MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Anthony Bourdain is known as the bad boy of American cuisine, the hard-drinking, tough-talking chef who shot to stardom after his tell-all book, Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain is still the executive chef at Les Halles in Manhattan, but he doesn't spend much time sweating over the stove there these days. Most days find him traveling the globe, pursuing new adventures for his TV show or promoting one of his eight books.
Anthony Bourdain stopped by our New York studios this week to talk about his latest book. It's a collection of essays called The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones. Bourdain had just returned from a trip to Africa, sampling the cuisine in Ghana and Namibia, where he engaged in some of his favorite activities.
Mr. ANTHONY BOURDAIN (Chef, Author): A lot of eating, drinking of palm wine and sort of a palm wine-sourced sort of moonshine.
NORRIS: I was going to say, what is palm wine?
Mr. BOURDAIN: They essentially drain the liquid right out of palm trees, ferment it lightly into a kind of beer, increasingly alcoholic beer, and then if they choose to, they further refine it in kind of backyard still situations into a lethal moonshine.
NORRIS: Do you remember what the food tasted like in Ghana and Namibia after all that?
Mr. BOURDAIN: The food in Ghana's terrific, in particular. It's really spicy, a lot of stews. Very colorful, hearty stuff. But Namibia was not a culinary wonderland, but interesting for other reasons.
NORRIS: Were you putting together an episode for the television show?
Mr. BOURDAIN: Yeah, for No Reservations. I was out there with my crew, shooting episodes in both places.
NORRIS: Anthony, it seems like you spend more time in airports and on planes than you do in the kitchen these days.
Mr. BOURDAIN: Oh, no question about it. I spend maybe four nights a month back in New York at all. And I'm traveling around 11 months out of the year, so I serve no useful function at the restaurant at all anymore.
NORRIS: So, do you see yourself still primarily as a chef, or have you become something of a culinary anthropologist at this point?
Mr. BOURDAIN: I've mutated into something. I don't really know what it is I do for a living. I'm having fun doing it, whatever it is. You know, writing and bouncing around the world and either writing about it or making television about it. But I like to think of myself as a chef only in the sense that, you know, I spent 28 years in the business and certainly my point of view, the way I look at the world is always going to come from there.
NORRIS: Do you miss the kitchen?
Mr. BOURDAIN: I miss the camaraderie and I miss the sense of certainty at the end of a workday. You know, when you're a cook or a chef, you know exactly and quantifiably how well you did. That energy rush of working in a busy kitchen. The feeling of invincibility afterwards if the night went well. And just the sheer joy of wallowing in that subculture. Yeah, I miss that.
NORRIS: What's the meal that you can't get out of your mind?
Mr. BOURDAIN: Well, so many. You know, just, you know eating street food in Singapore or sitting with rice farmers in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. Eating raw seal with the Inuit just a few weeks ago in northern Quebec. You know, it's such an intimate thing when people are proudly feeding you what they feel to be their best. And much of the time, it's really not the best food necessarily. It's really a combination of food and context and who you're eating with and where you are.
NORRIS: In the preface to this latest book, Nasty Bits, you begin with a description of a seal hunt and that description of that family tearing into that flesh of that freshly caught seal certainly lives up to the title of the book, Nasty Bits. Why did you start the book with that passage?
Mr. BOURDAIN: Because I kind of wanted to highlight a central problem, you know something I wrestle with. I mean here, this was easily the most bloody and horrifying looking, you know, meal I'd ever seen. I mean, it really did look like Night of the Living Dead, sitting there on this plastic tarp-covered, perfectly normal seeming floor with a nice family, mom, dad, the kids, you know, all sitting around, the grandkids and various elders.
And yet, as horrifying a spectacle as it was, it was also like one of the most heartwarming, tender, loving things I'd ever seen. And I guess I was just talking about the difficulty in conveying that kind of thing.
NORRIS: You talk about that. Charlie has got blood spread all over his face, dripping off his chin. Grandma, her legs splayed, rocking a crescent-shaped chopper across blubber, peeling off strips of black seal meat. You ask, how do I make them sympathetic? As beautiful in words as they were in reality?
Mr. BOURDAIN: Yeah, it's tough. I don't know that I succeeded, you know. I tried, both on the show and in prose but, you know, it's the, I have a lot of those you had to be there moments. And it's something that I've learned to wrestle with.
NORRIS: Do you actually look for - I was going to say do you look for the strange stuff, because I don't want to call that family and that situation strange. But do you look for things that are unusual? Do you feel like you've got to top the last book? The last of the -
Mr. BOURDAIN: No. I definitely wanted to get out of the sort of shock horror. You know, I'm not making Jackass here or Fear Factor. But that food tends to find me. You know, I show up in Kuala Lumpur and there's a local journalist or chef or somebody who's waiting for me in the sense that, hey, you know we know what you like. Have you tried our fried bugs yet? Or have you tried, you know, sea cucumber or turtle fat.
There's, particularly in Asia, where I seem to have a reputation as the, you know, that, you know, goofy looking white guy who seems to like our food a real lot. You know, let's try to freak him out.
NORRIS: I'm going to let you go but before I do I just have to ask one question. Throughout all of your books, there's this running rant against vegans.
Mr. BOURDAIN: Right.
NORRIS: What's up with that?
Mr. BOURDAIN: I just, the idea of a vegan, you know, being lucky enough to go to Thailand or Vietnam. It's just, it's rude. There's so much great stuff and great people in this world who would just be shocked and completely not understand someone who would say to them, on no, I'm sorry. I don't eat anything that's cooked. I reject your hundreds, if not thousands of years of culinary culture. It's an affront.
And I also, I just don't think our bodies or our health, particularly our colons, are that important, you know, for us to adopt some sort of, you know, strict dietary regime like that. I mean, there's, it just, it goes against my feelings as a chef and as a traveler.
You're automatically missing, you know, 98% of the world's culture and precluding any kind of friendship with around 90% of the world's population. So, you know, it's fine for Woody Harrelson and a bunch of other, you know, people who've, you know, I'm not looking at Woody Harrelson as a culinary muse, let's put it that way.
NORRIS: Now, I'm in Washington and you're in New York so I can't see you, but are you wagging your finger right now?
Mr. BOURDAIN: No, but I am kind of, you know, my hands are kind of clasped together and I'm gritting my teeth a little bit.
NORRIS: Because I can hear that.
Mr. BOURDAIN: The very thought of sitting in Thailand and eating the same raw salad every single day, which is apparently something that Harrelson did that I refer to in the book. And incredibly, that incident inspired an entire cookbook. But I find that, of course, deeply infuriating and threatening.
NORRIS: Anthony Bourdain, it's been great talking to you. Thanks for coming in.
Mr. BOURDAIN: Always fun. Thanks.
NORRIS: Anthony Bourdain. His latest book is called The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones.
NORRIS: You can find a recipe from Anthony Bourdain and you can read an excerpt from his book about that seal hunt at our web site, NPR.org.