Without warning or introduction, Bourdain bolts down the stairs, announcing his presence with a cheeky smile and strong shake of the hand. Navy blazer on navy T-shirt, a nondescript pair of black sneakers, a bit disheveled in a straight-off-the-plane, may-or-may-not-have-just-woken-up-from-a-nap sort of way.
And so we sit down to discuss his new season of Raw Craft, but not without me sneaking in a few questions on how Tokyo compares to tripping on acid and why he no longer despises the smell of pancakes.
In Raw Craft’s opening sequence, you say the term “handcrafted” gets thrown around a lot. When did this whole craze start, and what do you think it was born out of?
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess restaurants started throwing the word “artisanal” around. That had a lot to do with it—it was a turn inward. Some people were, in a very genuine way, looking backwards, looking at the way things used to be and trying to recreate the way things were. They were looking to do things right, looking to do things the old-school way. Then, of course, the existing industrial producers picked up on that as a way to increase value.
We see a lot of unnecessarily artisanal or craft items in NYC—housemade pickles, cutting boards made from felled Central Park saplings...
Ha, yeah. Is it better? That should be the guiding principle.
Right. At what point are people reinventing the wheel just to ride the wave?
I think a good example would be housemade ketchup. Is it better than the Platonic ideal of ketchup that we all are emotionally attached to? How good do you want ketchup to be? I think the industrial product, in this case, has powerful emotional connections that cannot be replicated, or bettered.
What do you look for when evaluating potential candidates? What is it that makes one rise above the rest to be a good candidate for the show?
Integrity and determination. A personal vision. A good story. A certain kind of character—someone who innovates, who’s made some really hard and maybe even foolish and romantic decisions to do something as well as they can. You know, regardless of any other considerations.
Is there any craft or profession that you’d like to cover on the show, but you haven’t found the right candidate yet?
People who do tebori-style tattoos—it’s the old Japanese way, done entirely by hand with hand-mixed traditional pigments. It’s really extraordinary.
What’s a natural talent you wish you had?
I wish I could play funk bass, and I wish I could make furniture.
I just watched the Parts Unknown “Tokyo” episode last night and I thought your intro was really spectacular—haunting, in a way. You compare your first trip to Tokyo to dropping acid for the first time. Would you say the same about any other cities?
Nothing approaches Tokyo for sheer data overload and unknowability and density of stimulus. I mean, there’s just so much coming at you and so much of it is unfamiliar and seemingly unlearnable and unknowable and exciting. Their fetishes are for perfection. On the one hand, there’s so much coming at you—and yet, in other ways, their notions of pleasure are so austere and stripped-down, devoid of unnecessary distractions. I find that mixture really intoxicating.
Damn, I’ll have to make the trip.
What are some of your favorite spots to drink whiskey in New York City?
They’re shrinking and disappearing and going out of business. I do like Bemelmans bar in the Carlyle Hotel—I love the murals on the wall there, that’s a great place.
And how do you take your scotch?
Generally speaking, neat. Every once in a while I’ll sneak in a single ice cube, which is heresy for some, but I do it now and again.
What’s your favorite quick fix when you’re at home and hungry?
I’ll call out for a pastrami sandwich from Pastrami Queen. That’s the thing I want most when I’m abroad for a long time. Even if I’m eating really well, when I get back to New York, that’s what I want first.
How has becoming a dad changed your relationship with cooking?
Well, I’m cooking for somebody I love now. What I might want to cook is completely subordinate to what my daughter is willing to eat, and what will make her happy. It’s not about me anymore, it’s not about “the chef,” it’s all about the person I’m feeding.
Is your daughter a picky eater, or has she inherited your sense of adventure?
No, she’s very adventurous. I’m fortunate, I don’t know how it happened—I never pressured her to eat adventurously. I just ate interesting food around her, and to my shock, surprise and delight, she frequently expresses curiosity and is willing to try new things.
You famously hate brunch, but I see “how to make a perfect omelet” made its way into Appetites. Has your stance softened?
Well, seeing the look of delight on my daughter’s face when I offer her and her friends a “pancake bar” during their sleepovers makes me feel really good about the world. You know? I want to look good in her eyes, and that’s a fast, easy way to do it. The smell of breakfast is no longer the smell of defeat and humiliation; it’s a happy little girl and her friends—a little girl who’s proud of me.