Maria Bustillos: The Anthony Bourdain Interview: "Anthony Bourdain had started smoking again, was the first thing I noticed as he sat down with me last February. He was a bit hung over from a recent working trip to south Louisiana for Cajun Mardi Gras; 'Harder partying than I’m used to, I gotta say', he said, laughing. Despite his great height his leonine head seemed just huge, and a little fleshier than I’d imagined; there was this slight dissipation to him...
...But no—who could be troubled about the wellbeing of Anthony Bourdain? Just look at him, so debonair, so completely at ease. A veritable prince of savoir vivre. Sixty-one, and still very elegant in his looks; the word sexy came to mind. Almost an old-fashioned word now. The sort of person who seems to think with his hips, his hands. He was in love, he would later admit; he and his new girlfriend, Asia Argento, had started smoking again together. He was a little rueful about the smoking, had the air of someone who meant to quit soon.
As he started to talk, everything about him became familiar at once; he slipped so effortlessly into the sleek carapace of his fame. The very air of vulnerability he projected, along with the rough candor, was part of this persona. But in fact he was a very private person, as his assistant, Laurie Woolever, reminded me after his death. Something I’d already known, from reading his books; he’d liked the piece I’d written about him and sent me an unbelievably kind note about it, which was what had emboldened me to ask for an interview. That, and he was famously generous to writers in general.
He loves the world, and that’s what this new publication is about, I’d written to Woolever. I’d be so thrilled if he could talk with me a little bit about this, even over the phone. The reply came right back.
Tony has agreed to do an interview, though he is in town only briefly next week. Could you meet at 3 pm on Friday Feb 16? He has suggested either Bouchon Bakery, on the third floor of Time Warner Center, or Coliseum, a no-frills bar and grill on West 58th between 8th & 9th.
When someone’s that famous, things have to be arranged within an inch of their lives, but there was no time limit set for the interview. I thought he’d spend maybe fifteen minutes with me, and to make them count I’d need to be laser-focused. I decided to ask him about the matter of luxury. Because through his television work—“Parts Unknown” especially—Bourdain showed Americans a different way of thinking not only about food, but about travel and tourism. About looking at ourselves as one part of a larger human story, in stark contrast to the conventional notion of travel: Americans casting themselves as “exceptionalist” democratic superstars in a drama, with the rest of planet Earth as their Tour Guide co-stars, and plenty of violins in the soundtrack.
Had Bourdain succeeded in bringing a more inclusive and egalitarian dimension to American culture? What is tourism now? Isn’t it doomed, all this determined globetrotting for two weeks a year, with the obligatory “authentic” “hole in the wall but AMAZING” dining—wasn’t it all just breathing on the Lascaux murals, and trundling dutifully past the Vermeers? Is it immoral even to get on an airplane? What was the goal of his work, ultimately? How did he see it?
So… one topic, and try to persuade him to say different things from those he’d already said in interviews. I braced myself for fifteen minutes of attempted psyche vacuuming.
Instead he spent two and a half hours with me in the comfy Irish bar, blabbing about everything under the sun. The transcript of this conversation is in excess of 20,000 words. And nobody bothered us in all that time, it was like there was a force field around him.
“Not one person has come up to you. Does this happen like—anywhere on earth?”
He talked about #MeToo and the powerful forces of evil arrayed against decent people, about Rose McGowan, about raising daughters, about the sexual mores of the 1970s. He told me how he imagined the death of Harvey Weinstein, a hilarious, weirdly specific fantasy that I’ll share with you in a moment. We talked about luxury, too.
He drank Stellas and I drank Malbec. We went outside and I had my first cigarette in some years. We went back in and had another couple of drinks and went back outside and had another cigarette (Marlboro Reds). He invited me up to see his apartment right across the street. It was way up high in a luxurious new building, the place itself spotless, almost characterless; like a very beautiful hotel room, but with a ton of books, and better pictures on the walls. He spent five days there a month. He showed me his trepanning tools and his portrait of Iggy Pop in the living room. I was so gobsmacked (and tipsy, by now) that I managed only to take a few blurry cell phone photos, half-thinking I might ask for a followup later, and if that happened I’d bring a photographer. Just the conversation was going to take a long time to digest. How long? The answer is: forever.
On Travel: I like the idea of inspiring or encouraging people to get a passport and go have their own adventures. I’m a little worried when I bump into people, and it happens a lot—“We went to Vietnam, and we went to all the places you went.” Okay that’s great, because I like those people and I like that noodle lady, and I’m glad they’re getting the business, and it pleases me to think that they’re getting all these American visitors now.
But on the other hand, you know, I much prefer people who just showed up in Paris and found their own way without any particular itinerary, who left themselves open to things happening. To mistakes. To mistakes, because that’s the most important part of travel. The shit you didn’t plan for, and being able to adapt and receive that information in a useful way instead of saying, like, “Oh, goddamnit, they ran out of tickets at the Vatican!” or whatever, “That line at the Eiffel Tower is you know, six hours!” and then sulk for the rest of the day.
On the Cajun Mardi Gras: Well, they make their own costumes, you know, they’re made from generally found, leftover stuff. And, you know, it’s a tradition that goes back to when they were all desperately poor, and one day a year they got to put on masks and make fun of the clergy, the landowners, the aristocracy—anybody in authority—but also because they had masks, without shame, they could beg for food.
So they’d go from house to house in a big drunken mob, ridiculing everything in authority freely, and then beg for you know, a chicken, some rice, and then make a big pot of gumbo at the end.
It was a wild debauch… terrifying at times.
Did you dress up?
I did! I had a woman who’s been doing them for forty years make me an elaborate uhhh… yeah.
On Taking drugs, these days: I can smoke weed at home when I don’t need my brain anymore but like as far as socially interacting with people, or being any situation where I might be called upon to answer the phone or make a decision? I’m not gonna do it!
No way man… back in the day you’d buy a lid, which was like a sofa cushion, you’d smoke a joint and nothing would happen to you.
Now the stuff is devastating, you can’t leave bed.
This is one of the things I find so weird about England! Every time I’m there, I’ll be out drinking with perfectly reasonable, nice people. And then somebody… it happens every time! Let’s get some charlie… some coke! And suddenly everybody’s high on coke, and it’s like what is this, 1986?! I mean who does cocaine anymore? What the fuck?!
Young people! Young people that don’t need to sleep.
No one I know… I’m so out of it I haven’t seen it in ages except in England, where it really jumps out at you because people my age are still doing it.
Where do they even get it?? It’s probably full of weird detergent or contaminants from like… oligarch crime rings.
Oh it’s rampant over there. It’s the major market over there in Europe. I think they’re doing more per capita than we do.
On Journalism and Interviewing: The worst thing about North American journalism is its insularity: the feeling that the United States is the world. And this is true even of the New York Times; nothing comes from the perspective of other places…
Or anyone outside of Timesland.
Yeah! Exactly… and that kind of feeds into the materialism that brought us to this point politically. So… I’ve always seen you as somebody who made the world bigger for people, and who is kind of immune to questions of status … you will find the coolest person in the room no matter where you go, and it’s not about wealth or titles or status; that person might be a grandma, or a plumber. So if we could democratize how people look at the world now, given that the U.S. finds itself in this… position, how are we gonna do that?
One of the things I’ve started noticing on my shows and through my experience was… [say] you go to a place like Beirut, and you find yourself talking to a Muslim woman. If you’re a journalist tasked with an agenda, you know, you’re there to report a story, and you come right out with it. You’re going right into some very difficult areas. Whereas I have the luxury, I’m there to eat! Presumably. I’m there to eat, and I’m asking very simple questions.
What makes you happy? What do you like to eat, where do you like to go to get a few drinks; you know? What do you miss about the place when you go away? And I find, again and again, just by spending the time, by asking very simple questions, people have said the most astonishing things to me. Often things that would be very uncomfortable for them outside of that casual context; things that we’ve had to edit out of the show, that might come back to bite them.
I’m going to suggest something to you about that. As you know I read all your books, lol.
I was really impressed by that, by the way...