Journey To The East Of Anthony Bourdain

Thứ năm, 09/03/2017 15:49

Bourdain used the word “pathological” to describe his fixation with being on time. “I judge other people on it,” he admitted. “Today, you’re just late, but eventually you will betray me.”

Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is a bright, cacophonous restaurant on Thirty-second Street, a hipster riff on a Korean steak house. One frigid evening last February, I arrived, on time, to discover Bourdain waiting for me, already halfway through a beer. He is more than punctual: he arrives precisely fifteen minutes early to every appointment. “It comes from his kitchen days,” Tom Vitale, the director, told me. “If he doesn’t show, we know something’s wrong.” Bourdain used the word “pathological” to describe his fixation with being on time. “I judge other people on it,” he admitted. “Today, you’re just late, but eventually you will betray me.”


I had dined at Baekjeong once before, but I was about to discover that eating at a restaurant with Bourdain is a markedly different experience. Throughout the meal, the head chef—Deuki Hong, an amiable, floppy-haired twenty-seven-year-old—personally presented each dish. One conspicuous hazard of being Anthony Bourdain is that everywhere he goes, from a Michelin-starred temple to a peasant hut on the tundra, he is mercilessly inundated with food. Because he is loath to spurn courtesy of any kind, he often ends up eating much more than he might like to. Bourdain calls this getting “food fucked.” Now that he trains nearly every day in jujitsu, he tries to eat and drink more selectively. “Off camera, I don’t go around getting drunk at night,” he said; during the meals we shared when he wasn’t shooting, Bourdain didn’t so much gorge himself as graze. A big bowl of pasta is hard to enjoy if you know it will render you sluggish the next morning, when a crazy-eyed mixed martial artist is trying to ease you into a choke hold. Since he started doing jujitsu, three years ago, Bourdain has lost thirty-five pounds. (He now weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds.) But he adores the food at Baekjeong, and was ready to indulge himself. After Hong arranged silky thin slivers of marinated beef tongue on a circular grill that was embedded in the table between us, Bourdain waited until they had just browned, then reached for one with chopsticks and encouraged me to do the same. We savored the rich, woodsy taste of the meat. Then Bourdain poured two shots of soju, the Korean rice liquor, and said, “That is good, huh?”

It is somewhat ironic that Bourdain has emerged as an ambassador for the culinary profession, given that, by his own admission, he was never an inspired chef. Alan Richman, the restaurant critic at GQ, who is a champion of white-tablecloth haute cuisine, told me that Les Halles “was not a particularly good restaurant when he was cooking there, and it got worse when he stopped.” This seemed a little unfair: I frequented Les Halles before it closed, in 2016, and until the end it was rowdy and reliable, with a good frisée salad and a sturdy cassoulet. But it was never a standout restaurant. Bourdain used to genuflect like a fanboy before innovative chefs such as Éric Ripert, of Le Bernardin. On page 5 of “Kitchen Confidential,” he joked that Ripert, whom he had never met, “won’t be calling me for ideas on today’s fish special.” After the book came out, Bourdain was in the kitchen at Les Halles one day, when he got a phone call. It was Ripert, inviting him to lunch. Today, they are best friends, and Ripert often plays the straight man to Bourdain on “Parts Unknown.” A recent episode in Chengdu, China, consisted largely of shots of a flushed and sweaty Ripert being subjected to one lethally spicy dish after another while Bourdain discoursed on the “mouth-numbing” properties of Sichuan pepper and took jocular satisfaction in his friend’s discomfort.

Ripert said of Bourdain, “I have cooked side by side with him. He has the speed. He has the precision. He has the skill. He has the flavor. The food tastes good.” He hesitated. “Creativity-wise . . . I don’t know.” Over the years, Bourdain has regularly been approached about opening his own restaurant, and these offers might have yielded him a fortune. But he has always declined, mindful, perhaps, that his renown as a bard of the kitchen might be difficult to equal in the kitchen itself.

Even so, everywhere Bourdain goes young cooks greet him as “Chef.” When I asked him if that felt strange, he bristled slightly. “Look, I put in my time, so I’m not uncomfortable with it,” he said. “What makes me uncomfortable is when an actual working chef who cooks better than I’ve ever cooked in my life calls me Chef.” As if on cue, Deuki Hong—who, before opening Baekjeong, worked under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang—appeared with a platter of steamed sweet potatoes, and addressed Bourdain as Chef.

Halfway through the meal, we were joined by Stephen Werther, a bespectacled entrepreneur who is Bourdain’s partner in a new venture: a Manhattan market modelled on Singapore’s hawker centers, or open-air food courts. It is scheduled to open, sometime in the next few years, at Pier 57, a cavernous former shipping terminal on the West Side. If Bourdain’s show offers a vicarious taste of an intrepid culinary expedition, the market will provide an ersatz consumer experience of his show. The best street-food venders will be recruited from around the world and awarded visas—assuming that the United States is still issuing them—allowing New Yorkers to sample their octopus tostadas and their yakitori chicken hearts. Bourdain Market, as it will be known, is a preposterously ambitious venture; it will be three times the size of the original Eataly—Mario Batali’s super-emporium of Italian food in the Flatiron district. Werther was accompanied by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, a married couple who run Roman and Williams, a design firm that creates seductive contemporary spaces, such as the Ace Hotel in New York. They had agreed to work on the market. Their background is in Hollywood set design, an ideal match for Bourdain’s sensibility.

“Imagine a post-apocalyptic Grand Central Terminal, if it had been invaded by China,” Bourdain said.

“But underwater,” Standefer joked.

Bourdain elaborated that the market should bring to mind “Blade Runner”—high-end retail as grungy, polyglot dystopia. When Bourdain was growing up, his father used to rent a 16-mm. projector and show movies by Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks. “I’ve never met anyone who has this catalogue of films in his head,” one of his longtime cameramen, Zach Zamboni, told me. A Rome episode of “No Reservations” made black-and-white allusion to Fellini. The Buenos Aires episode on “Parts Unknown” was a nod to “Happy Together,” by Wong Kar-wai. Most viewers are unlikely to catch such references, but for Bourdain that is not the point. “When other cinematographers like it, that feels good,” he said. “It’s just like cooking—when the other cooks say, ‘Nice plate.’ It’s kind of not about the customers.” The producer Lydia Tenaglia, who, along with her husband, Chris Collins, recruited Bourdain to television for “A Cook’s Tour,” and now runs Zero Point Zero, told me that part of the reason Bourdain’s experience is so often refracted through films is that, until middle age, he had seen so little of the world. “Books and films, that was what he knew—what he had read in Graham Greene, what he had seen in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ”

Singapore’s orderly hawker markets combine the delights of roadside gastronomy with an approach to public-health regulation that could pass muster in post-Bloomberg New York. “They cracked the code without losing this amazing culture,” Bourdain said. Some of his partners in the market will be established restaurateurs, like April Bloomfield, the Michelin-starred chef of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin. But Bourdain also wants the market to have an old-fashioned butcher shop, with “guys in bloody aprons breaking down sections of meat,” and Asian street food that will attract not just the Eater-reading cognoscenti but also displaced Asians in New York who yearn for a genuine taste of home. “If the younger Korean hipsters and their grandparents like us, we’re gonna be O.K.,” he said.

I wondered aloud if grilled heart could turn a profit in New York. Wouldn’t the adventurous offerings be loss leaders, while more conventional attractions, like an oyster bar, paid the rent?

Now that Bourdain trains nearly every day in jujitsu, he tries to eat and drink more selectively. “Off camera, I don’t go around getting drunk at night,” he said.

“I’m an optimist,” Bourdain replied. Tastes evolve, he insisted. Exposure to foreign cultures makes inhibitions fall away. “I grew up watching ‘Barney Miller,’ and it was Asian jokes all day long. They made fun of Asian food. It smelled like garbage. That’s not funny anymore.” With his chopsticks, he gestured toward a bowl of kimchi between us. “Americans want kimchi. They want it on their hamburgers. It’s like when Americans started eating sushi—a huge tectonic shift.” The new frontier for American tastes is fermentation, Bourdain continued. “That funk. That corruption of the flesh. That’s exactly the flavor zone that we’re all moving toward.”

“This is the secret of the food world,” Stephen Werther said. “Rot is delicious. No one will ever say that to your face. Aged steaks. ‘Age’ is code for ‘rot.’ ”

“Cured,” Bourdain said, warming to the riff.

“Alcohol is the by-product of yeast,” Stephen Alesch chimed in. “It’s the piss of yeast.”

“Basically, what we’re saying is that filth is good,” Bourdain concluded.

Deuki Hong reappeared with a plate of marbled rib eye. “Korean restaurants don’t usually dry-age,” he said. “But we’re trying dry-aged. This is, like, thirty-eight days.”

“You see? The rot!” Werther exclaimed. “What happens after thirty-eight days?”

“Good things,” Bourdain said.

“For Valentine’s Day once, we made a stew by cooking this big beef heart,” Alesch said.

“That’s very romantic,” Werther observed.

“It was,” Alesch said. “We ate it for, like, four days.”

We left the restaurant, with Hong in tow, and had a round of soju bombs at an unmarked bar on the third floor of a nearby office building. Our little party then proceeded to a Korean night club on Forty-first Street. A vast warren of karaoke rooms surrounded a central dance floor, where flickering lasers illuminated a crowd that was young, prosperous-looking, and entirely Asian. In a V.I.P. room overlooking the dance floor, Bourdain quizzed one of the owners, Bobby Kwak, a young Korean-American man in a black T-shirt, about the clientele. “If they go to a downtown club like Marquee, they stick out like a sore thumb,” Kwak explained, shouting over thudding techno. He pointed at Bourdain. “You’re the minority here.”

Bourdain said that this was exactly the kind of crowd he wanted to attract to the market. He had no interest in catering to “the gringos.” Instead, he wanted to teach the gringos that they could love a place that was legitimate enough to be popular with a crowd like this.

“It’s going to be hard,” Kwak said. “You’ll get the Asian-Americans . . . ”

Bourdain insisted that he also wanted the young Koreans who had grown up in Seoul, not Fort Lee. It was nearly 2 A.M. “So, after they get out of here, where do they go?” Bourdain asked.

Kwak laughed, and shouted, “They go right to where you just ate.”

Read more:

>> Anthony Bourdain: “I lived in a business where everybody was a writer or an actor”

>> The New York Chef who had Bun Cha with US President

By Patrick Radden Keefe

* This article is extracted from the original post on The New Yorker on February 13 and 20, 2017, issue with the headline ‘Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast’.

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