Before he became the globe-trotting flaneur with the hit TV show and the best-selling books, Anthony Bourdain spent his days (and nights) working the line at Les Halles, the spirited New York brasserie where he cultivated the behind-the-curtain secrets that helped make his memoir Kitchen Confidential a breakout sensation. It’s also where Bourdain learned to devote himself to the chef’s ethos of “using everything and not wasting anything,” he told me recently. “That goes deep.”
So deep in fact, that Bourdain signed on to narrate and executive produce Wasted!, a new documentary chronicling the global epidemic of food waste. It’s a slight detour for the Parts Unknown host, who for the most part, has done his best to steer clear of any kind of social activism. But as one of the driving forces behind the rise of nose-to-tail cooking in mainstream American kitchens, Bourdain has, in a way, been advocating against wasting food his entire career. He just didn’t know it.
I caught up with the culinary heavyweight ahead of Wasted!’s New York premiere and picked his brain about the important role chefs play in the fight against food waste, the notion of authenticity in food and how he’s adjusted to life as one of the most famous men in America.
When you first began your career as a cook, the notion that you would become a best-selling author, a world-renowned TV personality and basically one of the most famous men in America probably felt far-fetched. But among all those monikers, is Anthony Bourdain “the activist” the one that feels most surreal?
Yeah, and I’m very uncomfortable with that idea.
Why are you reluctant to be called an activist?
My opinions about things are constantly changing. I’m exposed to new cultures, new ways of thinking, new places. How I feel about a particular place or issue going in has often changed once I arrive, so any kind of orthodoxy or believing in anything too inflexibly or stridently, I’ve always shied away from that. I reserve the right to be wrong. So this is something of a departure and maybe it’s because it’s one issue that was so fundamental to me coming up as a cook—the notion of using everything and not wasting anything. That goes deep.
You’ve travelled to places where there virtually isn’t any food waste, where if something is edible, you eat it. But you also run in circles where food can be taken for granted. Is the goal of this documentary to bring those two ends of the spectrum closer together?
I think that’s one of the reasons why chefs are such an important part of this film. It’s because they’re constantly confronted with the ugliness of excess and needless waste.
If you’re at a party and you see a caterer just dump a whole tray of smoked salmon into the trash, how do you react? Is it silent anger or do you say something?
I just cringe. Look, I understand the catering business very well. A basic principle of catering as I learned in my years of doing it is you load them up on bread and pasta salad so that they’re full by the time they hit the free shrimp. It may look like there’s an abundance of shrimp but chances are they have just enough. Also, responsible caterers have a relationship with organizations like City Harvest or Food Bank. A lot of my chef friends repurpose that food to help people in need.
I feel like Parts Unknown is advocating against food waste all the time. So many Americans reject the idea of eating offal or the parts of the animals that we’re conditioned to find gross. But when I watched you suck every bit out of that crab at Ramiro in Lisbon, I went to Ramiro and did the exact same thing.
I think that to some extent the show has always celebrated cooks who make the most of very little and do it with pride. We’ve always celebrated cultures that have managed to successfully transform second and third best ingredients into something really delicious. We’ve always tried to add value to dishes like feijoada or Sunday gravy or humble fisherman’s stews, and we’ve always tried to celebrate the people that do those things well and with pride.
Do you think you’re at least in part responsible for the rise in popularity of nose-to-tail cuisine in America?
Yeah, and it’s a weird place to be because a lot of these were dishes that people used to have to eat because they were poor. But now to get a bowl of tripe or a beef cheek you have to go to some hipster restaurant in Brooklyn and pay 32 bucks. So I don’t know if it’s an entirely positive development.
The rise of that style of cooking in gentrified communities has nothing to do with a desire to combat food waste, but more because it’s just cool to eat a plate of deep-fried pig ears. Do you see a disconnect there?
There’s a disconnect for sure. Dishes that we reviled yesterday we suddenly love. But on the other hand, it’s good that if you’re going to kill a living, breathing animal it is only right and just to use every part and make something delicious out of it. To waste something you killed or had killed for you is sort of obscene. So it’s a good thing that at least these things are being valued and some of those cooking skills are being rediscovered. As any chef will tell you, that’s real cooking. Any chimpanzee can grill a filet mignon, but it takes some skill to turn an oxtail into something tender and delicious.
Any chimpanzee can grill a filet mignon, but it takes some skill to turn an oxtail into something tender and delicious.
Because you’re so acutely aware of all the waste that goes on in restaurants, have you become a skeptic, particularly when you eat something like a boneless fish filet? Does part of you wonder what the chef did with the rest of that fish?
I think about it, but more often these days the chef’s thinking about it, too. Hopefully they’re using the scraps to make sauce or make soup or they’re giving it away to an outfit like City Harvest. At my friend Eric Ripert’s restaurant, they have to have perfectly squared off pieces of filets for their customers, but Eric makes every effort to make sure that every little bit that he doesn’t use goes to somebody who can use it.
Let’s talk about the food porn phenomenon, particularly on Instagram. You could argue that shows like yours are responsible for the rise of food porn, which has totally escalated on social media, with chefs trying to outdo each other. Do you feel complicit at all?
For sure. It’s fun, it’s easy, but food porn is one thing. It’s just like making porn. It’s the same progression of shots: wide shot, medium shot, close-up, money. But Instagram—though I do it—is an aggressive act. You’re not sharing your meal. You’re not looking to enlighten or make people feel good. You’re just putting up pictures of gorgeous food to make people feel bad. You’re saying ‘Look, this is what I’m eating, and you’re not!’
When you look at someone like George Clooney, who’s at the pinnacle of his career, it’s compelling to wonder if he’s able to take a step and see his existence from an objective point of view. Do you ever pause and wonder how you got here?
All the time. But I know who I am, and I’m sure as shit not George Clooney. I’ve never felt like that, I don’t go to the same places and I don’t value the same things. I know what I see when I look in the mirror and it’s the same guy who was slinging brunches and dunking French fries not too long ago. Standing on your feet in the kitchen for thirty years makes you less likely to ever talk about yourself in the third person.
Are you comfortable with your celebrity?
I don’t take it for granted. It’s a fleeting thing and it could evaporate at any minute. It’s a small price to pay for not having to dunk French fries. It’s afforded me a lot of freedom and privilege and I no longer owe my landlord six months’ rent. I’m not hiding from American Express. If it means that the next time I’m running for a piss in an airport and somebody stops me and wants a selfie, I think that’s a relatively small inconvenience for not have to worry about them shutting off my electricity.
With Bourdain Market, you want to persuade purveyors of food you love from around the world to come to New York to make the food they’re known for. Does that mean you inherently believe that some dude from Brooklyn with sleeve tattoos isn’t qualified to make the perfect bowl of dan dan noodles?
No, I don’t believe that at all. But I am interested in recreating exactly the things I’ve enjoyed around the world and I’m interested in making dan dan noodles for somebody in Sichuan province who’s homesick. I like the idea of them weeping with joy after having a bowl of noodles at my market. I also think you’re more likely to be able to do it well if you’re part of a family who’s done dan dan noodles and nothing but for three generations. But of course you can learn to cook anything perfectly. It’s really about repetition and dedication. It’s certainly possible, and even inevitable that some hipster from Brooklyn, if properly motivated, can master it.
Do you believe in cultural appropriation as it relates to food?
I do, but we’ve been appropriating each other’s cuisines since the beginning of time. A tomato is not indigenous to Italy. Chinese food changed as it moved through the Straits and mixed with Malay and Indian. Tempura probably came from Portugal. It’s something to be aware of. But I always feel a little uncomfortable seeing a white guy who’s never been to Asia doing what he calls “Asian fusion.” So the word authenticity is more and more meaningless with every passing day. That said, if you put chicken in my carbonara I’m going to be seriously pissed.
Have your travels imbued you with a greater empathy for other people? What I mean by that is, when people see what’s happening in Puerto Rico on TV, it’s easy to feel empathy. But there’ still an invisible wall that separates us. But because you’ve travelled to these parts of the world and you’ve seen some pretty dire situations, do you think that gives you a better understanding of other people’s plights?
I can’t help believe that the more you travel the more empathy you have, particularly for people who are very different from you, and have experiences and grew up in environments and with belief systems very different than your own. You can’t help, if you have any kind of a heart or soul, but to become more empathetic and less certain of the things you thought you believe, by travelling.
Is that your main objective?
To the degree that I’m able to do that, I’m happy. I don’t know that it’s my intent, but if that’s a byproduct of my work, I would be very happy about that. Empathy is good.
Wasted! the Story of Food waste was released earlier this month in cinemas.