Before Anthony Bourdain Visits Dallas, He Chats with City of Ate About Bad Food Critics and Evil Truffle Oil
Anthony Bourdain comes to Dallas this Thursday, visiting the Majestic Theater to share what will no doubt be candid and curse-filled insights into his life's work, travels and food. Since City of Ate is sponsoring the event, I spoke to Bourdain recently, asking about his new show, the food scene in Dallas, his thoughts on food critics and more.
City of Ate: Didn't you hear that Dallas is a dining nowhereville? Why are you coming to Dallas? I have no opinion about the Dallas food culture because I'm just completely pig ignorant on the subject. I just don't know one way or the other to say anything even remotely intelligent about the Dallas dining scene because I don't know. I'm coming to do a show.
Have you been here before? I've been through on these tiny dysfunctional book tours or speaking events. I've never been in town long enough to learn anything.
What are you going to eat while you're here? I'll be eating the Pringles out of the mini-bar.
What would make you consider coming to Dallas to tape one of your new shows? If I can find an angle like a person or a story or a perspective that drew me in above and beyond just good food. Is there some unique aspect about Dallas' cuisine that sets it apart, that is unique to Dallas as opposed to Houston or Austin or Kansas City or Paris and New York. Or do I have a really good friend in Dallas that would show me some really fucked up honky-tonks and dive bars and just sort of low impact casual joints that would be strange and wonderful.
We've got some honky-tonks. I do like a good bar.
Katharine Shilcutt, the food critic at the Houston Press, recently published a review lamenting her fellow diners who sent back dishes that were cooked properly but not to their liking. Fish, for instance, cooked to a perfect translucent doneness was sent back by one diner. Another sent back a dish because their foods touched on their plate. At the end of her review she got this veal steak that was over cooked. She wanted to find fault with the restaurant, but she realized the chef was just doing what most of his diners were asking for. That's not a problem that's unique for sure. In the perfect world the chef says listen -- are you here to eat my food?
If I show up and I want my scallops cooked this way and I don't want them touching my vegetables that's fine. That's called the Cheesecake Factory. But if I'm coming into a Dean Fearing restaurant, I'm here to eat Dean Fearing's food. OK? I'm not telling him where I want my scallops or how I want them cooked. I want them the way Dean thinks I should try them because I've heard he's good. A lot of people have said he's good over the years -- therefore, I'm going to put my faith in him. Good or bad, I'm going to put my faith in the chef. That's what it's about.
I'm saying that as a customer, not just a chef. That's the way I eat. You know, I go into a restaurant with a reputation and they ask, what do you want to eat? And I say, what are you good at? They know better than me.
But you're on TV and have an opportunity to educate and influence diners ... Something like this ... is an act of slow seduction. It's tough to get people out of old attitudes. It was a really important moment when people started eating sushi. It was a big deal. I was raised thinking raw fish -- are you out of your mind? But at some point in my life, somehow, it seemed like a good idea. So there was then and then there's now.
I'm not going to sneer at people or mock them or make them feel bad about themselves for their attitudes toward food. But I sympathize with a chef that has to deal with that -- who's trying to raise their game and trying to do things as well as they can and their customers haven't caught up with them yet or learned to trust them.
Let's face it. In a lot of cases the chef doesn't deserve their trust. Certainly, in my life, I've bullied my customers into eating something that they probably would have been better off not eating. So, we're all growing up together you know? Chefs and customers alike.
In your first book you mention eating your first oysters in France. Oysters: North or South? North. I've learned to appreciate oysters from the South and I've had them all over, but I mean come on. If the first woman you ever slept with you was a brunette and it was fantastic, well then it kind of makes an impression on you.
Ever think you'll go back there and re-create that experience with the cigarettes and the paper bag? I did on a cooks tour with my brother, in 2001 and I might do it again in a year or two.
I love when a food experience takes you back in time and ... That's what's so transformative and so great about food. You might forget your first girlfriend's face, but you remember what was playing on the radio and you remember the smell.
Tell me about your new show. Unlike No Reservations it will be useful. Like No Reservations it will be snarky, dark, evil and personal.
Useful how? You'll actually be able to go and do everything you see in the show. In No Reservations, chances are you're probably not going up the Amazon, or bungee jumping or having dinner with Bill Murray.
How long is each layover? I'm there in real time for 48 hours, so we shot my portions in 48 hours.
Do you think a viewer would really be able to recreate that experience in two days? No, but I think the viewer could pick out a few things from the show that appeal. And I think they would go home spectacularly happy, saying, "Thank God I did what that asshole Bourdain suggested, because otherwise I really would have had a crappy time in Rome."
I found a reference to a disagreement between you and Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner that started with a negative book review and blossomed from there. Do you still harbor any bad feelings for Leslie? No, just a low opinion.
What about food critics in general?
I think that there are good food critics and there are bad food critics and there are critics in the middle.
I'm new to the game. Help me out: What makes for a good food critic and what makes for a bad one? Preserve your sense of wonder and delight. Is it still exciting and wonderful and new? Is it a fresh and are you happy with your work. Do you like eating this food? Is it fun? Do you like chefs? Do you understand the process and people behind the creation of your food? Do you understand where it came from and if it matters? Those are important.
Or are you an angry, frustrated, dissatisfied person who was working at The New York Times and then Los Angeles and then ended up in Dallas?
Are you a person with personal connections to chefs? Are you bent? Are you compromised and accepting things of value from the subjects of your articles? Do you have an agenda other than informing your public? Are you an honest broker of opinion? It's always subjective, but can you bite the hand that feeds you?
How important is anonymity for a restaurant critic? I think it is very desirable. In the perfect world, yes the critic would be anonymous. The New York Times is the benchmark there. And no matter how anonymous critics think they are, a restaurant will see them coming and they will know.
But a lot of the times those restaurants are performing at a super-high level anyway. The same facility that allows them to recognize the food critic of The New York Times, even in disguise at 10 at night, is the same level of excellence that allows them to serve the same quality of meal to everybody, regardless of whether they're the Times critic.
But anonymity helps. It means that the chef can't invite you to special tasting menus, special events, soft openings -- a little special access, a little back rub, walk around the kitchen, talk about the new menu he's considering. ... These are all the process of a slow corruption.
So if you were a critic what would your disguise be? I'm hopelessly compromised! I have loyalties and allegiances and prejudices and histories that would absolutely preclude me from ever being an honest broker of opinion.
Also, how much foie gras and truffles and great wine have I had in my 10 or 11 years of Kitchen Confidential. So my experience of a meal is completely different from an ordinary person. I'm bored with things that would be a once in a life time experience to a normal person. Ooh! Truffles again. How 2008. What kind of fucked thing is that to say? Yet people say it all the time.
What about truffle oil? It is an alien substance that should be sent back into outer space. It's not a truffle. Nor is it oil. It is evil, evil, evil shit.
If anonymity is important, what do you think of Eater chasing critics around with cameras and posting their photos? Hey, fair is fair. The press takes pictures of civilians, and civilians should feel free to take pictures of press.
Fair enough ... I sympathize. I think it's distasteful to try and ruin somebody's livelihood by taking their picture, but you're talking to a guy on TV. People take my picture when I'm running across an airport looking for someplace to piss. So I'm not exactly sympathetic when the camera's turned around. But I wouldn't do it.
How are you not fat? I pace myself. I don't snack. I'm not sitting around eating Cheetos between meals.
Do you eat three squares a day? I do not. I have a cup of coffee in the morning.
I understand that I'm a guy who a lot of good food comes my way. You know I like a hot dog. I like a nice greasy burger with a lot of cheese and bacon on it. But in order to eat that, I understand that I'm going to have to skip breakfast.
You know, you can't do it all. I know if I'm going to have a 10-course Chinese meal tonight, I'm not having lunch. I'm having coffee and maybe a bite of toast in the morning.
I'm all for binging. But is it good? Is it worth it? You only have so much real estate, so I try and arrange that space well.
Think I missed something? You can buy tickets here and ask him a question yourself. His talk concludes with a no-holds-barred question-and-answer session with the audience. Or at the least leave the guy some dining recommendations in the comments. Dallas may be tough, but nobody deserves to eat Pringles alone in their hotel room.
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