By Jason Miks
GPS digital producer Jason Miks poses readers’ questions to noted chef, food critic and globe-trotting TV presenter Anthony Bourdain about the second series of Parts Unknown, a chef’s place in society and whether governments should tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat. The new season of Parts Unknown begins this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
You’ve been to many of the destinations in the upcoming season before. Is it difficult to bring something new to each episode?
Certainly the challenge is to find a new way to tell what could be a similar story. But I particularly enjoy going to a place like Los Angeles, or Spain – places that have already been looked at – and trying to find a unique perspective. Whether it’s an individual story, or just a new way of looking at it. Or taking a different view, either a tighter focus or a wider one. That’s an enviable challenge. It’s part of the fun of making the show – finding new ways to tell these stories.
Is there any place in the upcoming series that surprised you? That really showed you something new?
I’ve been to Tokyo many times, but it’s such a bottomless, bottomless source of interesting things to look at, new perspectives. It’s just such a multi-layered, multi-textured place. I’ve described the experience of going to Tokyo as a hallucinatory experience, in both the good and bad sense of that word. And I think this latest Tokyo show was surprising to me. It was shocking to me. And I think it will be both those things to viewers.
Did you ever consider another career?
No, I was a happy dishwasher. Dishwashing saved my life. I fell into the restaurant business. I was a messed up, undisciplined kid. The restaurant business supplied really the only structure and order in my life, and was the only sort of system that I respected. Everything important I learned in my life, I learned in the restaurant business. So I think I needed that first, before I ever dared dream about doing anything else.
Do you ever miss “working the line”?
I had 30 years of working the line. It’s a very physically and emotionally demanding job. Success as an author and a television career started very late for me, in my mid-40s, which is just about the time when your body and brain start to fry in the restaurant business. I don’t delude myself by thinking I would be any use to anyone in the kitchen. I think I could probably still work my old shift – for a day. And I’d need rehab for 48 hours afterwards.
One of our readers argues that the term gourmet is overused. Is there any place for the word – any thread running through international cooking that could be described as “gourmet”?
I don’t even understand the word gourmet. I don’t use it. I don’t know anyone who uses it. Even the word “foodie” is well-intentioned but overused. It’s a concept that would be ludicrous to an Italian or a Chinese. In much of the world they grow up just passionate about food – food is a fundamental and important part of a bigger picture of a complete life. The notion of taking pictures of your food, in Italy for example, would probably be considered pretty strange.
I think in the West, in particular, we are struggling in our own halting and sometimes ridiculous way as we move towards a healthier relationship with food. Right now, we are probably a little over enthusiastic and we fetishize it a little too much. Interestingly, I don’t know any chefs who would consider themselves gourmets. The chefs who serve self-professed gourmets experience food in a very different and more relaxed and informal, non-snobby way than their clients. Chefs don’t talk about the wine for 10 minutes before they drink it. They drink it. Chefs eat largely with their hands while doing other things. They experience food in a healthier way than people who are tweeting about it, “Instagramming” it. If it takes you longer to describe what you’re about to it than it takes to eat it, we have a problem.
On that question of a healthy relationship with food, do you think chefs should feel a responsibility to create nutritious dishes?
Clearly, more and more chefs are thinking about their role in society. As the status of the chef has increased, people for the first time actually care what the chef thinks they should eat. I guess they are paying attention to them, and chefs have a higher social status now. Whether they are rock stars or not I think is an open question. I think with that comes a certain level of responsibility, or at least one should think about whether one should start feeling responsible.
I had always thought that chefs were in the pleasure business first, and the responsibility really ended there – we weren’t your dietician, your priest, your ethicist, nutritionist. Who cared if it was good for you as long as it tasted good and it was a pleasurable experience. I’m not so sure anymore. Given the clear unhealthiness in America, given what we do in the name of food – so many of these issues intrude on the dining experience. More and more, any person with a conscience has to start thinking about those things. Where we draw the line, I don’t know. But the short answer is yes, we do have to think about those things and find some kind of personal balance with our responsibilities as citizens of the world.
So the posting of calories, limiting of cup sizes – should lawmakers be involved in what we can and can’t eat?
I’m a person with essentially libertarian instincts who feels that we should, if nothing else, be able to decide what we do and don’t choose to put in our mouths. That said, it is a national security issue at this point. We cannot keep going the way we are going. When we are talking particularly about children, clearly, we cannot.
We have been getting dietary information, calorie information. We have access to that information. But it hasn’t affected our behavior. We are eating ourselves to death. We are largely an unhealthy and increasingly obese and increasingly diabetic country. One can well make the argument that it is eroding our military readiness! And I say that only half in jest.
Unfortunately, as much as a I detest the idea that government should become involved in any kind of decision as fundamental as what to put in your mouths, I think there is a good argument to be made for legislating against those who would overfeed our kids, for instance. Or who would feed our kids over salted, over sugared, deliberately addictive, unhealthy foods.
I hate it, but reluctantly I’m coming around to that.