The Bite Club has been smitten with ballsy New York chef/author Anthony Bourdain ever since we picked up his greasy restaurant exposé Kitchen Confidential back in 2000. After touring the culinary globe on the Food Network's dime and churning out a few crime novels, Bourdain is back to telling tales from his own kitchen.
His new Les Halles Cookbook is a juicy compendium of the French classics he's perfected during seven years as executive chef at New York's Brasserie Les Halles, which he calls "the best goddamn brasserie/bistro in the country." Straightforward recipes are served with generous heapings of Bourdain's trademark tirades, delivered with all the sensitivity of a harried drill sergeant, on subjects like the importance of mise-en-place and "how to boil a freakin' egg."
The charmingly profane Bourdain will be in town next Tuesday for a book signing at In Good Taste and a gala dinner/reading at the Heathman Restaurant. When Bite Club caught up with the busy chef by phone last week, he had a mouthful to say about home cooks, the status of chefs and his favorite chopping block, the James Beard Foundation.
Bite Club: I started reading Les Halles two days ago and have already spit out an entire mouthful of food all over it from laughing.
Anthony Bourdain: Well, good, good, good--it's designed to have food on it.
This is your first honest-to-goodness cookbook, isn't it?
After resisting the idea vigorously, I saw a way to emulate the way I've been training dishwashers to be cooks in my kitchen for years. Which is to say, it's as much about attitude adjustment and management of time and space as it is about any techniques. I wanted something rude and I wanted it useful, rather than, you know--cookbook porn.
Yeah, in porn, you're never going to do what they're doing in the pictures. I was thinking more of my mom's battered, old copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was dirty, and the cover had long ago rotted off. It was an old friend in the kitchen.
Many home cooks are too scared to tackle bistro fare. Why is this cuisine so daunting?
It's the damn French names. Sadly, the French have perpetuated the idea that French food occurs in some kind of rarefied environment. When, in fact, every French chef knows where this soup came from--it came from Mom. Bistro fare is nothing more exalted than French soul food.
What's the book's sexiest recipe?
I love the pot-au-feu. It's basically just boiled economy cuts of meat and bone with root vegetables, in water. And yet, through slow, careful application of heat--and little else--it is perfection.
You talk about chefs as "backstairs help" but you're also a celebrity chef.
I'm still the backstairs help. I may have won the lottery but, you know, I feel like MC Hammer--I could disappear tomorrow.
You have been one of the most vocal critics to emerge since the James Beard Foundation's financial meltdown in September. Does the Beard House still need to be, as you wrote on egullet.com, "turned into a methadone clinic"?
The reason I don't go to the [Beard] awards--and haven't gone for some time--is this entire business is built on the backs of Mexican and Central American labor. The Beard House has done nothing, that I can see, for them. So I don't mind seeing them fall on their face. In fact, I'm enjoying it.
Should the foundation be scrapped?
I would like to see them stop worshipping a dead guy and start thinking about all of the people who need immigration help, who have little or no health care in this business, who need career advice, who have problems with alcoholism and substance abuse. You know, an organization that mirrors, or at least responds, to an industry that is in many ways way behind the times.
Jumping from New York to Portland...
It seems there are more heavily tattooed, pierced and enthusiastic cooks and line cooks in Portland than anywhere else I've ever been. And [the Heathman Restaurant's] Philippe Boulot is an old friend.
Oooh, give us some Kitchen Confidential dirt on Boulot.
He has high standards, but his food is not full of itself. He has a tremendously talented group of men and women in his kitchen who are just really strong cooks and party animals.
Party animals? What did you guys do when you were in town last year?
I remember one of his cooks--a man--ended up dancing in a gold-lamé thong around a crowded bar. And, apparently, [Boulot's] kitchen staff seemed to think this was a normal event.
by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $34.95)
Bourdain lecture and banquet at the Heathman Hotel and Restaurant, 1001 SW Broadway. 6 pm Tuesday, Nov. 9. $39.80. Call 790-7752 for reservations.
Les Halles Cookbook booksigning with Bourdain at In Good Taste, 231 NW 11th Ave. 2 pm Tuesday, Nov. 9. $45, including book. Call 248-2015 for reservations.