Celebrity Chef Q&A

Anthony Bourdain dishes on why Tex-Mex is only a good idea when you’re drunk

Bourdain dishes on why Tex-Mex is only a good idea when you’re drunk

Anthony Bourdain Balvenie
Anthony Bourdain broke down and formed a partnership with Balvenie. Courtesy photo

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain recently was in Houston on behalf of scotch brand Balvenie — the first partnership of this kind for the outspoken author and host of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

As part of the brand’s 2015 Rare Craft collection, Bourdain has selected artisans in fields such as metal working, printmaking, and sculpture to feature in a short film series titled “Raw Craft,” which goes behind the scenes with each craftsman to explain how the items are made. Five members of the class — letterpress artist Megan O’Connell, metalsmith Elizabeth Brim, sculptor Sebastian Martorana, watchmaker Roland Murphy, and Balvenie’s head cooper Ian McDonald — joined Bourdain for a scotch tasting and display of their work at Houston’s Silver Street Studios. 

We chatted with the raconteur about why he chose this project as his first brand association, why he thinks you shouldn’t piss off a sushi chef, and why Tex-Mex is only a good idea in certain situations. 

CultureMap: You said that in 15 years, you’ve never participated in a brand association. What about this project specifically appealed to you?

Anthony Bourdain: It’s a product I like, I drink, and I’m in no way embarrassed to be seen sitting next to or consuming, because it’s something I genuinely think a lot of.

Then, given the sort of strange and terrible powers to pick [craftsmen] to celebrate for this collection and make short films about — in many respects, change their lives — that was enticing. This is a tremendous opportunity to shine a light on some people I think are doing really great work, who should be seen as awesome as I think they are.

CM: How did you come across these craftspeople?

AB: I was aware of a few of them already, or at least aware of their work. I was presented with a steady stream of people and products of interest and kept my eye open for ones that, quite frankly, matched my personal passions, prejudices, and enthusiasms.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a lot of metal work. Bob Kramer, the Burrow Furnace people, these are dead bang obvious. They’re the kind of tools I used in my career.

The bookmaker printers I chose. I love words as physical objects. Elizabeth Brim, pounding metal with her hands, that’s very interesting to me.

CM: As part of the promotion for your new comic book, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushiyou’ve been ranting about the way people eat sushi.

AB: Look, eat sushi however you want. The story was picked up in an interview about a comic book character who kills people for eating California rolls. So let’s get the setting. Already it’s a hyperbolic situation. [The story is] six, absolute, he’ll-kill-you rules for eating sushi.

All I’m saying is this: If you’re in a really good, high-end sushi restaurant, where you know — or should know — that the sushi chef spent seven years just working on rice because his master wouldn’t let him touch the fish until he was ready, then it is in your interest to not disrespect him or piss him off.

Who wants the chef angry or resentful? You want a chef, especially when he’s standing there looking at you and deciding what your next course is going to be based on your reaction to the last, as is done in an omakase menu, you want him happy and feeling well-disposed toward you so that he’ll reach in and pull out all the little goodies that they keep for the special customers.

Sushi chefs will compress the rice differently for people who pick up nigiri with chopsticks or their fingers. Do you want fluffy, perfect rice, or do you want fluffy, slightly less perfect rice? Those are the kinds of decisions sushi chefs make based on your behavior. If the first thing you’re doing is disrespecting their rice by putting a big wad of wasabi in your soy sauce and swishing it around before you even taste their probably already perfectly seasoned sushi — it’s in your interest. I mean, above and beyond the politeness aspect.

I understand people who say, “I’ll eat my sushi any damn way I want. I’m the customer.” Well, yeah, that’s true, but don’t you want the good stuff, man? Don’t you want the best possible experience?

You can go to the dentist and drill your own damn teeth too, but I assume you’d like the dentist to weigh in on what he thinks you should do.

CM: Do you have similarly strong opinions about the way people eat pasta or tacos?

AB: Yes (laughs). I’m married to an Italian from Italy, so you can be sure. I have very strong feelings about the way pasta should be sauced. I do understand the Italian immigrant tradition — poor southern Italians came over in great numbers to this great land of ours and realized, oh my God, I can afford to put a whole shitload of sauce and giant meatballs the size of your head. This was a pretty fantastic thing.

Personally, I like properly sauced and cooked pasta, and I have very strong feelings about what makes the best possible bowl of pasta. But I’m sentimental about pasta done quote-unquote wrong. I used to be a real snob about too much red sauce, big bready meatballs, and deep fried veal cutlets. But you know what? I ate a lot of that as a kid.

I’m sentimental about those flavors. I actually do that at home now. I sauce it properly, but I do make meatballs.

I’m not going to chastise anyone. I’m not going to correct anyone for doing it the way many grateful generations of Italian Americans have been doing it for years and years. There’s a lot to be said for New Jersey Italian. As I get older, that’s what I become nostalgic about.

Tacos? [Mexico has a] fantastically accelerating cuisine — the food is getting better and better and better. High-end Mexican restaurants are killing it these days. Chefs all over the world are looking at Mexico. The street food is amazing.

I have a hard time looking at Chili’s and Taco Bell without feeling murder in my heart. Especially in Texas — it’s not like you have a shortage of Mexicans or you don’t know where Mexico is.

Not a big Tex-Mex fan — unless drunk, in which case, it seems like a really, really good idea. I have eaten airport nachos. Just as, if you run out of water for two days you start thinking about killing your neighbor, give me a few hours in an airport and I’m thinking about nacho grande (laughs).

CM: You’re here only for the night, but you’ll be back next year, yes?

AB: We’re going to make a show [for Parts Unknown]. We promise to disappoint (laughs).

There will be no barbecue in the show; there will be no Tex-Mex. The standard refrain when we come to a town will be, “That’s not the Houston I know,” which is sort of the point, right? Be prepared to be confused and disappointed.

We’re toying with the idea of doing an all-Vietnamese show and pretending no one lives here except Vietnamese people. We did an LA show with no one in it who wasn’t Korean, and we might go back and do another show LA where we pretend no one lives in LA but Mexicans.

Look, there are plenty of people who do shows in Houston. There’s plenty to see, and plenty of awesome stuff. That’s just not the business we’re in.

We’re not here to do 10 bests or what you should know or give a fair, representative overview. We’re here to do something weird and with our own specific, strange, non-representative agenda. Hopefully, it will be awesome, and hopefully many Houstonians will see it and say, “How did he know about that quirky thing we kept for ourselves?”

Or we’ll fuck it all up, and it will be filled with tourists.