From Iran to to Hanoi to rural New England: Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown on CNN has covered a lot of territory, like No Reservations before it. More than 15 years since his best-selling memoir Kitchen Confidential gutted New York's culinary underbelly, the former junkie and chef continues not to give any fucks. Bourdain has also just published Appetites (Ecco), his first cookbook in over a decade, co-authored with longtime collaborator Laurie Woolever.
New Zealand–based writer Alexander Bisley reached the traveler and chef by phone the day after the Electoral College confirmed Donald Trump as president of the United States, and Bourdain talked about how Sichuan peppers are like sex, whether animal-rights activists have any sense of humor, and how the "utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes" is a problem.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.
Bisley: What concerns you about Trump?
Bourdain: What I am not concerned about with Trump? Wherever one lives in the world right now I wouldn't feel too comfortable about the rise of authoritarianism. I think it's a global trend, and one that should be of concern to everyone.
Bisley: You're a liberal. What should liberals be critiquing their own side for?
Bourdain: There's just so much. I hate the term political correctness, the way in which speech that is found to be unpleasant or offensive is often banned from universities. Which is exactly where speech that is potentially hurtful and offensive should be heard.
The way we demonize comedians for use of language or terminology is unspeakable. Because that's exactly what comedians should be doing, offending and upsetting people, and being offensive. Comedy is there, like art, to make people uncomfortable, and challenge their views, and hopefully have a spirited yet civil argument. If you're a comedian whose bread and butter seems to be language, situations, and jokes that I find racist and offensive, I won't buy tickets to your show or watch you on TV. I will not support you. If people ask me what I think, I will say you suck, and that I think you are racist and offensive. But I'm not going to try to put you out of work. I'm not going to start a boycott, or a hashtag, looking to get you driven out of the business.
The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we're seeing now.
I've spent a lot of time in gun-country, God-fearing America. There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good. Nothing nauseates me more than preaching to the converted. The self-congratulatory tone of the privileged left—just repeating and repeating and repeating the outrages of the opposition—this does not win hearts and minds. It doesn't change anyone's opinions. It only solidifies them, and makes things worse for all of us. We should be breaking bread with each other, and finding common ground whenever possible. I fear that is not at all what we've done.
Bisley: In your Brexit episode of Parts Unknown, Ralph Steadman, who illustrated Appetites eye-catching cover, said "I think human beings are still stupid." Does that explain Trump's election?
Bourdain: I don't think we've got the [exclusive] franchise on that. If you look around the world (in the Philippines, in England), the rise of nationalism, the fear of the Other. When people are afraid and feel that their government has failed them they do things that seem completely mad and unreasonable to those of who are perhaps under less pressure. As unhappy and surprised as I am with the outcome, I'm empathetic to the forces that push people towards what I see as an ultimately self-destructive act. Berlusconi, Putin, Duterte, the world is filled with bad choices, made in pressured times.
Bisley: A few years back you were on Real Time with Bill Maher and part of the discussion was about people living inside their own bubbles. What do you think of Bill Maher?
Bourdain: Insufferably smug. Really the worst of the smug, self-congratulatory left. I have a low opinion of him. I did not have an enjoyable experience on his show. Not a show I plan to do again. He's a classic example of the smirking, contemptuous, privileged guy who lives in a bubble. And he is in no way looking to reach outside, or even look outside, of that bubble, in an empathetic way.
Bisley: In your new cookbook, Appetites, you have a section called "Big Fucking Steak." In Kitchen Confidential, you wrote this about vegetarians: "To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food."
Bourdain: I can certainly eat vegetarian food in India for a considerable period of time. They actually make good vegetarian dishes. Appetites is a representation of how I cook at home, and my personal preferences, and doesn't pretend to be anything other than that.
That line's the old-school French tradition I came out of. To live without any of those things would be very, very difficult for me. They're all fundamental ingredients. I equate them with joy, pleasure: that's the business chefs are in! We are in the pleasure business. I'm not your doctor, or your therapist.
Photo Credit: JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO/KRT/Newscom