Chef, TV personality, author and all-around rascal Anthony Bourdain lives the life that most people dream about. As host and producer of the Emmy Award-winning television series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, he gets to travel wherever he wants in the world and immerse himself in the culture and foods of that location.
That’s some kind of life. Yet, the man still somehow manages to accomplish a myriad of other things in between. He recently released his second graphic novel, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, which he co-wrote with friend Joel Rose. He’s also become an investor in the travel site Roads & Kingdoms, a venture in which he’s working with stakeholders on a series of books, essays and deep investigations, beginning with the recently released book Rice, Noodles, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture. Earlier this year, he also entered a partnership with handcrafted single malt Scotch whisky maker, The Balvenie, for the short-film series Raw Craft. The behind-the-scenes looks essentially highlight some of America’s most talented and creative craftpeople.
During a recent The Balvenie tasting on one of the traveling tour stops, Forbes Travel Guide caught up with Bourdain for a chat about kilts, finding the best meal on the road and having a great time around a table with friends.
You recently visited Scotland with The Balvenie. Tell us a little bit about that trip.
We visited a distillery in Dufftown. I spent most of my time at the distillery meeting everybody and seeing the process from beginning to end. I was surprised and shocked by what I saw. And then I did some eating and whiskey drinking in town. But I have been to the area and spent a fair amount of time in Scotland, so it fleshes out the bigger picture of Scotland, a place that I already enjoy and love.
What shocked and surprised you?
It’s so time consuming and difficult and antiquated. They’re using old equipment — deliberately — old, old equipment and doing things obstinately the way they always did, often with the same people.
Did you experience any of the typical Scottish experiences — you know, men with kilts and golf?
I hate golf. I have no use for golf. And kilts, I’m dubious. I’m not so secure in my manhood that I’d go commando in a kilt. For me, that’s not what’s awesome about Scotland. All the bric-a-brac and the bagpipes and the kilts — no. The whiskey is amazing. The food is great. The pubs are unparalleled. The architecture in the cities is fantastic. The people — there’s no one like ‘em and their sense of humor is unique in the world.
Can you expand on the food in Scotland?
They are masters of the fryolated art, that is for sure. They will deep-fry anything without a second thought. If you don’t watch your wristwatch, it’s getting breaded and thrown in with the deep fat. Their cheese is really great, increasingly great. Their wild game is the best in the world. The beef is good. The seafood is extraordinary. The produce is good. There are more and more great chefs there. You know, if you were to — as I have — go to a hunting lodge or someone’s home for the weekend and go deer stalking and cook with Scottish products, you would eat very well.
Where have you been recently?
I’ve been shooting the series for the last few months. I was just in Montana. Naxos, an island in Greece, [too]. I’m headed to Georgia, the republic of Georgia, in a few days.
Are these places that you want to go or places you’ve been before?
Yes, I decide where we go, what we do when we get there and how we’re going to tell the story about the experience.
Typically, how long are you on the ground?
Anywhere from eight to 14 days, depending on how much internal travel [and] what kind of challenges [come along the way]. In a place like Congo, we have to account for the high likelihood that the ferry won’t come on time, that we might be stuck, that things happen and there’s a great amount of terrain to cover in between. So, that might be closer to a two-week trip. Paris, I think we could reliably count on getting what we need between a week and 10 days.
Where are some extraordinary meals that you’ve had this year?
Well, [the food in] Kuching in Borneo is amazing. The food in Malaysia, Singapore and the China Straits is so delicious and exciting. Love it there. The spicy, rich, deep, old-school flavors. Laksa, for instance, is kind of a perfect dish — noodles and prawns and chicken, coconut milk, and chiles and ginger and herbs, and it all cooks together over a longer period of time until it becomes a magical hell broth.
Do you have any advice for people who are traveling?
Well, it’s just what you shouldn’t do. If you’re in Venice, and there are a bunch of Americans dining in the restaurant, you’re obviously in the wrong place. If you’re looking for the best deli in New York, and there are no New Yorkers eating there — they’re all Texans — uh, you’re in the wrong place. There’s nothing wrong with Texans; it’s just you want to be eating in the deli that New Yorkers go to because it’s their thing. A barbecue joint with nothing but tourists is worrisome. You want to find the back-alley place where all the locals go. That’s what we’re looking for. We literally ask, “This is not a tourist place, right? If I go there, I’m not going to see any Americans, am I? We ask locals, “Where do you go that no one else knows about, just you and your friends? Where do you go when you’re drunk at 2 o’clock in the morning that’s going to make you feel better and happy? What’s the first place you miss when you’re gone for a long time?” So, we reach out and ask people on the ground these kinds of questions, and we pursue them until we get it right.
Are you asking chefs or just people you know?
Both chefs and total strangers. We’re hoping to find a consensus. Chefs are helpful. It helps to be in the chef mafia.
Chefs don’t really eat that well, do they?
Most chefs I know don’t go to fine dining restaurants. They go to that funky neighborhood joint where they do something simple really, really well. We want a relief from fine dining. If you’re in fine dining, you don’t want to eat fine dining. You’re done with it. You don’t want to eat in places with white tablecloths. You want a good bowl of pasta — some place simple that does a good bowl of noodles or a pasta or a good steak or a great, greasy burger late at night. Chefs gravitate towards those places. And that’s why we often reach out to local chefs through connections, or just blind. Call up and find the hotshot chefs in town and then we ask them, “Look, we’re not eating at your restaurant. We just want to know where, if I was you, where do you and your friends go when you’re drunk? What makes you happy?”
You have this great relationship with Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. Where do you eat when you’re together?
I take Eric to Mission Chinese a lot for super spicy food, which is hilarious, because he really can’t handle the heat. We always eat very simply. It’s going to be simple, most of the time. We don’t eat fine dining, ever. I eat at his house a lot. Every time I’ve ever eaten at Eric’s house, we eat the same thing. It’s like a salad and a big hunk of meat on the grill. It’s the simplest barbecue you could imagine. [We also have a] bottle of not-particularly-great wine. Never fish. It’s low impact. It’s relaxing. It’s fun. When he comes over to my house, I’ll make pasta. And I mean linguine and clam sauce. I’m not throwing truffles in there or anything. We crust the bread, some cheese. You don’t want to analyze food when we’ve been chef’ing for as long as we have. We’ll go to friends’ restaurants. Sometimes it’s, “Well, we haven’t been to so and so’s new place,” so we’ll go there because it’s the right thing to do. But for fun, Korean barbecue. That’s kind of the default meal among chefs these days, and it’s date night for me, as well. It’s super casual. Everything’s shared. You cook your own food. There’s a lot of drinking, a lot of grabbing. You get all of the banchan-pickled stuff. They’re flavors that we’re not bored of. They’re relatively new, meaning, only in the last 10 years have I been eating kimchi on a regular basis. So, it’s exciting. It’s casual. It’s fun. It’s enjoyed in a way that’s really not American in the best possible way. You’re all reaching across and grabbing and arguing and drinking soju and beer. It’s awesome.
If you could choose your last meal, where would it be?
It would be in Tokyo, probably at Sukiyabashi Jiro. If I had to get shot to death, I would probably choose to have it there, around the tamago course.