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A chat with Anthony Bourdain, who will visit St. Petersburg

It is hard to classify Anthony Bourdain these days. He used to be a chef, but doesn't do that anymore. To call him an author or television host both seem to undersell him. He's an opinionated sort, a muckraker, an arbiter of culinary standards and celebrant of all things offal. He'll be at the Mahaffey Theater on Friday night for a free-form chat, after which he'll take questions. Just don't ask if he wants to go out drinking after the show. He gets that a lot.

Here are his answers to some of the questions we asked him in an e-mail exchange:

Have there been any questions on previous stops that have really hit you in an unexpected way?

Maybe surprisingly, the best questions I've had in a while was speaking in front of an audience of 6,000 dietitians and nutritionists recently in Boston. Really thought-provoking, challenging stuff. We could have talked about each question for another hour. Beats drunks yelling out "Where you gonna eat tonight?" or "Wanna go out drinking?" I appreciate it sentiment-wise, but doesn't make for very entertaining for the rest of the audience.

What is something you've done in Florida that most Floridians probably haven't, but could/should?

Frog gigging is pretty awesome. Hiro's izakaya-style joint outside of Miami — also awesome. Eating the last Iranian beluga in the Western world with Ferran Adria (was a) once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sagging to the floor at Mac's Club Deuce is something I'll miss now that I'm in my responsible-dad phase. The rest would compromise sources, methods or otherwise embarrass me.

How did you end up on Yo Gabba Gabba? Can the episode of No Reservations: Orlando be far behind?

I ended up on Yo Gabba Gabba because my daughter was a huge fan and consequently I'd watched a lot of it and become a fan myself. It's very quirky and creative, with unexpectedly cool quests, and much better music and musicians than needed. I'd mentioned in interviews that I was a fan and when I was out in L.A., they called me up and asked me if I'd like to come on. It took me about half a second to scream "YES!!" I may look like a goof, and my "acting" (such as it is) excruciatingly awful. But it's for like 2- and 3-year-olds. And I can tell you that after my appearance as the "doctor," my daughter is no longer afraid of them. It was a great experience, and a weird one. In a good way. Disney? Never. YGG is an indie show self-produced in a warehouse. Disney is a megabrand. Leave that to (Guy) Fieri. (Though, to be fair, what my daughter wants, she gets.)

Where haven't you been that you feel you need to go?

(No Reservations is) filling in a lot of historical obsessions this season ... and unfinished business: Cuba, Nicaragua, a return to Cambodia, the Congo, Haiti. It will not always be an upbeat season. Though there have been many happy surprises.

Ever sneak any interesting foodstuffs past customs on the way home?

No comment. Let me just say that anyone who does not come back from Spain with a pata negra tucked down their pants has clearly never tasted good ham.

In the "Food Porn" episode of No Reservations, you did a spoof of the Food Network formula, and in the spoof the network was called the Cooking Channel. Now the Food Network has a secondary brand called the Cooking Channel. Did they steal your idea? Can you sue?

It's a fine line between parody and reality, I guess.

Is there any cooking show worth watching?

Sure. Ina Garten's show is strange, but useful. She knows how to cook. Molto Mario was the best stand-and-stir cooking show since Julia Child. Anytime Jacques Pepin shows you something, you pretty much have settled the question. Lidia Bastianich I love and respect. Avec Eric is a great show.

A few years ago, you did a demo at the South Beach Food and Wine festival where you laid into Charlie Trotter pretty hard (among other things, you called the book he had out at the time Mein Kampf). Now, in this month's Food & Wine magazine, there is an ad for a food festival in the Caymans in January, and it says you and Trotter are both going to be there. The ad has your mug shot looking at his with a great deal of suspicion on your face. Is that island going to be big enough for you?

You know, it's funny. Charlie and I have a lot of very good friends in common. Since the beginning, they've been interceding, telling me all this likable stuff about Charlie. Stuff we have in common, cool anecdotes: "He's good in a bar fight! He had my back!" Or that our musical tastes are the same. That Apocalypse Now is his favorite film. I always thought he was a great chef. I just did not dig the stiffness and formality of the room and service. And I held a grudge because I was eating at Trotter's with a guy who was dying (and did indeed die two weeks later). He was initially denied a vodka on the rocks before dinner, and I held a grudge. Charlie comes off as humorless, so he's easy to make fun of. But I don't know the guy. I have, however, through my wife, met Charlie's wife. She's one of those women who, after meeting, you think, "Anyone this woman has agreed to marry has something seriously cool about them. I better take a look." So I'm hoping to bury the hatchet. Doesn't mean I'll be eating at Trotter's any time soon.

You seem to be great friends with some chefs who are great friends of some of the people you pillory (Mario Batali seems to be pals with Rachael Ray and Fieri; Norman Van Aken talks of Trotter as being a brother; everyone seems to love Alice Waters). Does that kind of thing ever create any tension?

True. Norman Van Aken does refer to Charlie as a brother. And makes a very compelling case for his wonderfulness. Listen, I'm willing to put my hand out to anyone with enough sense of humor to send me a fruit basket or offer a handshake after I've made fun of them. Guy Fieri has been very good natured about things. Doesn't mean I'm going to watch his shows, or eat his food ... ever. But I'm not going to snub the guy. I'm happy for him. He works hard. He makes money for his family. Maybe not the path to success I would have chosen — or could have stomached, for that matter — but I don't personally have anything against the guy. Face it, every day Guy Fieri has a job, I can make a living making fun of him. So in a sense, I owe him. And Sandra Lee, for that matter. Comedy Gold.

But yes. It causes tension. My friend Eric Ripert probably feels the brunt of the diplomatic problems I cause him.

You've been judge on Top Chef, which would seem at least a passive endorsement of the show. What do you think of Top Chef Masters? Any chance you'd compete on it? Have you been asked?

I like Top Chef. I like watching it. I like being a judge on it. It's fun to do. And, I think, faraway the best of the competition shows. Top Chef Masters? Why work that hard? And consider as well that I was never a master. No. Easier to sit there with Tom (Colicchio), sipping gin and tonics and judging others. Let's be honest here.

What are your thoughts on stunt eating shows? Alton Brown took a shot at Man vs. Food recently, and now Food Network seems to have its own version.

I'm conflicted on the subject of the stunt eating shows. It's something I'll be talking about on stage for sure.

Which is the bigger disaster to American food: the gulf oil spill or Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee?

I think BP takes the win for loathesomeness and sheer destruction here.

It's your last meal, you've got $10, but can be anywhere in the world. Where and what?

Ten bucks? Saigon. I'm getting a big bowl of pho or bun bo Hue. And I'll still have money left over for a beer!

Last meal, but you've got to choose between Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria to cook it for you. Who and why?

Tough question. I guess Keller, because the French Laundry was like ... my first love. The first and to date best white tablecloth meal of my life. I'm worried about whether he's p-----, actually. I wrote a chapter in Medium Raw called "It's Not You, It's Me," largely about my seeming inability to absolutely love this amazing meal at Per Se. Basically exploring the roots of my dissatisfaction and wondering the extent to which I've become jaded, using that meal at a great restaurant as an example. It says something truly tragic about a person after all if you can't experience the same sense of wonder and thrill you once did at a restaurant that great and that perfectionist. It speaks badly of me, I think. Hence, the chapter title. I wonder, however, if Keller has made that distinction, or cares. I've been told Jonathan Benno (the chef at Per Se at the time) was not pleased. I seldom give a s--- about p------ people off, but those two guys I respect above most all others. It's something I feel badly about, and think about a lot. But something I'll probably continue to ask myself: What does it mean if I can't enjoy Alinea, for instance? Does it just mean I'm an a------? Or, by implication, that anyone who has eaten as widely as me, and at as many great restaurants, necessarily becomes jaded and bitter and cranky and begins to experience meals differently than normal people? It's a good argument for term limits for food critics and food writers.

>> No Reservations: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain

The host of No Reservations on Travel talks at 8 p.m. Friday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Tickets are $40-$125. At press time, some seats were available. (727) 892-5767.

A chat with Anthony Bourdain, who will visit St. Petersburg 11/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:03am]
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