that introduces doubt is a good thing. I doubt everything. Certainty to me is rarely a good thing, so anything that makes anybody more willing to question their own beliefs is almost always good in my view.

Yeah, I love that about travel. It makes us deal with uncertainty and doubt all the time, and how we deal with those are central to how we think about being wrong.

Definitely. Something else fundamental I learned, which really changed me, came from sitting down to dinner with very nice people who have done very bad things. I spent a lovely afternoon mushrooming and eating lunch with the former head of counterintelligence for the KGB, a guy who'd sent his former friends and colleagues back to Russia to be executed when he found out they were working for us. I sat down with head hunters under a bunch of human heads, they had little tattooed rings on their fingers, proud reminders of the heads they'd taken nicest folks in the world. That's confusing.

That's for sure. I should have said, uncertainty and doubt and confusion and moral ambiguity.

Right. One place where I'm struggling with it, though, is I'm a relativist, mostly. But racism is just wrong, right? I believe that absolutely. And yet many of the places that I love most in the world Southeast Asia, Japan are deeply racist in ways so engrained in their culture as to put the Jim Crow era to shame. There's a loathing of dark skin, an aversion, a phobia, that's extraordinary. Why is that acceptable to me? Why don't I have a problem with that, or not much of a problem?  

And yet in Africa I was just in Liberia recently, and although I find certain tribal practices personally deeply repellant, I'd always felt uncomfortable with the idea of these "enlightened humanitarians" going to Africa and lecturing people who don't have clean water and have been living with these systems for centuries about how to behave. And yet I gotta tell you, Liberia made me ask myself: Are some things just wrong? Genital mutilation would be one. Some of the practices of some of the traditional tribal elders witch doctors, basically are another. I really wonder whether there are absolutes in some cases. It's something I'm wrestling with, clearly.

You wrote in Kitchen Confidential that "good eating is all about risk," and risk to me means taking the chance that something could go disastrously wrong.

Well, sure. But, I figure, what's the worst thing that can happen?

You tell me.

[Laughs.] Well, good food is a willingness to step out of your comfort zone a little, take a shot at the unfamiliar, try something that, OK, might give you diarrhea. There were times that I was pretty damn sure I was going to be really, really ill if I ate this. But if you're lucky enough to have a passport and find yourself on the other side of the world, and somebody without a lot of money is being generous to you, then I think the onus is on you to help bring honor to your hosts.

You're famously opinionated, or maybe it's more apt to say that you're famous for expressing your opinions unsparingly. You've described vegans as "the hezbollah-like splinter group" of vegetarians, and Alice Waters as "Pol Pot in a muumuu." Yet you also seem able to change your mind. In my experience, that's a pretty rare combination.

I think it's in my nature to be a provocateur. A child psychologist would probably say it's an attention-getting device: I want to provoke, I want to get a reaction, even if the reaction is someone saying, "You're full of shit and dead wrong and here's why." I like talking. I like learning. I like conflict. Maybe it's one of the reasons I don't really feel any connection to clean, orderly countries with few social problems. You know, I'm not a big Scandinavia fan. I tend to like messy dysfunctional countries where people are passionate about things. I think that's perhaps why I enjoyed the restaurant business for so long. You've got plenty of conflict all the time.

But I also think I know a lot about my own flaws. You learn a lot about yourself as a heroin addict. You learn how low you're willing to go. You learn what kind of terrible things you're capable of. It's difficult to get up on a high horse when you can physically remember betraying people and whining and cringing and lying to get money. That's helpful in the long run, I like to think.

Are there things you wrote in Kitchen Confidential that you no longer believe?

Oh, sure, a lot. I have a more tempered view of celebrity chefs, for starters. I mean, I had no understanding at all of Emeril [Lagasse, the Food Network celebrity chef] back then. He was just this alien beast to me strange, way too cheerful, totally false. Now, having met the man and hung out with him and understanding the responsibilities of being the head of an empire, I think I understand what makes him tick a lot more. I've told him, "I still hate your shows, but I like you." He deserves a lot more respect than I gave him.

You've been merciless in the past with Rachael Ray. Hilarious, but merciless. Do you have a more tempered view of her now, too?

Maybe I'm just less angry than I was before. Kitchen Confidential was written by a guy who'd never had health insurance in his life. I'd never owned an apartment, never owned a car, never paid my rent on time, I was five years in arrears on my taxes, I went to sleep every night filled with terror and the certainty that I would never have anything resembling a normal life. So to some extent, I was bitter and resentful, and I didn't have the time or the inclination to look for nuance when watching the Food Network.

Well, it might not be the best place to go looking for nuance. But what about people who do have more nuanced views on food? What do you think about all these inquiries into the ethics of eating Michael Pollan's work, for instance, or Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals ? You've been rather vicious toward vegetarians in the past.

Pollan is hunting big game, in the sense that he's wrestling with big issues. I think he's discussing them in a way that allows for honest disagreement. He's not an absolutist. I think he's a very valuable addition to the discussion. Safran Foer, while I liked the book, I disagree completely with it. I don't understand how we can acknowledge the importance of the human dimension of turkey dinner yet forgo it anyway. I guess it's just a question of priorities.

Let me ask you about a kind of wrongness that almost everyone over the age of 30 has faced, which is realizing that you were just utterly wrong about what your life was going to be like. From the outside, at least, it looks like you've experienced a particularly extreme version of that kind of wrongness.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, for a long time I lived with the assumption that I'd be dead by 30, so it came as a rude surprise when I found myself still around. And then of course I was just hugely wrong about Kitchen Confidential . I was certain before it came out that it was not going to change my life significantly. In reality, it changed my life over night.

What about fatherhood? In an interview in 2006, you said that you'd never regretted the decision not to have children, that you "would have been a shit parent." Your daughter, Ariane, was born in 2007.

Yeah, I changed my mind really, really quickly on that one. At the age of 50, shortly after meeting my second wife, I realized, Oh my God . To my credit, I think, I'd always been aware of how big a responsibility being a parent is and that I was not up to the job. Let me remind you again, I'd been in a very serious relationship with some very serious drugs, and long after I'd given them up, I was still living in complete financial insecurity. I thought I didn't have much of a future, if any. I just understood that I was not the guy to be having a kid. And then at 50, I suddenly woke up one day and looked my then-girlfriend in the eyes and realized, not only do I want a child with this woman, but finally, at 50 years old, I am old enough to be a good father.

Was it literally an epiphany like that? In one minute, you suddenly knew?

Yeah. In one second . It was a moment of rare certainty. I knew. There was no doubt. From that second I realized, I'm old enough now, I can be good father. And since that time I've never had a second thought. I never had a moment of, "Oh my God, what am I getting into?" Never. It's been a joy from that second on, every day, every dirty diaper.

Did your friends give you flak? One of the things that can be tough about being wrong about ourselves is that we make these really strong claims about our identity and organize our lives and our communities around them I'm never gonna have kids, or I'll always be a bachelor, or I only date women or whatever and then: oops, never mind. And sometimes even if we ourselves are totally comfortable with that, it flusters or angers the people around us.

Oh, I've been teased, for sure. And I certainly deserve it. It went against my reputation, and I understand that. But the thing is, I never took that reputation seriously. I never looked in a mirror and saw the Bad Boy Chef. If people wanted to call me that, fine, I understand, and I was certainly complicit in that process. But I know who I see when I look in the mirror.

Also, I've always been a moving target. If anything, I take a perverse pleasure in undermining expectations. Particularly on the show: I know that most of my fans want to see me chain smoking and getting drunk in a leather jacket and being snarky and cynical, so I did the most perverse thing I could do and made a warm fuzzy family episode with my baby and my new in-laws. I realize that was a real "fuck you" to a significant part of my fan base, but I just don't care. I'm not going to lie about who I am. I'm not going to appear in an off-Broadway production of King Lear just to prove I can stretch, but on the other hand, if I suddenly get the urge to do something off-brand, I'm going to do it.

As someone who's been very outspoken about the role of immigrants and especially Latino immigrants in your own kitchens and in the American workforce, what do you think about the Arizona immigration law? 

You know, I'm a little I mean, obviously I think it is wrong. I think it's embarrassing and shameful. But I'm sympathetic to the blind rage, fear, and confusion of people who live close to the problem. I think they're wrong, I disagree strongly, and I'm nauseated by the idea of demanding people's papers in the streets. But I resist the urge to demonize the people from Arizona who feel that way. I believe that however you feel on whatever issue, we should always be able to sit down at a table together and have a few drinks or a lot of drinks and share a meal together. If the level of discourse has moved beyond our ability to do that, then everybody loses. I mean, I disagree with everything Ted Nugent says, but I like the guy a lot.

Did you start feeling this way after sitting down to dinner with that the likes of that nice former KGB operative?

No question about it. I mean, if I'm hanging out with ex-KGB guys and former hit men and headshrinkers and murderers, and I find them charming and I allow for cultural differences and end up having a great time and finding common ground, why the hell can't I be friendly with Ted Nugent?

If you could hear someone else being interviewed about wrongness, who would it be?

Dick Cheney. And I'd like him to be water-boarded during the interview.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

 

 

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