Chefs and foodies be warned: It’s not even noon and Anthony Bourdain is sipping a glass of Balvenie PortWood 21 Year Single Malt Scotch and talking about the joys of jujitsu—chokeholds and cauliflower ears included.
But just when I think I’ll need to get my fingers wrapped and scrounge up a mouth guard, it turns out that his early-morning workout has relaxed the typically tightly wound 59-year-old New Yorker and he’s now, thankfully, in more of a joking mood than a sparring one.
In fact, talking about his eponymous public market—which is scheduled to open at the end of next year on Manhattan’s far West Side—has rendered him downright contemplative.
“This is a concept that should work completely independent of anybody’s name,” he says. “It’s something we should have had five, six years ago, ten years ago. Hong Kong has it. Singapore has it. Why don’t we have it? We’re an international city. We’re overdue.”
Bourdain should certainly know, since he’s spent the better part of the last 16 years criss-crossing the globe eating everything and everywhere for his various hit television shows and best-selling books. (His CNN show Parts Unknown returns for its seventh season on April 24 with an episode about Manila.)
He was also, infamously, once a heroin addict.
Of his 20s, Bourdain once said, “I was a complete asshole. Selfish, larcenous, druggy, loud, stupid, insensitive and someone you would not want to have known. I would have robbed your medicine cabinet had I been invited to your house.”
The Culinary Institute of America-trained chef has been both early champion and harsh critic of the food craze that has taken hold of the country. Does the success of a giant multi-stall gourmet market signal the end of the age of the fancy celebrity chef restaurant?
Not necessarily. Bourdain thinks the recent obsession with food has “empowered” serious working chefs like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud. But TV chefs are another story.
“Now, who will be the next [Guy] Fieri? I don’t know,” he says with a glee that fans of his travel show No Reservations are familiar with. “Clearly, they’ve been trying to grow new ones in a petri dish over there [at Food Network], but they have been unsuccessful.”
But he’s quick to give them some kudos—sort of. “However you feel about Fieri or [Gordon] Ramsay, they’re tough acts to follow. How do you top that?” he asks with a laugh. “[Former chef and rapper] Action Bronson maybe? The next generation. Eddie Huang.”
On a more serious note, he says he’s seen a huge change when it comes to fine dining restaurants in general. “It’s not just the usual snowy haired investment bankers that were maybe eating there 10 years ago,” he reports.
He’s particularly impressed by younger diners who save up their money for meals at special establishments like Le Bernardin. “This is money that, 20 years ago, people of that demographic would be spending on cocaine or concert tickets,” he says. “That’s a big shift.”
Another trend that he points out is how the traditional dinner-and-a-movie date has been replaced by, well, just dinner. “Now you go straight to dinner, you talk about the dinner you had last week and the dinner you’re going to have next week. Fuck the movie!” After a short pause, he quickly adds, “I’ll stream it. Possibly during dinner, in between Instagrammming my dinner. Because it really didn’t happen until you’ve Instgrammmed it.”
That, of course, brings up the question that puzzles many diners of the smart-phone age: to Instagram or not to Instagram? I’m expecting a monumental outburst about bad manners in restaurants, but instantaneous documentation is no longer an issue for Bourdain. “All I can say is, get with it, grandpa,” he says. “I go out to dinner a lot with large groups of chefs and every one of the sons of bitches pulls out their phones, and we’re all taking pictures and we’re all tweeting each other at the same table and commenting on each others Instagrams of the same plate.”
The discussion leads to a moment of reflection, usually reserved for his show’s signature voiceovers, and he begins to wax poetic. “We experience everything differently now,” he says. “We communicate differently now, we evaluate things in a different way and anybody who fights that is fighting the tide.”
So, where does Bourdain himself eat out in the Big Apple, once home from his travels? Here is his hotlist.
Russ & Daughters, 179 East Houston:
“Let’s say I’ve been away a long time eating perfectly good food in another country, but I’m not in New York. I’m going right to Russ & Daughters. I’m going to beast some Russ & Daughters.
“I’m going to get bialys and a pile of chopped liver and smoked salmon and some cream cheese, maybe some sturgeon, and maybe some fish eggs--and I’m just going to go berserk.”
Mission Chinese Food: 171 East Broadway
“For fun, I’m going to Mission Chinese. It’s the most fun restaurant in New York. The food is just delicious. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s super low impact.
“At Mission Chinese I drink cocktails with food. My judgment is destroyed by the time the appetizers arrive there. They do these lethal drinks that you would never in your right mind drink in any other circumstance. Mai Tais, really? Why not?”
“I’ll go to Morini for a bowl of pasta, or if I really want to blow it out I’ll go to Marea, but just for the pasta. Not that the fish isn’t magnificent, but I’ll go in and eat three or four different pastas. If I am carb-loading that would be a good choice.”
“Chances are, the first thing I’m doing when I get back if I’ve been away for 12 days—I’m exhausted, I’ve flown from Japan or South America and I arrive at my apartment and I’m just destroyed—I’m calling Seamless to get me some Shake Shack.
I’m having a double cheeseburger naked, please. No lettuce. No tomato. No nothing. Just cheese and two burgers on a potato bun. I’ll have two of those and I’m happy. I’m singing America, fuck yeah!”