I have a very special beach routine. First, I get a good book. Then, I spackle on a few gallons of 55 sunblock, hire barkers to roam the beach to warn the innocents of impending atrocities, and, once I feel the populace has been duly warned, crack open said book, unveil my ghostly limbs to the snickering hordes, and strike them blind with the glare. As ambulances clear the beach of bodies, I read a few pages of said book, and then am knocked into unconsciousness, as if Tasered by that terrible stuff that comes out of that big hot light that banishes the moon. Eventually a loved one throws me in the trunk of the car, and I consider summer well lived for another year.
As you can imagine, it's terribly important to me that the book really says quite a bit in a page or two. I consider a perfect summer beach book to be one that is easy to pick up, and even easier to put down. Pick up, put down. Pick up, chat about drowsily, fuel some thoughts, put down. Too much has been made, I think, of books that can't be put down. To them I say: For crap's sake, leave me alone already! Everyone's on my case, and now you, you can't be put down, what am I, Hercules now, I gotta carry you and every other goddamn thing everywhere I go? Take your deckled edge and your fancy dust jackets and find some other sucker to ferry you all over God's green earth!
But I digress. If you too want a book that is stimulating and amusing, but not a demanding pain in the ass, I can't say enough good things about ersatz chef and Kitchen Confidential scribe Anthony Bourdain's newest, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones (Bloomsbury Publishing; $24.95). As the title implies, this is indeed an anthology of previously published work, but unless you keep up with the Financial Times, Town & Country, the British version of Esquire, and Best Life, whatever the hell that is, the material will likely be as new to you as it was to me.
New, and also riveting. The book, which contains three dozen essays and one longish short story that's kind of like a profane, vodka-and-sautée-station-involved version of A Christmas Carol, is conversationally provocative on nearly every page. There's the essay about eating freshly killed seal with an Inuit family, which quickly turns into Night of the Living Dead meets Norman Rockwell (don't ask about the eyeballs). There's the one where Bourdain ponders Woody Harrelson's culinary leadership, wondering why anyone would consult the star on anything "but how to make a bong out of a toilet-paper roll and tinfoil" and concludes, "I fear for the planet." There's the passionate plea to end racism against Hispanic kitchen talent. The rant against British gastro-pubs. The bit where he finds the scorpion stinger lodged between his teeth. And even the bits in the back where he recants his rant against British gastro-pubs, and the one against organic foods, and those mean things he said about Billy Joel, and that thing when he said fat people are hurting our war against terror.
Entertaining? As hell! Do I seem to be cursing more than usual? Shit, you will be too after reading this profane, witty, and occasionally profound book. The wonder of Bourdain, or Tony, as he insists I and every other writer, busboy, and morning TV host call him, is that he seems to think only in cocktail-party-appropriate bursts of quick fascination. And since I had his phone number in my Rolodex, I called him up to make him do it some more—reaching him at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, no less, where he was enjoying a noontime Negroni cocktail.
So, I asked, really? A Negroni?
"That evil Mario Batali got me hooked on them," said Bourdain, "He's a bad, bad man." He let out a puff of cigarette smoke. (Bourdain is always smoking, or getting up to go or getting back from smoking.)
Okay, I said, I need to ask you the one thing that's been plaguing me: At exactly what age does being a pain-in-the-ass rebel stop being annoying to powerful people, and start being cute and profitable?
"Oh, I don't know," groaned Bourdain. "Lately I've been saying that not giving a fuck is a really good business model for me. I notice that I'm writing for the New York Times and Gourmet now, and it's flattering to get invites and things from the Beard House, but fuck if I know how it happened. I actually don't even know what I do now—what is my job? I have no idea. I'm outside of America 10 months a year [filming his television show for the Travel Channel]. I don't live anywhere, I'm not a bad boy chef anymore. For one thing, I'm not a boy, I'm turning 50 in a week. And I'm not even a chef, my hands are soft and I rarely cook.
"There are people who still come up to me and say, 'What's up with the fish on Monday, should you still not order it?'" In his first bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote that the fish on Monday had likely been in the restaurant since the prior Friday. "And I say, 'What the hell do I know, I don't cook anymore.' I don't even know what I do for a living. Two weeks ago I was flying in a military helicopter over Ghana, the "Flight of the Valkyries" on my iPod. That's apparently my job now. I'm happy to provide the shows, though: The show is completely schizophrenic and bipolar, there's not any consistency in point of view and I love it. I get to sit down, get drunk, and storyboard completely inconsistent, self-indulgent stories. I make 13 independent films a season.
"Maybe I'm a professional opportunist. I'm working on a book called Next. It's all autobiography, but fiction, because you can only really say what you want in fiction. At the moment it's really dark, but I don't know how dark it's going to get. You never really know what you're writing. Like, I didn't know I was writing funny books, till they came out, and then they were funny. I don't know. The Quiet American [by Graham Greene] is a happy book for me."
Really? I asked, even though the quiet American dies?
"Yeah, but he deserves to die. He's CIA, he's a bad man. It's always the smart guys doing good works who cause the most mayhem; Pol Pot, all your really atrocious dictators seem to be educated at the Sorbonne or nice British universities—people with a plan who think they're right, they are the worst people. My virtues, if I have any, are curiosity, openness, and that I'm always willing to concede where I was wrong."
Like in the back of the book, where you disown a couple of the more contentious pieces?
"No, I meant everything I wrote, when I wrote it, but some of it just changes, with time. In the Robert Downey piece"—a once-current Los Angeles Times story in which he forecasts relapsing Downey's doom—"I meant it when I wrote it, and it's very representative of my own ex-junkie's point of view, but in the years since the guy's doing great, and the really good friend I was really thinking of when I wrote it is also doing well, so it's actually a relief and a joy to say, 'Boy, was I wrong here.'"
Ditto for Emeril?
"Yeah, in light of what passes for a celebrity chef now, it's worth saying that the guy deserves more respect than I gave him. I find the people that make me angry are changing. I'm angry now at Woody Harrelson"—for maintaining a raw-foods diet when visiting Thailand—"and I'm furious at Charlie Trotter, for providing political cover" for the PETA folks and lending support to a recent ban on foie gras in Chicago. "After all the time I've spent in Asia now, with people who fought wars for 600 years so they could have the privilege of spending 12 hours a day in a rice paddy bent at the hip, maybe my priorities are rearranged, and I'm a little nicer, but also a little fiercer about the importance of respecting cultures and traditions. What pisses me off right now, what gets me hot under the collar, is people getting worked up about force-feeding ducks. They're force-feeding people [at Guantanamo Bay] and it seems inappropriate to be worrying about a dead duck.
"Now, I'm not talking about battery foie gras farming, which no respectable chef would buy because the quality is shit, but on a real foie gras farm the ducks waddle right up to the funnel, they come right to the same feeder every day, and throw up their little heads for the food. Like they have since Roman times. Looking at someone with a tube down their neck, you think it's uncomfortable, but they evidently don't have the same gag reflex we do, so it was very savvy politically for PETA. So few people know what foie gras is, and so few people eat it, or care, and of course no politician was going to step forward on a pro foie gras platform. So it's Charlie Trotter I'm furious at. I can only assume he did not fully understand how important and influential he is, and the effect it would have when a chef of his stature breaks away from his colleagues, it provides political cover for people to go after other chefs.
"Then, there's Woody Harrelson and the raw food people. I don't understand people who would travel to Thailand and not eat everything in sight. It's anti-human to me, anti-curiosity, and it shakes me to the core. It's exactly what's wrong with the world, the people who say, I know what's best, who cares what these people eat, and who cares about their hundreds or thousands of years of heritage and tradition. This raw foods thing too, it's a rich man's diet. I would love to see one of these idiots with the bushmen in the Kalahari, they're hunter-gatherers, and 90 percent of their diet is meat.
"This yearning for an agrarian wonderland, everyone growing organic vegetables and dehydrating them in expensive machines, grinding flax seeds in special Cuisinarts—it's some kind of futuristic Khmer Rouge. How important it is to be clean and pure, clean and pure, clean and pure. That doesn't sound good to me, it sounds evil."
Speaking of the Kalahari, didn't you just get back?
"I was in Namibia, the Kalahari desert, staying with a tribe of bushmen. It was digestively challenging, let's say. The cuisine is pretty much to chuck off a warthog's head, throw the rest of the animal into a fire, cover it with sand, and pull it out and eat it. They don't take the organs out first, nothing. They don't have any water, so there's no rinsing of anything, no washing of anything. For three days every mouthful of food I ate had either fur, shit, or sand in it. When they found some tasty beetles and threw them on the fire I was so thrilled: finally, something without shit, fur, or sand. They call them Kalahari truffles. The bushmen gather ostrich eggs, and beat them up inside the shell. Then they pour it onto hot sand, and cover it with more sand—basically this is a frittata encased in super-hot sand. So to eat it you scrape off as much sand as you can, and have this crunchy, crunchy frittata.
"So, you know, these are people Woody Harrelson won't be hanging out with. In the rest of the world you turn your nose up at an offering of meat, and they look at you like you're out of your mind. Much of your status in the wide-open spaces of the world outside of Hollywood has to do with your ability to procure meat, and distribute meat. To look down on that is, to me, anti-human."
On the topic of the wide open spaces of the world outside of Hollywood, Minneapolis comes in for nice mention a few times in The Nasty Bits, especially Vincent, the charming French-based place downtown. (Vincent, A Restaurant; 1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.630.1189; www.vincentarestaurant.com)
"I have a real soft spot in my heart for Vincent [Francoual]," Bourdain told me. "It's great to see these pockets of good food in the wide open spaces between Applebee's and Olive Garden. I love that he's cooking such old-school stuff too; the 'Something Strange, But Good' section of the menu"—showcasing French traditional specialties, like pig's trotters—"that spoke directly to my heart, and I think it's the most overt example of what all chefs try to do, to slip the good stuff onto the menu, despite the customer."
Despite the customer?
"The Sample Room"—in Northeast; 2124 NE Marshall St., Minneapolis; 612.789.0333—"that's another good one. I'm sure his business model wasn't, 'There's a huge demand here for traditionally made pâté, so I'm opening!' It was more like, 'I love pâté, I want to make it old-school, I'm going to create the market and hopefully people will join me.' That's what Vincent does, too. He's not designing a menu like, We gotta have a steak, we gotta have a salmon, gotta have a pasta, gotta have a spinach salad, and when you get done with your gottas, there's no room for anything good. Instead, these are chefs who are trying to get customers to eat what they themselves believe to be good. When I look around the country now and see all these chefs curing their own meat, with their house-cured prosciuttos, I think that's an inarguably good thing. The craft had almost died completely, but now it's back. And I'm willing to eat a lot of ineptly made lardo [cured pork fat] while we wait for people to get it right, and for the people who are really good at it to be identified."
So is America then developing a food culture on par with that of Vietnam—a country I know Bourdain adores?
"Oh no, we got a few centuries to go before we hit that. But in the meantime we can look to France or Italy as role models, and we don't have to be ashamed of what we have now in American restaurants. It's possible to feed a sophisticated Frenchman well in almost any American city now. And we benefit enormously with our Chinese and Vietnamese neighborhoods, because that's something that we have that (Europeans] don't. And we don't have the rules that they have, which puts us ahead of the game as well. Lately the big story in France is that they just have to sit there and watch as the Spanish do whatever they want, because the Spanish are free.
"Now, take the science-class food in Chicago. That's something I'm really hopeful about in America. Not all of those guys are going to make it, but I bet five years from now Grant Achatz, once he totally finds his groove, is going to be the greatest chef in America. I don't want to eat in that restaurant every week, but five years from now he is going to be a chef with an international reputation serving the best that this country has to offer, which is huge."
Really? Grant Achatz, at Alinea, in Chicago? Why?
"He's got huge balls, and a tremendous background with Thomas Keller, and then the Ferran Adria thing, but he's also uniquely focused on his own world view, and he's got a staff that will do anything for him. If I find some of his food silly or too conceptual that's okay, that's a heroic thing. He knows how to cook and he knows what's good and he's moving things forward so I admire him tremendously."
I admire Bourdain tremendously. Wasn't that amusing? The book is just like that, but with a hard cover so you can prop it over your face at the beach and look brainy, sexy, and beachy all at the same time.