Anthony Bourdain, executive chef at New York's Les Halles brasserie and author of the best-selling restaurant exposé Kitchen Confidential, will eat almost anything. He also has a great knack for visiting lightly trod destinations before they become tourist traps. In his new book, A Cook's Tour, and in its accompanying TV series on the Food Network, he chronicles his search for the perfect meal—from California to Cambodia and everywhere in between. It's safe to say most people don't come across boiled iguana (which he says emphatically does not taste like chicken) in their normal lives, but for Bourdain it's all in a day's work.
1. Where are you now?
I'm home, looking out over the Hudson River from my window. I just got back from a long swing through Ireland and America, and a few days at home suits me just fine right now. Last night was the first in my own bed in quite a while.
2. How often do you travel?Is it usually for business or pleasure and how do you do it?
I travel a lot lately. About half the time for business (book tours and promotional stuff), but, as with A Cook's Tour, also for pleasure, though I did combine functions somewhat. In that case, [the TV show] allowed me to go places I'd always wanted to go and do things I might otherwise not have been able to do.
3. What is the strangest travel experience you have had?
Strangest?Having my boat boarded by suspicious militia types in Khmer Rouge country in Cambodia . . . or eating a vegan pot-luck dinner in Berkeley. It's a toss-up.
4. What are your favorite restaurants, and food locations, in the world?
Vietnam is a food paradise: the perfect mixture of beautiful context, great people, unbelievably fresh, intensely flavored food everywhere—even at food stalls and markets—and proud, generous cooks.
Tokyo is always exciting: a hallucinogenic, thrilling culinary wonderland with the best sushi you've ever dreamed of.
And London suits my mood: piratical chefs making great food where once there was none. A Gold Rush atmosphere, pioneer days.
Ditto Sydney and Melbourne, where the chefs are kookier and crazier than, and the food is as good as, anywhere on earth.
5. Your latest book, A Cook's Tour, is about your search around the world for the perfect meal. Without giving away too much of the story, how do you even begin to look for such a thing?Any surprising discoveries?
One doesn't look for the perfect meal. One leaves oneself open to disaster and tragi-comic misadventure—and the occasional awful meal—in the hope that the happy, magical accident will occur . . . as it so often does. One travels, avoiding always one's countrymen, major hotels and their necropolis-like restaurants, and ventures far afield, eating without fear or prejudice. The perfect meal will find you.
6. Is there anything that you will not at least try to eat?Is there a food item that you most regret trying during your travels?
I won't eat live monkey brain. And I am very glad that one of the many, very kind, sincere people who offered me local fare (often when they could barely afford it) did not offer me cat or dog. I try to be a good guest. I would have definitely had a conflict there. I deeply regret that a perfectly nice, if ancient, iguana died for my dinner in Mexico. I expected it to be awful and it was.
7. What are your five tips for choosing a restaurant and your five tips for staying away from one?
Five tips for choosing a restaurant:
1) Eat where the proprietors and waiters look proud and happy.
2) Eat where the locals eat in great numbers.
3) Eat what the locals are eating.
4) Choose places with small menus with a tight focus, places that know what they are good at and that do it relentlessly.
5) Eat food close to its source, reflective (when possible) of season, region, and ethnic tradition.
What to avoid when looking for a good meal:
1) Do not eat any place in a foreign country specifically designed to
attract you or your kind.
2) Avoid hotel food and restaurants at the top of high places with spectacular views.
3) As a rule of thumb, eat Japanese food in Japan, Vietnamese food in Vietnam, and Italian food in Italy. This rule does not apply in New York or cities with large, vibrant immigrant cultures.
4) Avoid all major chains, all theme restaurants, and all restaurants with gift shops.
5) If the restaurant is close to a major tourist attraction, and everyone seems to speak English, stay away.
8. What's usually in your suitcase?Is there anything you cannot travel without?
Lomotil or Imodium are very important—the traveling gourmand's best friends. My own brand of cigarettes. Nicotine patches for the flights. Sensible footwear for every situation. Extra socks. Bribes and gifts for roadblocks and unpleasant policemen. A good book: Graham Greene's The Quiet American for a trip to Vietnam, for instance, or Under the Volcano for Mexico. Lonely Planet is usually helpful—though feel free to avoid their tips on health precautions; I did. Aspirin is good for hangovers. If you're getting to know people well in the country you're visiting, you'll probably be getting a lot of hangovers,
particularly in Russia, Mexico, England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Vietnam, and Japan.
9. What piece of travel advice do you most often give to anyone willing to listen?
Eat without fear, close to the ground. Food should be an adventure.
10. Is there anything that could stop you from traveling?
Nothing save a personal tragedy could stop me. This is a big, marvelous, sometimes scary, sometimes dirty, but always fascinating world, filled with very nice people and incredible food and things to see and experience. I don't want to miss anything.
—Interviewed by Robert Maniaci