I spoke with Anthony Bourdain and his collaborator Laurie Woolever about YA novels, the hallmarks of a good burger, and most importantly, the duo's new genre-busting cookbook, <i>Appetites</i>.
Photo by Phillipa Croft.
"I'm evangelical about movies that I love and books that I love. If I'm reading something that really appeals to me, if I have the time and ability, I'd come over to your house, bang on the door, hand you the book and then actually sit there while you read it and make sure you didn't miss anything," said Anthony Bourdain—"Tony" to mostly everyone who knows him, "Bourdain" to legions of cooks and chefs who have worshipped at his feet since the publication of the book that made him a star.
I recently had lunch with Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, his assistant, at the Drake Hotel on Queen West while he was in Toronto on his latest tour.* Over burgers (he ordered his medium-rare) we talked books (Edward St. Aubyn, JD Vance, Daniel Woodrell), movies (Deadpool yes, Ryan Reynolds no), and music (Adele yes, Springsteen and Meatloaf no).
"I know a goal of Tony's is to publish a great YA novel, so I've started trying to read young adult novels," said Woolever, who is also the co-author of Appetites, the newest cookbook. You've surely seen it by now: the one with the Ralph Steadman cover art, the kind of cookbook you could be excused for not recognizing as a cookbook, thanks to said cover and the genre-busting food photography by Bobby Fisher, but not in spite of its incredible recipes for Macau Pork Chops, Sesame Cauliflower, and Mapo Tripe.
That last recipe was happily lifted, with permission, from Danny Bowien's beloved Mission Chinese Food, whose eponymous cookbook Bourdain had his finger in, too. You can find it in the growing library of books Bourdain has put out since starting his own Ecco imprint with HarperCollins in 2012. The books are described as being "by people with strong voices who are good at something and speak with authority" and they are not relegated to tattooed chef bros in custom aprons. Far from solely food-focused, his Ecco lineup includes works by comedian Bonnie McFarlane, travel writer Graham Holliday, and kickboxer Mark Miller.
At this point in his career, Bourdain could be residing in the upper echelons of pop culture—hanging with his silver fox coworker Anderson Cooper or his new pal Obama, whom he interviewed in a recent episode of his Emmy award-winning CNN show Parts Unknown. But he's not. He's still muddling around with the masses. I was curious as to why.
"I've been given the luxury of finding books or publishing existing books or voices that I'm already aware of or, in some cases, commissioning books from people who hadn't thought about writing one," he said. "It makes me feel good. It's not really a money-making enterprise by a long shot. I hope it makes a little money for Ecco, but it's a passion thing. It makes me happy."
Bourdain is also working on a documentary about Jeremiah Tower and reprinting his 2004 memoir (with some new chapters), an excellent snapshot of the time when California cuisine ruled the world and everyone was high on coke. On top of that, he's got a series going with the team at Roads & Kingdoms that champions long-form journalism.
"Tony's tastes are distinctly his own, and his literary enthusiasms run deep," said Nathan Thornburgh, chief editor and publisher at Roads & Kingdoms. "I think he feels the same way about writing as he does about food or film: just the good shit, no pomp, no fluff."
"I was reading their stuff online and thought, Wow, this is so great. It's so unlike what everybody else is doing and seemed to fly in the face of clickbait factories everywhere," said Bourdain of Roads & Kingdoms. "They seem to really care about journalism, often covering very ordinary, daily lives in places that no one else was reporting on. I thought I want to be part of this. I want to support it in whatever way I can. So, I became partner in the company. And then the Dispatched series, it's just me curating from a number of pieces, subject matter that appeals and excites and provokes me."
Another author who had a dreamy experience in making a book with Bourdain is Bowien of Mission Chinese Food. "The book was supposed to take one year—it took three. Anthony believed in us the whole way. He just said, 'Do whatever you want.' It was a dream situation."
As for Bowien himself, he's a fan, too. "The same guy that gave us Kitchen Confidential so many years ago, that had such a big impact on the chef community—to be asked to be part of his cookbook now? It's so surreal." For Appetites, Bourdain asked for the two recipes he always orders when he visits Bowien's restaurant: the Mapo Tofu and the chicken wings. Both are faithfully represented the book, except that Bourdain trades out the tofu for tripe.
"It tells great stories but you can also cook from it," said Bowien of Appetites. "Like everything he does, it's just so relatable. My dad loves Bourdain."
Kate Krader, formerly of Food & Wine and now food editor at Bloomberg Pursuits, agrees.
"You cannot overestimate the influence of Tony Bourdain on the food world these days," she told me. "He's championed a kind of travel journalism that is so bold and brave and, most importantly, intelligent. Instead of oversimplifying things—doing the equivalent of a dump and stir cooking show—he assumes that people want to learn about the places he's going. He makes a point of calling sushi by its Japanese name, and then going deep on it. When he went to Moscow a couple years ago, he didn't just talk about drinking vodka—he addressed the anti-Putin sentiment in a way that was extraordinary. I feel so much more informed after I see a Parts Unknown episode. The writing he champions is exactly the same way."
Back at the Drake, the burgers arrived.
I wondered what Bourdain would make of them, considering that Appetites includes a pull-out illustrated guide—dictated by king of the food science geeks Nathan Myhrvold, no less—to the perfect burger: no large lettuce leaves, store-bought bun, don't fuck around with small tomato slices, etc.
Bourdain dug in appreciatively. "This is a good burger."
In an effort to divine why Bourdain isn't just chillin' poolside, I asked how he came to sit down and write his first book, Bone in the Throat (the first of a pair of novels he published before he broke out with Kitchen Confidential) back in the mid-90s. His answer was a surprise.
"I've never written anything that was not already sold. So, my first novel was a bizarre arrangement where my delusional ex-college roommate had bragged to a publisher that he knew better writers than his current stable of writers. And the publisher said, 'Oh yeah, smart guy? Bring me something.' So, we went partners, 50/50, on this criminal scam where I would write a manuscript. Actually, I wrote a sample first, which the publisher offered me, I think, $10,000 to write the whole book, and I did. So, at no point did I have the time or the luxury to sit there working on unpublished manuscripts. Everything I ever wrote had already been sold. Except for the article that lead to Kitchen Confidential. I took a big wild flyer and wrote an article that I thought I was going to get a hundred bucks for from the New York Press. Other than that, I always had a beyond-reasonable expectation, almost a dead certainty, that somebody was paying. I just didn't have the luxury to do otherwise. I might have envisioned myself as this ironic figure, sitting there writing, but, in fact, I was too busy and too tired and too fucked up and too lazy."
My image of him as a threadbare line cook scratching out a novel in some garrett in early 90s Brooklyn was way off. Regardless of how it came about, writing must have ignited some spark in Bourdain, though, for him to still be so deeply connected to it in all his side projects. He recounted the book tour he took with that first novel.
"Barnes & Noble had two copies. And I'd go every day to see if one of them had been sold. Clearly, they weren't moving. My first book tour was self-financed, [by] me and my knucklehead partner. And I was sitting at a Barnes & Noble, somewhere in Northridge, California. It was a two-stop book tour. And one of them was at this Barnes & Noble, and I sat there at this table with a stack of books and people would just walk by me and avert their eyes—like, do not engage the animal, because it might lead to an awkward moment. Didn't move a single book."
That's not the case in 2016, with Bourdain hawking Appetites on his sold-out North American tour. This is a book that's not going to sit on a coffee table; it's going to get dirty in the kitchen. Just reading the list of recipes makes you want to cook and eat. Add to that Bourdain's engaging voice, introducing you to each dish, and there is no chance you're ordering in tonight.
Woolever explained how they narrowed down the dishes in the book: "We had this list of recipes that Tony, from the beginning, felt very strongly that he wanted to include. Recipes from his cooking history and from the things that he cooks regularly for his daughter. Also, I was empowered with some of the recipes to just go and develop and figure out what I like or what I think really works well and test out things in my kitchen, feeding my family. And then there were some where he would say, 'I had a great pork chop sandwich in Macao, so let's go dig up the footage from that episode which was, you know, four or five years ago.' And there were even some where he said, 'Call Danny Bowien and we're going to wholesale rip off his recipe. We're going to give him credit in the text, and then we're going to change it.'"
That Bourdain freely admits he didn't write this book on his own—borrowing fellow chefs' recipes and giving Woolever front-cover credit, a rare thing in cookbooks by big-name chefs—says a lot about him and his respect for collaboration.
"We just had dinner parties at his house where we would invite in the usual suspects and would cook together the things that he had a real passion for," Woolever added. "Like one of them was the chopped chicken liver, or the meatloaf, the osso bucco. Things that he said, 'Just cook it with me and that's how we're really going to get to the essence of making this dish.'"
Woolever came up with a number of recipes on her own, too. "The New Mexico chili with harissa, the spaghetti with anchovies, the roasted cauliflower. There's garbanzo beans and cherry tomatoes with olive oil that, honestly, I was stoned and made it and it tasted delicious, and I just fired off an email to Tony and was like, 'I don't know if he's going to like this,' and he said, 'Great, sounds great.'"
Woolever's non-traditional lasagna also made the cut; hers uses veal, pork, beef, and chicken livers, and is topped with fresh mozzarella. "I love standing there, just eating it out of the pan after the guests have left. So, those are the ones that I feel a specific ownership of, but it's absolutely a collaboration between Tony and I and a dozen or more other people."
Bourdain's collaborations—with the authors he discovers and publishes at Ecco or Roads & Kingdoms, with everyone who works on his show, and his documentary project, and Mind of a Chef—all combine to build this huge body of work that champions the kind of creative content the world is hungry for. And Appetites, an irreverent family cookbook peppered with swear words, definitely fits the bill. It is certainly no Cooking for Jeffrey.
"Tony encourages us to not sweat the clicks, to know that our audience will find us," says Thornburgh. "He has this fantastic confidence in the power of good ideas and good stories, and we're better for it."
And for all of you aspiring YA writers out there, just so you know which publishing house to send your one-pager to, Bourdain's still looking for this generation's Catcher in the Rye.
*Full disclosure: I spent the last two years of my ten-year cooking career in the kitchen at the Drake. It is also where I hosted Bourdain's Canadian launch for Medium Raw in 2006.