Anthony Bourdain on His Teaching Dreams, Vilifying Ronald McDonald, and the Terror of Child ‘Foodies’
Anthony Bourdain is as busy as ever: He's got his new show, Parts Unknown, on CNN and a cross-country tour with BFF Eric Ripert happening. And on April 30, he'll also host the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters' benefit, focusing on chefs that are also authors (Danny Bowien, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Christina Tosi will be there, too). We took the opportunity to talk to Bourdain about using "black propaganda" to scare his daughter into eating well, his desire to lead a creative-writing workshop, the scourge of underage food snobs, and plenty more.
What kind of eater were you as a kid?
I wasn't terribly adventurous, but my parents made an effort to bring me into the city every few weeks to eat relatively adventurously for the time and mix it up. We took delight eating Chinese and fine Japanese, which was really in its infancy then in New York. It was a little bit of a Julia Child family — not particularly foodie, but aspirational. I was the first in the family to eat a raw oyster. That was about as adventurous as it got.
And that's what started it all, right?
It resonated later. I never thought of myself as someone destined to become a cook or to focus on food. But looking back, in retrospect, I can see that I was a little more concerned with food than a lot of my friends.
How about your [6-year-old] daughter? What does she like to eat?
She's an Italian kid. Her mom's Italian, and I am who I am. What she sees on the table is a little different. She likes grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs like any other kid, and I certainly have no plans to try and make her a foodie. I don't urge her to have a more sophisticated palate. But she surprises me. She started picking up raw oysters because she saw them on the table, and really likes them. So of course, secretly, I think she's a genius. You can't force a kid to like something, and you ruin it by pushing it on them. If there's anything more annoying than a foodie, it's a child foodie.
What do you think about all of the healthy food initiatives for kids these days, such as Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign? How do you try and get your daughter to eat well?
I'm very supportive of her initiative, given the health of our country. It's a necessity to focus national efforts in this area. I don't know that introducing a child to the works of Michael Pollan is a way to convince a kid not to eat McDonald's. For better or worse, I've gone with the black propaganda method. I've told my child that McDonald's is bad and causes horrifying health effects that are likely to make her unhealthy, physically unattractive, and marginalized at school. Scaring the hell out of a kid isn't so hard, and I think it's for a good cause. Ronald McDonald is a bad guy in our house. He's not a friendly clown.
Since I can afford it, I try and feed her healthy, well-sourced food. But as a kid, I liked it when my dad would take me out for something that was a little bit forbidden. We sneak out as a father-daughter thing to go to Papaya King and eat hot dogs. I don't want her to be a food snob; that would be the worst-case scenario.
Why did you decide to get involved with the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters?
What attracted me to this school is its focus on the written and spoken word. It empowers kids to use language to articulate the things that they want. If I couldn't speak well or write, I would still be standing next to a deep fryer. I'm very aware of the advantage of vocabulary. Kids need to be able to read in order to have dreams, and they need the ability to speak and write in order to articulate those dreams, or else they will never attain them. This organization is good for the world, it's good for the kids, and it's good for me.
When all of this madness ends and I am no longer wanted on television, I'd very much like to give regular seminars or some kind of creative-writing workshop at the academy. So many of the issues that David Simon brought up very poignantly in season four of The Wire are addressed there. I hope it provides a way out.
Do you ever see yourself becoming a college professor?
Certainly not a professor, because I've never graduated from college. Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I very much like the idea of teaching a workshop on creative writing, books, or film.
You recently hosted a screening of Goodfellas at IFC.
Yes, I'm hoping to do a continuing thing with those guys. Possibly with the Criterion Collection. Both my parents were very into film, and I'd seen a lot of great movies by the time I was 10 years old. The extent to which I can coerce strangers of any age to see the films that I love and to read books that move me and make a difference in my life — that makes me happy.
You've got to save the Papaya Dog next to IFC — it's closing!
I know! It's the worst thing that ever happened.
How has changing networks and working with CNN impacted Parts Unknown?
They have not just allowed me, but encouraged me, to tell the stories that I want — wherever I want to tell them. They've been supportive of shooting in places like the Congo and Libya, where I never would have been able to shoot. Or Koreatown, for that matter, which was a tight-focused story centering on a small part of the American experience. They let me say "shit" on television. So for me, it's been an absolute clear sky without a single cloud. They're competent at how to shoot in a high-security situation, where people might want to kill you. They do that every week.
What do you think about the recent backlash that CNN's received for its news reporting?
For whatever criticism they receive in the States, you look at the line of people who've been reporting from places like Kabul for years, and then you go out to places like that and you see how hard it is. It resonates nicely that after almost ten days of very fraught, high tension in Beirut in 2006, when I was finally evacuated and standing on the beach and the Marines were coming onto the shore, the first person I saw was Barbara Starr and a CNN crew. That tends to make an impression.
There weren't a lot of news organizations who were actually covering themselves in glory this past week. I'm feeling good things for CNN. And Jeff Zucker, who was throwing his weight in support for the show — it was a bold and risky move. I was as surprised as anyone when they called.
At what point do you deem a place too dangerous to visit?
I'm not looking to stick my head into fire for its own sake. I'm not looking to report hard news. But if there's a historical obsession like the Congo, a place that I've been fascinated with historically, politically, and culturally for a long time, I will go to some lengths to tell that story. But I'm not looking to get shots of me in a flak jacket with people shooting at me just because I'll look cool or to say I did it. I'm not a journalist, and I'm not a foreign corespondent. I'm not a danger junkie, but I have a fairly high tolerance for risk if there's something there that I really want to look at.
Next week's episode showcases Colombia.
And then, there's an insanely food-centric, over-the-top bounce through Quebec. And then the Libya show, which I'm really proud of. I think it's the best thing I've ever done. The things that people said to us on-camera are life-changing.