You may have recognised the look on Sydney’s food lovers this past week. People were buzzing, eyes bright with excitement and there was much whispering of sweetly excited murmurs. The reason? Anthony Bourdain and A.A. Gill were in Sydney for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and Marco Pierre White was in Sydney too just for good measure. Between the three of them they had the food lovers of Sydney all a quiver.
During the Sydney Writer’s Festival there were three talks scheduled with Anthony or “Tony” as people call him. The first at Sydney Town Hall, called “Food Fighters” was held last Thursday night, the 19th of May and had Tony pitched against renowned food critic A.A. Gill with chef Tony Bilson as the moderator. Unfortunately, the love match wasn’t quite right and it ended up not fulfilling the promise, flitting from subject to subject without delving into anything particularly deeply. There was so much promise and potential there and at the end there were many who had the sense of a missed opportunity.
The aftermath wasn’t pretty with Bourdain calling it a “goat rodeo” and tweeting “it was like a slow motion colonoscopy” and chastising his good friend Matt Preston for not being there to moderate by saying “Where WERE you, f**k-nuts!? Left me to the tender mercies of Benny Hill!”. Bourdain went on to a Chaser event which he considered an antidote to the previous talk.
The second talk on Saturday the 21st of January, “9/11 I was there” was an obviously much more sobering discussion given the subject matter and featured Tony along with other International writers including James Gleick, Michael Cunningham, Emma Forrest and was chaired by Australian Lee Tulloch who was living in New York at the time but came home to live after the 2001 attacks.
Each writer had something interesting to say about how it affected them and Bourdain mentions that the first thing that he thought about when he heard about it (it was a lazy morning for him at home) was the chefs at the ‘Windows of the World’ restaurant that he knew. He also said that he has never written about 9/11 and never will as he doesn’t feel that he has the gravitas to do so. Given the subject matter, it was a vastly different mood, less rowdy certainly but not without controversy. When it came to the audience question time one audience member claimed that the U.S. deserved the attacks. This drew a horrified gasp and chiding from the rest of the audience.
The third talk that same afternoon was filled to capacity and had an atmosphere of excitement to it. For starters it was packed full and many were clutching their copies of Medium Raw or Kitchen Confidential. There were catcalls and whoops from the audience and random calling out of “Tony!” to get his attention. Facilitating was Jill Dupleix and she introduced him by quoting Urban Dictionary’s definition of Anthony Bourdain:
“Anthony Bourdain is an author, chef, and television host. This is ironic because he is also Satan. He is one of the baddest motherf**kers to grace television. His books are well written, conscious, and can be quite humorous. His restraunt (sic), Les Halles, serves amazing French cuisine and is located in New York. He has/had two television shows. The first being “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network. The second show, “No Reservations”, being an almost exact copy, but far better and is still being aired with new seasons being filmed.
On his shows he is known for eating way to much (yet being tall and skinny), smoking excessively, and getting drunk most everywhere he goes. He can also be extremely obnoxious and arrogant when doing any of these three things.”
The Satan quote brings a laugh from him and the audience. Jill then discussed with him the idea that food critics are corrupt, a quote he had given when he first arrived in Australia (her husband is SMH food critic Terry Durack) and he explained his quote saying that there are some food critics in the U.S. that demand free vacations and money in exchange for writing reviews. He cites a popular restaurant guide as an example of the corruptness. A restaurant may buy 6,000-7,000 copies of this guide depending on the review. And if a restaurant should lower their order of this book due to a bad review, the guide simply rectifies it by ensuring that they give the restaurant a better review so they will order more.
However he also calls himself corrupted in that he is friends with so many chefs in New York that it would make it impossible for him to be a food critic. He tells us that his palate is corrupted and that he himself is sick of truffles. On another subject he says that the fear of the Chinese owning a lot of real estate and the debt of the United States is not something that concerns him and the result is that in terms of food, the food on offer will be better. When Jill mentions his friend Marco Pierre White being in Australia to promote Continental stock pot and how it “broke her heart” seeing him do that, he quickly switches to his defence saying that the public seem to expect chefs to die broken down and flat footed in front of their stoves and why shouldn’t he make money if he can.
There are the obligatory questions about the most awful things he has eaten like the warthog anus in Namibia and the fermented shark in Iceland and when quizzed about what warthog anus tastes like apparently it tastes just as what you’d expect a warthog anus to taste like. It’s an interesting 45 minutes and he charms the albeit already charmed audience and before we know it, the time is up and it is audience question time (always my favourite part).
The audience questions come thick and fast and unlike the other two talks, there are lines of people eager to question him. There is an offer to “recalibrate his palate” by inviting him to a barbecue that evening, advice sought for a last meal given the end of the world is said to be nigh. One audience member asks him an interesting question which was whether he thought that visiting and filming some of the small places changes the place for the better or often worse and that they may lose some of the charm that initially took him there. He admits that he is aware of that and that filming anything changes it. But if you talk to some of these small business owners like the Bali Suckling Pig restaurant which is now a chain of six, they may not mind it very much at all.
After each talk there was a book signing and out of the three talks the longest line was definitely reserved for this one. Eager fans rushed to get a front spot in the line and Mr NQN and I slipped out and made out way to the room where I would be lucky enough to interview him. Unfortunately I had a sudden case of food poisoning from lunch and stabbing pains in my stomach the whole afternoon but you can believe that there was nothing short of the end of the world that was going to stand in my way!
As I had already interviewed him I wanted the questions to be different but finding a question that he hasn’t been asked before was difficult. He has been interviewed so many times and pretty much everything that you would want to ask him has already been asked or was just asked on the stage by Jill. So I took the cue from the Medium Raw talk where he mentioned that he enjoyed Quick Fires (and I thought that it would be more suited given that I knew that he was probably still jet-lagged and tired from the festival). There is video footage and that is hopefully to come (once I figure out how to edit it!) but for the interests of the many Anthony Bourdain fans out there, here is a quick fire session with the man himself where I reel off a list of words and ask for a simple word or a sentence from him on each!
Quick Fire Session With Anthony Bourdain
NQN: Could you give me one word or one sentence on…Women
Anthony Bourdain: That’s a life’s work, not a sentence I’m not up to the job. I’m still learning.
NQN: Your wife Ottavia
Anthony Bourdain: Ummm…… (laughs) strong and very funny… beautiful. The first blind date of my life came with a caution. They said ‘You guys are perfect for each other just don’t get serious.’ We were introduced by Eric Ripert. I think we were talking about having a baby within 6 months, 5 months.
NQN: Your daughter
Anthony Bourdain: Looking at my daughter’s sleeping face is perfect happiness.
Anthony Bourdain: Noble profession. Anyone who cooks is doing noble work. I mean anyone who cooks with pride and joy is a noble and good thing.
Anthony Bourdain: The backbone of the restaurant business. Let’s be specific, a lot of them are illegal immigrants, in the States you see a disproportionate amount of illegal immigrants. It’s a cause… I’m sympathetic.
NQN: Your parents
Anthony Bourdain: Ummm they made a mistake of loving me too much. I was a rotten angry bitter kid you know. Not a good son.
NQN: And you say in the book that you weren’t molested or anything like so they can’t be blamed.
Anthony Bourdain: Yeah no I can’t complain… for all the rotten things and problems in my life unfortunately I can’t blame my parents for any of them.
NQN: Donald Trump
Anthony Bourdain: Blowhard
NQN: Barack Obama
Anthony Bourdain: (Long pause) A disappointment to me personally for someone I admired. I was very happy when he was elected President. I certainly voted for him and I was very happy when he was elected. I wish he’d get angry.
NQN: George W. Bush
Anthony Bourdain: Uhhh not an evil man… but I admire competency. So there is not really much to admire about Bush.
NQN: Rene Redzepi
Anthony Bourdain: Don’t know him. Everyone I know everyone is unanimous that the restaurant is just as good as everyone says it is.
NQN: You haven’t visited yet?
Anthony Bourdain: I hope to for personal enterprise.
NQN: A.A. Gill
Anthony Bourdain: You know back in ’86, ’87 I was still working as a cook and I managed to squeak out this crime novel which has disappeared off the shelves in the states in about 10 minutes. It was published in Scotland and Adrian was a ferocious advocate for the book. He’s been a good and loyal friend from the first day I met him. He introduced me to the works of Fergus Henderson. An hour after meeting him we were talking and he recognised in me a person that should be eating in St John. Just read Adrian’s travel writing and tell me that isn’t some heartfelt angry stuff. The best stuff that he writes about is oppression and injustice, hypocrisy. A fascinating and brilliant man. I would not want to disappoint him at the table however if I was a small restaurateur with a preposterous menu.
NQN: No landscapes on a plate? (in reference to the first talk where A.A. Gill sarcastically called a glass of water a “river in a glass”)
Anthony Bourdain: (laughs) Yeah, I’ll never forget he wrote a review years ago the first nine paragraphs were about involuntary anal seepage and the last paragraph was “Speaking of anal seepage…” and then came the review.
Anthony Bourdain: I like it because I’ve never had any before. I mean never. I never owned anything. I lived paycheque to paycheque till I was 44. I like it but I mean when I look at people like I don’t understand people who have enough more than they’ll ever need and keep pushing… I think it’s good to have money. To me (money) equals time to do things you like, freedom of movement, allowing you to to go to places you want to go. Those to me are the most valuable things money gives to you.
Anthony Bourdain: Ummm impressive. (laughs) I mean whose show do you want to be on if you’re selling a book? And having sat next to her on TV I’ll say she’s a damn impressive human being. Don’t watch the show but I think how can you be against Oprah.
NQN: Yet some people are…
Anthony Bourdain: The thing is she gets more people to read than any other thing or factor anywhere for good. She’s made mistakes, sure I’ve seen them… Dr Phil which we will all have to account for later. But on balance she’s on the side of angels.
Anthony Bourdain: Wish I could take them, can’t. Can’t do heroin anymore. Cocaine can’t do that. These feel good otherwise people wouldn’t do them. I like smoking weed but it’s a very, very, very rare occasion where I can do it. Because I need my brain when I’m around my daughter. I might be called on to make a decision. But I mean I’m for them. But I’m against crack. Cocaine should be illegal, crystal meth should be illegal because you’re a menace to others on crack. Very, very, very quickly you’re a bad person and then there are crack babies. You don’t actually rob to hurt people but even after you rob them you hurt them because you’re tweaking. But heroin I mean they should probably legalise that.
NQN: Legalise heroin?
Anthony Bourdain: Yeah. Junkies have enough judgement, they don’t bother anyone if they have it so give it to them and if they want to get off help them get off. Nobody is out there looking to rob or kill anyone on heroin if they have enough. It’s when they don’t have enough.
Anthony Bourdain: Tried it and respect it. I respect people that practice as they preach. For a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew if you stick by your stated principles but hypocritical religious types make me angry. I’m not really I’m closer to (Christopher) Hitchens’ view on this. Many of the worlds ills can be tracked back to it. That said I’ve worked with and have been treated very well by many lovely people who believe in one god or another and I respect that.
Anthony Bourdain: Good sex, who’s against it? The more the better. In America our relationship to sex is dysfunctional. Surely some countries are better at it than others. We’re just so hypocritical about it. The Japanese are messed up about it for sure… see I don’t know who to hold up as a shining example… I was going to say Italy but look at Berlusconi and the Danes and Scandinavians are annoyingly well adjusted about it.
Anthony Bourdain: I’m living the dream. If I had one frustration in my life it’s that I wasn’t Italian American and that I came from a small family – not that I would’ve been happier in a larger family given how I grew up or who I was when I grew up. I’m living the movie dream of how suddenly I’m this Italian patriarch with a big family. So it’s a whole third life for me. My daughter is an Italian my wife is an Italian and we spend a lot of time in the area. I have very over romantic notions of Italy, they’re quite hilarious to my wife. I take her to Tuscany and I say to her ‘Baby look at the olive groves, look at the brick houses’ and she says ‘This is like New Jersey to me’ (laughs. It’s where I’m happiest lately and it’s where I spend all of my vacation. I love my in-laws. I’m getting a lot of satisfaction and joy out of that part of my life.
NQN: Is the plan to have a big Italian family and move to Italy?
Anthony Bourdain: Well you know my wife grew up there so she’s liking New York just fine. Those that grew up in New York city, we look at the Italian countryside and like it’s some kind of Wonderland. My wife thinks it’s kind of boring. ‘I grew up with that. Who wants to live in a little village?’ but life is good. A little of this and a little of that. I tend to blather on a lot about wouldn’t it be great to have a compound or villa in Italy and live my life growing tomatoes… but who am I kidding I’m a New Yorker… I’d go batsh*t out of my mind.
NQN: You could do a George Clooney and go back and forth…
Anthony Bourdain: Yeah but I’ll never have George Clooney dollars where I’m jetting off to New York then zipping off to Paris for dinner. I’ll never be doing that. It’s a part of my life I’m really grateful for and I treasure but I’m a New Yorker. You talk about simplifying your life and living in the country a couple of weeks maybe a couple of times a year. But I need a wireless signal, I need Chinese food at 2 oclock in the morning, I need 500 cable channels… who am I kidding? And all of my friends are chefs in New York, my whole social life is in New York. I need a good Irish pub nearby. There are too many things that I love that I’ll miss.
And Dear Readers, those who missed out on the chance to meet him are not left out. Thanks to Bloomsbury, we will have 5 autographed copies of his book Medium Raw to auction off for his preferred charity Médecins Sans Frontières so look out for that coming up in a future post!
So tell me Dear Reader, who is your favourite writer and why? And have you ever met them?
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