“I can’t tell you how excited I was to eat this,” he says gesturing to his pasta. “A properly sauced Bolognese out of even a chipped bowl with a hunk of bread, I could have wept with joy. Because it’s a simple good thing. Like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ or sex, it’s good, it will always be good.”
“What do you think of restaurant culture these days? Has it gotten more civilized or has it gotten too ridiculous?”
“It’s better because the inmates are running the asylum now. In my day you had to convince somebody. Let’s say you were a talented kid, over eight years you worked your way up to sous-chef; ten years you became chef de cuisine at a good restaurant with a reputation. Based on that reputation and your experience, you were able to talk some credulous investor into fronting you a million dollars to open up a brick-and-mortar place somewhere, hopefully in a good location, where you had maybe a 10 to 20 percent chance of ever making a dollar. Now though, a talented kid, maybe you worked at a few good restaurants for a while but you have an interesting background—maybe mom was Korean, dad was Mexican, you grew up in Koreatown in L.A. with a Mexican neighborhood next-door. You borrow 50 grand, get yourself a food truck, go out and make interesting food. People love it, you spread the word over social media, then you get four trucks. Roy Choi now has five or six restaurants and a hotel. He started out with a truck making Korean tacos.
“A lot of old-school guys complain about this—you’re not paying your dues. That’s the downside. The upside is interesting people with something to say and a unique worldview can actually get their name out there and open a place with relative ease compared to the way it used to be.”
I asked him about his most remarkable experiences in his “Parts Unknown” show. “The Congo was far and away the hardest, the most difficult, the most frightening. You’re robbed or extorted or threatened twice a day. There are 29 different militias, all of whom are capable of spectacular violence and atrocity, but really the worst-case scenario is that the good guys show up. If the cops and the army show up, then you’re really f--ked. Then it’s time to really run. It was a gorgeous, heartbreaking place, excruciatingly difficult to shoot, but every minute of every day we knew we were telling a really important story that nobody else was telling.”
Of course it’s not all unmixed fun. After all his tales of eating rotting shark, drinking pig’s blood, and the rot zone, he reveals the one thing he fears. It came when I ask him about my own bête noire: parasites.
“Never had one.”
“Really? How could that be? You must have like the most amazing immune system.”
“Good stomach flora,” he agrees. “It’s been 14 years on the road, all over the world.”
There is one, however, that he fears more than any other:
“We don’t want Guinea worm, that’s something I really prefer to not have.”
“I’ve never heard of Guinea worm.”
“It’s a six-foot-tall, subcutaneous worm that travels around right under the skin layer. Pops its head out now and again. It drives you to the bathroom, you have an overwhelming need to bathe all the time. It used to be a huge killer in Africa. Jimmy Carter’s been very helpful in ameliorating that. In the old days, you’d stick a toothpick through it and try to reel the whole thing out without breaking it, which would cause this necrotic worm to rot in your skin, resulting in septicemia.”
But he keeps at it, for one thing because he has a larger vision in mind. He’s a fanatic film buff and his “Parts Unknown” episodes give him the opportunity to indulge his directorial fantasies.
This came up when he was complaining about food writers carping about the “golden hued Terrence Malick moment” that often appears in “Parts Unknown’s” treks through the wilds that Malick loves to film.
“Are you a big Malick fan?”
“Huge. One of the great joys of my life is being able [in “Parts Unknown”] to rip off these great films, many of which most of our audiences have never seen, but we know. So me and my shooters, we talk a lot about films we love, many of them very obscure, and how we’re going to just get that look. Often where we can get that look. Like we’ll go someplace to do a show; we’ll decide on the location after we’ve decided on the film we want to rip off.
“[Directors] like Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai, In the Mood for Love being a particularly good example. Shinya Tsukamoto’s sort of violent, ultra-violent Japanese work. Seijun Suzuki, early Robert Rodriguez, Terrence Malick we rip off a lot. Some of Stephen Soderbergh’s work as far as color values. Early Antonioni, we’ve ripped off shamelessly.”
“And we’ve actually started getting like A-list Hollywood directors and cinematographers saying, ‘Can I come out and play with you guys? Like could I shoot an episode? I’ll do it for f--kin’ scale,’ which is great. I mean, I’ll tell you. I’m bragging—Darren Aronofsky called up.”
Bourdain is living the dream. The true pirate life financed by Hollywood. And indeed it’s interesting to think of food as the center of a new artistic genre. It all comes together in a way with his tribute to rice culture and the ultimate rice culture film.