PLAYBOY: Are there recent food trends that have gone bad?
BOURDAIN: Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef is talented, but he kind of lost the plot. I think molecular gastronomy—I hate to use the term because nobody who does it will call it that—has gone over the top. Not all the people who admire Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz or Wylie Dufresne—people who were impressed by them, blown away by them or are trying to emulate them—are as talented as those guys, and they’re going to make silly food.
PLAYBOY: What’s it like being a judge on Top Chef?
BOURDAIN: It’s fun. I love hanging around with Tom Colicchio. He’s a serious guy, so I view it as a challenge to crack him up on camera, to see his Mount Rushmore composure crumple. Unlike similar shows, the level of competition on Top Chef is high. The judges take their jobs seriously. I sure don’t do it for the money, because they’re cheap as fuck.
PLAYBOY: How difficult is the competition for the contestants?
BOURDAIN: What’s asked of these guys is really hard. It’s emotionally difficult. You’re cut off from friends and family for weeks. You’re asked to do things that chefs would never do. I don’t know if I could do it if I was asked to make a 10-course meal out of a fucking vending machine. Also, the competition itself is brutal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great chef or not; whoever’s food sucked the most that week goes home.
PLAYBOY: What about other celebrity chefs? What do you think of Emeril Lagasse?
BOURDAIN: As I’ve said to him many times, “I hated your show, dude.” I made my career making fun of the poor bastard. I miss him now. He has good restaurants and is a good chef, but the stuff he made on TV was ridiculous.
PLAYBOY: Do you like Bobby Flay?
BOURDAIN: Again, an accomplished restaurateur. But I don’t understand why these guys would make this candy-colored sort of crowd-pleasing television. Why would they compromise themselves so much?
PLAYBOY: Some people might accuse you of that.
BOURDAIN: Fine, you know.
PLAYBOY: What do you think of Wolfgang Puck?
BOURDAIN: Listen, I’m not eating in his shitty pizza restaurants. I think it’s bullshit, and it breaks my heart to see him on QVC or whatever, but the fact is he paid his dues. He’s an important guy. It’s an Orson Welles thing: He made Citizen Kane, so it doesn’t matter what he does after that. If Wolfgang Puck wants to open crappy pizzerias in airports all over America, that’s fucking fine. Wolfgang was a guy who changed things for chefs. You don’t have to be on TV—everybody knew who Wolfgang was. It was about the chef now. Marco Pierre White in England was another one. It was the first time you opened a cookbook and the chef looked like you did—long scraggly hair, sunken cheeks, prison camp rings under the eyes, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. Chefs and cooks saw that and said, “Wow, I don’t have to be a fat Frenchman to be a great chef. There’s room for me in this world.”
PLAYBOY: Is Mario Batali a good chef?
BOURDAIN: He’s a monster of rock and roll. He’s done everything right from the beginning. Mario’s managed to balance making a lot of money, opening a lot of restaurants, world domination and his personal happiness and quality of life in a remarkable way. He’s the smartest chef there is. There is no chef smarter or funnier or faster.
PLAYBOY: What do you have to say to food critics?
BOURDAIN: Some do a good job or at least try hard to do a good job. I appreciate that one administration after another at The New York Times has continued to have critics who are serious and who write well, whether I agree with them or not. I think there is a certain integrity to a Times restaurant review.
PLAYBOY: Apparently you feel differently about GQ’s reviewer, Alan Richman.
BOURDAIN: For Richman and me it’s personal. He wrote an article about New Orleans that I found offensive, and I nominated him, jokingly, for a ridiculous fake award, Douche Bag of the Year. He took offense and reviewed my former restaurant without mentioning our previous history. He called it, like, the worst restaurant in the history of the world. So my problem with him is personal. He’s a good writer, and to the best of my knowledge, to his credit, he’s not bent. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever suggested he is corrupt. But I don’t like the son of a bitch.
PLAYBOY: Do other reviewers use their positions for personal gain?
BOURDAIN: I would just ask John Mariani, the reviewer at Esquire, a simple question: Have you ever received a free meal, services, vacations or other things of value from the subjects of your reviews? If so, please list them. That’s all I fucking ask, just an honest question.
PLAYBOY: You’re suggesting that you know the answer.
BOURDAIN: I’m asking the question because I’ve lived in this world a long time. I have a lot of friends. I have reason to believe that the answer would not portray him in a positive way. I’m not suggesting or asking anything that everybody I know in the restaurant business and everybody I know in the food-writing community doesn’t fucking know.
PLAYBOY: Now, because of the internet, everybody is a critic. You go online—on Yelp, for example—and people praise or rip into chefs or restaurants, and they’re anonymous. Does it bother you?
BOURDAIN: What are you going to do?
PLAYBOY: Could it be a good thing, because it keeps restaurants on their toes?
BOURDAIN: It doesn’t matter what I think, because it’s there. The barbarians are over the gates. They’re in the house. We’re overrun. Embrace it. To do otherwise is like complaining about cable television, saying, “It’ll never last.” Or the electric guitar: “This’ll never catch on.” We read differently now. You’re looking at a big bathroom wall with a lot of stuff written on it, and people are smart enough and fast enough and reading and speaking a new language that allows them to pull from that wall and all those opinions—many of them valid, some not—a consensus.
PLAYBOY: Overall, how have Americans’ tastes changed?
BOURDAIN: Everything continues to change. The sea change began with sushi. It was a real high watermark when Americans started eating sushi. It was a river crossing, because we were eating something that was traditionally loathsome to Americans—I mean, eating raw fish. Sushi was a leap of faith, a real tectonic shift in what your customers were willing to do. Only a few years earlier, if you cooked a piece of tuna medium rare, people would have fucking freaked on you. If you tried to serve them octopus, no way. Since then, food’s gotten to be a bigger deal, and there are more and more choices, at least if you have money.
PLAYBOY: What accounts for the change?
BOURDAIN: Maybe a decline in filmmaking and other forms of entertainment. When I grew up, in the Mad Men period, you’d go to a movie, then you’d go out to dinner and talk about the movie you just saw and the movie you were about to see. Now you just go to dinner. You talk about the dinner you had last week and the dinner you’re going to have next week while you’re eating this dinner. You’re sure as hell not talking about the movie, because it sucks.
PLAYBOY: Does TV suck? We’re asking someone who now writes for the HBO show Treme.
BOURDAIN: I think some of the best writing out there right now is on television. Justified, Episodes, Californication, Treme. It’s fucking awesome.
PLAYBOY: How did you get involved as a writer on Treme?
BOURDAIN: The show’s creator, David Simon, called me up. Thank you, Jesus. It’s been the most satisfying professional experience of my life. Dude, I’m working with David Simon! It’s the greatest. It’s fun. I’ve never done anything like it before. I’m honored to be at the same writers’ table as David Simon and the people he works with. It is the greatest honor of my professional career. It was the greatest joy. It is the most fun I’ve ever had writing.
PLAYBOY: How about other writing? Are you writing new books?
BOURDAIN: Next is a crime novel. It’s going to take place on a Caribbean island where displaced, exiled New Yorkers do bad things to one another. It’s a love story with peripheral violence, probably extravagant violence.
PLAYBOY: With No Reservations and The Layover, traveling and writing for those shows, writing graphic and crime novels, and being a father, are you sometimes overwhelmed?
BOURDAIN: I’m at the point in my life where I’m doing only those things that are fun and interesting. If it isn’t fun and interesting, I’m walking away from it. I’ve found myself in a position where I’m able to do cool things with cool people and make enough money. Unlike heroin, which feels good now and feels bad later, this feels good now, and when I wake up tomorrow and look in the mirror I’m going to say, “Dude, I’m working with interesting people, making things, however long they last, and feeling pretty good about it.” It’s fucking fun.