The Bourdain Effect: A Q&A with Anthony Bourdain

We sit down with Anthony Bourdain and his co-writer, Laurie Woolever, to talk about their new cookbook and how the world of food is evolving.

The current generation of eaters is more willing than ever to venture outside the norm and experience new foods. And Anthony Bourdain – world renowned chef, culinary punk and chronicler – has had a massive influence on that. So when he releases a new cookbook, we're paying attention. Appetites, which he co-wrote with Laurie Woolever, is a multi-faceted project inspired by decades of exploring the world and the humbling experience of being a new father.

We spoke with him about how his travels have shaped the way he eats and how people are more amenable to international cuisine.

Of all the projects you’ve managed, this one seems to be the most personal.

Anthony Bourdain: It’s what I tried to do. I hope so. I’m a father now, and I’ve learnt a lot from that, and from travelling too.

What was this journey like? How did you end up with this compendium of recipes?

AB: Working with Laurie Woolever, my co-writer here, the main thought was: can we do this? Will it suck? Listen, I personally love budae jjigae. I think it’s a great dish. I like the idea that college students everywhere could make it in their dorm room. But can I make it well? Would it work?

Laurie Woolever: We wanted to have a collection of recipes that reflected the way Tony cooks for his family and friends, that also provided a diverse and engaging experience for the reader and cook.

I suggested a few types of recipes (ribs and tacos, specifically) that Tony did not want to include, as he felt they were too much in the “dude food” category. I developed a very good turkey matzo ball soup, but it didn't make the final manuscript as Tony thought it was “too nurturing,” which made me laugh.

Appetites features some of Anthony Bourdain's favourite street-style sandwiches

So it was a true collaboration?

LW: A true collaboration. Every project is different. Every pair of authors are different. I’ve been his assistant for seven years. There were a lot of emails — that’s how we work.

AB: We went back and forth, and there was a lot of development in our kitchens.

LW: It was a one-year process of kicking things back and forth. I did some writing, and Tony would come and make it more his own. The essays are 100 per cent Tony’s voice.

The book is a mix of American, French and international cooking. It must have been hard to narrow down the recipes.

LW: We originally planned to include a lobster Catalan, inspired by an episode of No Reservations that was shot in Sardinia. Although it was delicious, it didn’t live up to the Tony’s romantic memory of having the lobsters cooked over an open fire on the beach, so we let it go. Another recipe that we had to cut was a spaghetti with uni butter and caviar.

AB: It was a homage to Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. It was a beautiful dish, but we noticed that Ruth Reichl had a version of it in her book, so we canned it.

What was the most challenging recipe?

AB: There were a few, but the wings were the biggest challenge. Getting that crispy-but-saucy look took some doing.

You ended up freezing the chicken overnight for optimal crispiness.

AB: Yeah, Danny Bowien’s Korean fried chicken - which inspired mine - is a two-day affair to get that right crispy consistency.

People want Korean food now, and 20 years ago that was a niche thing

From reading your book, it seems like your daughter has an advanced palate.

AB: She has a sensitive palate. There’s no fooling here. If I put too much salt into something, she’ll speak up. She’s very open to different flavours, and she was exposed to it at a young age. If she things on the table and was happy to try them — I never pressured her — I gave it to her. When she noticed the grown-ups eating something different, she would reach across the table and grab it for herself.

There are recipes from Malaysia to Budapest. But I also noticed that you focused on specific micro regions. Like with the laksa recipe, for example.

AB: Well, that just happens to be my favourite style of laksa of all the laksa was from Kuching. My first and true laksa love. I love Penang-style too, but this one just resonated with me in terms of balance and flavour. That’s the one I want people to try.

And you’re the right ambassador to introduce people to this national dish?

AB: These are dishes that I love really deeply. They are personal to me. That passion supersedes my concern that I’m not the right guy to be doing this recipe for you.

I guess my feeling is, let the recipe hold you over until you head to Kuching. If you like this, you’re going to love when a Malaysian nyonya cooks it for you.

Anthony Bourdain's Korean fried chicken is a multi-step process for optimal crispiness, juiciness and flavour

LW: I haven't traveled as much as Tony for sure, but I have been to many parts of Asia, Europe and South America, and I live in Queens, the most diverse borough of New York City, with some of the best restaurants serving cuisines from all over the world, so I was starting with a good foundation.

I had eaten laksa, for instance, but hadn’t spent much time figuring out how to make it before the book process started. The research and development process involved a lot of reading, seeking out and eating versions of a dish I was trying to create, and in some cases consulting with friends and family members in the relevant geography.

I pulled clips from Tony’s TV shows if a particular dish was inspired by his travels, as was the case of the mortadella sandwich, the banh mi, the po’ boy, the laksa, the Sardinian pasta and the goulash.

The global palate in the book is very noticeable and pervasive.

AB: Yeah. clearly, if you look at who is eating at expensive restaurants as far as income level, ethnicity, nationality, it has changed in 20 years. It’s very different now, and for a lack of a better way of saying it, our palates are more refined. People want Korean food now, and 20 years ago that was a limited niche thing. Thankfully, people are much more adventurous about food. This is how we eat. This is how I eat.

LW: The bulk of the book’s recipes aren’t from far-flung locations, though there are a few – maybe 10 in all, such as ma po tripe and pork, Sarawak laksa, banh mi, Korean fried chicken – which really resonated with Tony in his travels. It leans heavily on certain Italian and Italian-American traditions, as well as on the classic style of cooking that Tony worked with for much of his career as a chef.

Then there are some regional American favorites, like po' boy sandwiches from New Orleans, a New Mexico-style beef chili and a New England-style lobster roll. There are some very easy recipes, such as the bodega sandwich and the Boston lettuce salad with yogurt dressing, and some that require a bit more time and technique, like the poulet en vessie, a chicken cooked with truffles inside an inflated pig's bladder. In between those two extremes I do think this is a book with something for cooks at every level, because even the more challenging recipes have lots of helpful instruction and take care to point out where you’re most likely to make a mistake, and how to avoid it.

You opine a lot about how food is constantly evolving, and how authenticity is a fleeting word. How have you seen food change in the places you have frequented over the years for your CNN show?

AB: You definitely see that as tourism increases, as people flood in, you see more new spots where people are doing nouveau or tweaked or fusion-y foods. Young guys that want to try new things with food and break from the natural cadence of things. But also, some cultures cling to their foods fiercely, and you will have a real problem if you break from the mold. There will be active resistance. There will be push back when you try to do something new. If you start messing with a classic carbonara or cacio e pepe in Rome, you’re going to have a hard time. In places like Vietnam and Korea, you have second generation cooks that are growing up with different influences. Even they feel the resistance, but Asia has a whole has become progressive with cuisine.

You see rock star wannabe chefs all over the place now

And the younger diners are responding well to the trend.

AB: Asia is way ahead of us. The average Singaporean, in my experience, can Instagram with one hand, text with the other, and there’s a third phone somewhere there for some other function. They are perfectly capable of throwing themselves into the food experience and manipulating, taking photos of food and tweeting all the while stuffing their face with hot bowls of noodle soups. Sharing stuff on social media is certainly very popular in North America but they’re way more adept at it in Asia.

What about cooks? Has the attitude toward cooking evolved?

AB: Cooks are no longer smitten with the idea of long days and the daily grind. You definitely see rock star wannabe chefs all over now. A successful business is not enough — they want to be known as innovators; they want to do something new. But ultimately, the desire should be to make people happy.